Health & Wellness, Life & Love

“The CT Scan Does Show a Brain Bleed”

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It was around 10:30am on Tuesday, December 5th when I heard those words from the Physician Assistant. I was sitting in the bright, sunlit emergency room, contemplating how one of my favorite things – the sun – was exasperating the headache I’d had for well over 72 hours. My level of pain had been obvious to others as well… an older Black man who had been waiting to check himself in at the kiosk that morning took one look at me, gestured his hand toward the kiosk, and said, “You need to go first.” I look back hoping that my thank you to him was gracious enough.

Felicia, “my person” (OG Grey’s Anatomy fans will know) and domestic partner as of April 2023 when I moved back from Destin, Florida to my home-state of Virginia, was seated next to me, somehow expertly balancing work meetings, calls, and chats while we waited on the results of the CT scan. I posed the question to her, “What are we gonna do if they come back and say that everything is all clear and they don’t know why I have a headache?”

The question was mostly rhetorical. I just wanted there to be a known cause or reason for my very real symptoms. However, I think the question also stemmed from my experience at this same ER just days before on Friday, December 1st.

During my lunch break at work that day, I was in my garage working out, as I always do when my attempts to drag myself out of bed before work are unsuccessful. Felicia works out with me, but she’d had a bad day and texted that she was going to take a nap and was setting an alarm for 6pm so we could watch the Golden Bachelor finale, per our Friday tradition.

Otherwise, there was nothing unusual about the day — I had woken up feeling slightly dehydrated and sluggish. So, I focused on my water intake early, nearly finishing my routine gallon by the time I started that workout around 3:30pm. Meanwhile, I checked the calendar and realized I was likely sluggish due to the expected start of my cycle. As such, I intentionally went into the workout saying, “Let’s lessen the intensity a bit.” I cut my weight nearly in half for the day in each exercise.

I was about halfway through the workout, and in the third set of lateral traveling sumo squats. In the bottom portion of one, I felt what I can only describe as a jolt that went through my entire body. I completely collapsed onto the ground, losing feeling in all my limbs/extremities for about 5 seconds. After feeling returned, I still laid on the ground for about 10 minutes, trying to let my body calm down At this point, I also noticed an extreme stiffness in my neck.

For the briefest of moments, I thought, “Give yourself a break and then you can finish the workout.” Once the nausea and severe chills set in, I knew that was not happening. I managed to crawl out of the garage and upstairs to start a hot bath. There was no way I could return to work, sending texts to a couple coworkers saying, “I’m not 911 status but there is no way I can come back to work.”

Simultaneously, I was very nonchalantly texting Felicia:

4:03pm – “Uhm hi. I’m done with work for the day. Idk that you are awake but I may need to go to ER. I’m making a bath right now. Not period related. I’ll explain in person when you get up.”
4:27pm – “Let me now when you wake up, will likely need you to drive me.”

She was up by 5pm, and of course, immediately questioning why I didn’t call her. Me: “Because I knew you’d had a hard day.” Leave it to me to refuse to inconvenience anyone… ever. That said, the bath was calming my body and mind, and I also knew that even if she was up, I was going to be slow moving anyway.

We arrived at the ER around 6pm (after she physically helped me out of the bath, helped me get dressed, etc.). I was checked-in fairly quickly, but the first intake nurse seemed to question semantics of my story more than listen to what I was trying to convey. For example, when I was describing my severe chills after I collapsed, I said my entire body was “convulsing” and she said, “So you had a seizure?” I replied, “No, I’m just trying to explain that it wasn’t shivers/chills” to which she responded, “Well convulsions only happen when you have a seizure.”

I continued to provide the timeline with as much detail as possible, highlighting what I felt to be the most concerning part: the immediate loss of feelings in my limbs. I did the same once I was taken back to be assessed by a Physician Assistant. He did a variety of neuro examinations, physical strength tests in my limbs, and comprehensive assessment of my spine. By the end, he advised the he didn’t see the value in any imaging based on my performance and coherence.

I was diagnosed with a muscle strain and dehydration. I didn’t necessarily “fight” either diagnosis, but I knew in my gut both were inaccurate and minimizing. I had told each medical professional multiple times that I’d had a gallon of water that day (just like every other day of my life since 2020). Dehydration simply wasn’t a factor (ya girl loves water) and I was most frustrated that they were so strongly claiming this without any urine sample or bloodwork. And given that I’ve been an athlete all my life, if I had strained a muscle, I absolutely would be at home on the couch with heating pad resting at home. More importantly, I was using half the weight that I normally do. Of course, they’d only met me mere moments ago. They couldn’t possibly know my extremely high pain tolerance… or my aversion to emergency medical care unless it’s absolutely a capital E — EMERGENCY.

I was given an IV with medication to help me get over the initial headache and nausea. In getting an IV line, I nearly passed out (anxiety on top of nausea, PHEW). I learned that they call people like me – who have tiny, deep veins – a “hard stick.” Felicia says I should get it tattooed on me somewhere since it’s been said so many times to so many nurses and doctors and somehow they never believe me until they start sticking.

I was discharged after that with muscle relaxers, NSAIDs, and an oral steroid and told to follow-up with a PCP as needed. I still haven’t established one since moving home, but I was mostly confident that I’d be feeling better after a week or so of rest and no strenuous workouts.

