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Running forward

Multiple brain surgeries can't keep her down.

Article Author: Kristi Tucker

Article Date:

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When Dee Robertson-Lee turned 50, she took up a new hobby: running. Now 70, she has run more than 50 half marathons in the last decade, in addition to multiple other races and daily runs. It wasn't easy, but she did it. In life, as in running, Robertson-Lee digs deep to push through the rough spots, like the one that began 13 years ago when she experienced her first brain aneurysm.

Onset of symptoms

One Saturday night in November 2008, Robertson-Lee suddenly felt what she thought was a sinus headache. She tried her typical home remedies, Tylenol and icepacks, but the headache persisted.

When she awoke Monday morning, vomiting profusely, Robertson-Lee knew it was more than a headache. Her husband immediately took her to the Baptist Medical Center South emergency room, where a CT scan revealed she had a ruptured brain aneurysm.

A brain aneurysm is a weak spot on a blood vessel in the brain that bulges and fills with blood. Unruptured brain aneurysms are usually small and present no symptoms. The danger arises when an aneurysm bursts, which is what happened to Robertson-Lee.

Series of surgeries

Robertson-Lee was transferred to another facility, where Ricardo Hanel, MD, neurovascular surgeon with Lyerly Neurosurgery and director of the Baptist Neurological Institute at Baptist Medical Center Jacksonville, took urgent action.

He made a small opening in the skull to place a tiny metal clip over the aneurysm, stopping blood from flowing into it. He also performed a craniotomy, removing the right side of Robertson-Lee's skull to relieve pressure caused by brain swelling.

"When a brain aneurysm ruptures, time is of the essence. Immediate care is critical for a successful recovery," Dr. Hanel explained. "A second bleeding or untreated brain swelling can be fatal or cause permanent brain damage."

The procedure went well, but Robertson-Lee had three later surgeries to remove a large piece of her skull to relieve pressure inside her head, drain a brain abscess, and finally, replace the missing pieces of her skull that had been removed during her first surgery.

A bump in the road

She slowly resumed her work for the University of North Florida, where she helps students with library research. She also eased back into running.

But when she went for her checkup in March 2021, a CT scan showed she had a small, unruptured brain aneurysm that had been slowly growing. Although Robertson-Lee wasn't having any symptoms, Dr. Hanel determined the best course of action would be to clip the aneurysm before it grew and caused any serious problems. Since the aneurysm was intact, the surgery wasn't as extensive and the recovery period was minimal.

Two paths

Robertson-Lee's experience illustrates the two paths patients may follow on the aneurysm journey. There are those who experience a ruptured aneurysm and find themselves in an emergency situation, which often means invasive, open surgery.

Then there are those who have risk factors for aneurysms, such as family history, certain lifestyle choices or underlying medical conditions. Those in this category should get screened for the presence of an aneurysm. If the doctor confirms the presence of an aneurysm, he or she will determine whether to immediately treat the patient or to monitor over time. Should treatment be required, the physician has a choice of minimally invasive options.

"A brain aneurysm rupture is essentially the neurological equivalent to a sudden heart attack," said Dr. Hanel. "It can happen to anyone, even young and healthy people. Someone can seem perfectly fine up until that singular moment. The idea is to avoid reaching this emergency situation."

Dr. Hanel recommended people with higher risk factors, or those who have experienced possible warning symptoms of an aneurysm, consult their primary care physician, who can then order a test or make a referral to a brain aneurysm expert.

Though she's now back to running full speed, Robertson-Lee makes time to slow down and appreciate the beauty of life.

"I don't take a single minute of the day for granted. I feel very blessed that I'm still here and I give a great deal of credit for that to Dr. Hanel," said Robertson-Lee. "I had a doctor who really cared and was going to do everything possible to help me survive."

If you or a loved one is experiencing signs of a brain aneurysm such as a sudden severe headache, nausea, light sensitivity or double vision, call 911 immediately. Lyerly Neurosurgery offers first-rate diagnostic and treatment operations for brain aneurysms and other cerebrovascular conditions. To request an appointment, call 904.388.6518.

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