Surviving A Ruptured Brain Aneurysm

Becky Winchell had just finished playing tennis when she sensed a headache coming on. Initially, it resembled a typical sinus headache, but as the day progressed, it evolved into something far more ominous. She described it as if “fluid was rushing to my head, and my neck became excruciatingly sore.” The pain became unbearable, prompting her to rush to the emergency room. To her surprise, she was diagnosed with a migraine and sent home.  Two hours later, as the agony persisted, she went back to the emergency room. A spinal tap showed blood in her spinal fluid. It was a ruptured brain aneurysm.

An aneurysm is an abnormal widening of an artery.  A bulging sac forms and can burst, resulting in massive bleeding in the brain.  People are typically born with aneurysms and it sometimes takes forty to fifty years before causing problems. Or it may never cause problems.


Becky’s life took a dramatic turn that fateful day as she was urgently transported from Mandeville to the care of interventional neuroradiologist Dr. Robert Dawson at Culicchia Neurological Clinic. In a life-saving procedure, Dr. Dawson employed a cutting-edge technique, threading a microcatheter from her groin to her brain to repair the aneurysm.

Fast forward 14 years, and Becky’s MRI’s are clear and she is leading a healthy, busy life as an administrative executive and the mother of seven children. She considers herself to be especially fortunate to have persisted in her own care and returned to the emergency room that night.  “I have always said, be your own advocate and if you have severe pain, do not leave the hospital until you understand what is causing the pain,” she insists.  “And if you have a history of brain aneurysms in your family, you need to inform your healthcare provider and have regular health screenings.”

new-orleans-neurosurgeon-robert-dawson-biography-headshot-mobileAccording to Dr. Dawson, “Family groups with a history of polycystic kidney disease or a strong family history of brain aneurysms should see a neurologist and discuss diagnostic screenings, Especially if two or more family members have brain aneurysms.

Dr. Dawson has seen incredible advances in his forty years of treating aneuryms and he expects more to come. “New and better devices are on the horizon, such as webs and new flow-diverting devices, which exclude the aneurysm from the circulation eliminating future problems.  Our understanding of the natural history of unruptured aneurysms continues to grow,” he says. In the near future, Dr. Dawson says physicians may be asking ‘which aneurysms need to be treated at all?’ “Artificial Intelligence and robotics will also make an impact. Hopefully, one day we will get a major breakthrough in stem cell therapy. Stay tuned. More is around the bend.”

An estimated 6 million people in the United States have an unruptured brain aneurysm or 1 in 50 people. The annual rate of rupture is approximately 8 per 100,000 people or about 25,000.  Symptoms of a ruptured brain aneurysm often come on suddenly. They may include:

  • Sudden, severe headache
  • Neck pain.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Sensitivity to light.
  • Fainting or loss of consciousness.
  • Seizures

 What are the symptoms?

Most cerebral aneurysms do not show symptoms until they either become very large or burst.  Small, unchanging aneurysms generally will not produce symptoms, whereas a larger aneurysm that is steadily growing may press on tissues and nerves.  Symptoms may include pain above and behind the eye; numbness, weakness, or paralysis on one side of the face; dilated pupils; and vision changes.

When an aneurysm hemorrhages, an individual may experience a sudden and extremely severe headache, double vision, nausea, vomiting, stiff neck, and/or loss of consciousness.  Individuals usually describe the headache as “the worst headache of my life” and it is generally different in severity and intensity from other headaches people may experience.  “Sentinel” or warning headaches may result from an aneurysm that leaks for days to weeks prior to rupture.  Only a minority of individuals have a sentinel headache prior to aneurysm rupture.

Other signs that a cerebral aneurysm has burst include nausea and vomiting associated with a severe headache, a drooping eyelid, sensitivity to light, and change in mental status or level of awareness.  Some individuals may have seizures.  Individuals may lose consciousness briefly or go into a prolonged coma.  People experiencing this “worst headache,” especially when it is combined with any other symptoms, should seek immediate medical attention.

Becky Winchell’s journey serves as a testament to the importance of vigilance, early diagnosis, and advancements in medical care in the battle against brain aneurysms. As medical technology continues to evolve, there is hope for even better treatments and outcomes in the future. ” Stay informed, stay vigilant, and stay healthy,” Becky advises.