By Kathy Nguyen
The realization that my survival story was not entirely my own came as a slow overwhelming wave a year after suffering a ruptured brain aneurysm. I was being interviewed by a television show producer and could not explain what happened to me. You see, my body shut down like a tripped circuit breaker after blood rushed out of my vertebral artery and into the liquid around my brain. I essentially experienced head trauma, and shutting down the body was my brain’s way of self-preservation. This was great for my survival but not for telling my story, as I carried no recollection of the moments just prior to collapsing until waking up in the hospital almost one week later. I could only piece together what I experienced during that week through stories I heard from my family – through their eyes. I could not describe the experience from my own point of view. Not good for an interview, but it opened my eyes to a new perspective.
This experience taught me that none of us own our stories entirely, because the people around us share in that story – because we are not alone. The more people we bring into our narrative, the richer it becomes and the better we are all because of it. I do not have to feel badly that I can only tell the tale of that week through the recollections of others. I can own it together with them and share proudly with the world, because it is important – because all our stories of struggle and triumph are important – and because all the love and kindness I received during the week and months that followed deserve all the credit.
I cannot say enough about the exceptional care I received while at Keck Hospital of University of Southern California (USC). All of the nurses and medical staff, especially at the neuro-intensive care unit, were compassionate, nurturing, tough, and smart all at the same time. All of the doctors – whatever their specialty and whether they were attendings, residents, or interns – were all knowledgeable, patient, and at times even funny. We all should feel very lucky that they are training future physicians.
So here is my story, or I should say our story. I woke up in a fog, but without much pain thanks to the heavy pain-relieving medication. Needless to say that moving even a pinky was challenging for me. Afterall, I had been in a coma, had a hole drilled in my skull, on life-support, and had surgeries performed on my brain, or so I was told. Understatement does not even begin to describe saying that I was lucky to survive.
The location of my ruptured aneurysm was rare and inconvenient to say the least. Regardless of convenience, it had to be addressed or I would continue to significantly be at risk of suffering another bleed. The aneurysm was fusiform, meaning it was located along an artery, so the only way to fix it was to completely block that section (isolate the leaky pipe). Problem was that the section was located at the intersection of the vertebral and posterior inferior cerebral artery (PICA). Blocking that section of the vertebral artery would cut off supply to that PICA. The only solution was to perform a PICA-PICA bypass – connect the left PICA to the right PICA – prior to plugging the broken section. This procedure was delicate, rare, and risky all at the same time. You definitely could not have used the term, “It ain’t brain surgery,” to describe this operation. Even if the surgery went perfectly well sufficient blood flow to all parts of my brain was not guaranteed, meaning there was significant potential for me to lose both motor and cognitive function.
The fog slowly started to lift and my recovery kicked into gear. It was humbling to be so dependent on my family and the nurses at the hospital. I also felt a little guilty having to ask for help with almost everything I needed to do. This motivated me to get better as soon as possible, but it wasn’t easy. I remained at Keck Hospital for two weeks of recovery, monitoring, and physical therapy. The debilitating headaches endured for several weeks and I was strangely super sensitive to sound. The heightened sense of hearing only worsened the pain in my head. There were times when I questioned if things would ever get back to normal again – if I would be able to do the things I used to enjoy doing. I didn’t dwell on these questions, however, and instead focused my energy on getting better. With my family’s support and care, I slowly regained some sense of normalcy.
When I returned to Delaware a few weeks later, so many friends volunteered to bring us food and keep me company so my husband could return to work. I am truly grateful for and admire the small acts of kindness from everyone who fed us, planted flowers in our garden, helped to soothe the pain in my head, pulled me out of the house to walks outside, and more. The frequent visitors and uplifting messages from so many people really helped to speed up my recovery. All of them, in some way, share in my story.
On May 25, 2015, exactly two months after I was released from the hospital, I went on my first run, a slow mile along the trails of Newark Reservoir, and it was glorious! The moments of lightness and smooth strides cast aside any question of whether or not I would be able to do the things I loved to do again. With each step, doubt was replaced with anticipation of what adventures I could and would embark on next.
I completed the Los Angeles Marathon less than a year later. And since then, I have been able to compete in and win local age-group triathlons and 5K road races, finished a half Ironman triathlon, and four additional marathons in my still ongoing quest to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Physically, I came back stronger than ever. I do not say this to boast, but rather to say that it is possible. Whatever obstacles life throws at us we all have the capacity to overcome them, especially with the support of the people around us. Do not be afraid to triumph over difficulties. Do not be afraid to ask for help. Do not be afraid to embrace your story, and allow the people around you to be a part of that story. Do not be afraid, because you are not alone.
Kathy is the founder of WeRunWithYou. She is an avid runner, accomplished triathlete, and mother of twins. Kathy has completed over 12 marathons, an ultra-marathon, and triathlons of all distances, including the 2013 Florida Ironman. She survived a ruptured brain aneurysm in 2015, an experience that motivated her to start #RunLAwithKathy and WeRunWithYou to give back and make a difference.