To my surprise, my neck felt almost 100% better within 24 hours and was completely back to normal within 48 hours. The headache though? Nonstop. All day. All night. Laying down. Standing up. Even when taking the NSAIDs as prescribed. I remember saying to my mom, “Assuming they are working, I don’t know how I’d be getting through this without meds. It’s excruciating with them.”

By Monday, Felicia got me up around 11am and told me we were going to Urgent Care, firmly stating, “You’re not getting better. You’re getting worse.” She’d also been on the receiving end of about 7 different texts over the weekend, many at odd times like 3am and 4am, “Fighting for my life right now. In a bath FYI.” I’m not sure what it was about baths from the very start of this whole ordeal. Calling it my connection with and affection for water seems too “deep” but it was the one place when I could get even the slightest relief. The headaches had also reached a point where I was constantly nauseated, so eating anything was also a major struggle.

The Urgent Care doctor carefully listened to me recount my story from start to finish. He took a look at the medications I was taking, and very assuredly said, “You’re on the highest dose of the best possible medication for headache. You’re telling me you’ve now gone over 72 hours with no relief… you need to go back to the ER for a CT scan.” I am so thankful to this man for believing me about my symptoms.

In the meantime, he did prescribe anti-nausea and a different headache pain reliever, which Felicia graciously picked up for me after taking me home to get back in bed. I told her that maybe I just don’t respond to the original meds, so I wanted to give this new one a try. She tentatively agreed, “Okay, but if you aren’t feeling improvement, then we’re getting up at 8am to go back to the ER for a CT scan.”

At 8:30am, when I wasn’t up and moving, Felicia came into my room, “Come on, we’re going to ER for CT scan.” I slowly sat up and started moving. My headache had reached its peak. I took five steps to my bedroom door, shut it, and turned off the light and texted Felicia that I was up most of the night, in the bath at 4am again, and was going to sleep more and drive myself to ER later. She was insistent though. We needed to go now and helped me get up and get moving once again.

Back at the ER, that rhetorical question sat for only a few moments: “What are we gonna do if they come back and say that everything is all clear and they don’t know why I have a headache?”

No sooner had I asked it than the Physician Assistant was walking out. I saw a slight grimace in her face as she said the words, “The CT scan does show a brain bleed.”

Validation. That was all I felt in the moment. I wasn’t dehydrated and I didn’t strain a muscle.

I’d had a stroke. The sudden jolt in the workout, the collapse, and the immediate loss of feeling in my limbs instantly made sense.

Felicia started asking all the questions of what was next on my behalf. She called my parents to update them and went home to get some comfort items for me, knowing it was likely going to be a long day. They needed to get a closer look with a CTA scan, which couldn’t be done at this hospital, so I’d have to be transported to a sister hospital. Felicia asked if she could drive me since it was only a couple miles away, but the PA told her that at this point, I needed to be admitted and in medical care for monitoring.

Bloodwork was immediately ordered. Three nurses at this hospital learned that I truly was a hard stick, but finally got an IV started in my hand, then warned that for the CTA scan, they’d need one higher up in my arm. I mentally prepared for that adventure at the next hospital.

I took my very first ambulance ride within an hour and then was on an ER gurney from about 12pm to 1am. In a nutshell, the day progressed as follows: After several attempts to get a higher IV line, they finally brought in an ultrasound machine. CTA exam happened at 1:30pm and I was told the results would be back in half an hour. Mom, Dad, and Felicia were there immediately following the exam. My friends Christine and Tim also came to visit. With each passing hour, I continued to ask (read BEG) for food/water but was told we had to treat it as worst case scenario – emergency brain surgery – so food and drink were not an option.

Results were not delivered to me until about 6:30pm, at which point they told me that the bleed was in the left ventricle. Another procedure would be needed to further assess, and unfortunately, they don’t do that procedure at this hospital, so I’d be transported once again via ambulance to a hospital that does. In the meantime, my blood pressure would need to be consistently below 120/90 in order to have said procedure, so I was started on a blood pressure medication through my IV drip. We quickly learned that any time I stood up, my top number would skyrocket to 160+ so I began limiting my movement. Upon learning that the procedure would not happen until the next day, I was finally given food… the most pathetic turkey sandwich I’d ever seen, but I scarfed it down like it was gourmet. I hadn’t eaten since 5pm the day before after getting the anti-nausea meds from the Urgent Care provider, and even that wasn’t a full meal.

Originally thinking my transport would be quick like it was earlier in the day, my parents stuck around until about 8:30pm before I sent them home knowing it could be hours. Felicia had gone home to pack a full bag of toiletries and necessities to bring back to me prior to transport.

While alone by myself, I was able to watch the Dancing With the Stars finale, thanks to Christine reminding me it was on. We were supposed to go to a local bar that night to watch the finale… plans changed lol.

When the transport team finally arrived and got me fully prepped, I advised that I had asked for more pain medication that hadn’t come yet. This took additional time, but my headache was continuing to worsen. I had two great transport team members. Fernando was monitoring me throughout the ride and asked a very sincere question, “Have you had a chance to process all of this?”

My answer then was, “Nope.” And my answer while writing this blog is still, “Nope.” I appreciated his humanity in that moment nonetheless.

When I arrived at the next hospital and they rolled my gurney to the Neuro ICU, this hit in a different way. The Intensive Care Unit was somewhere I’d visited severely ill family members, who needed round the clock monitoring, those potentially near death. What was I doing here? I’d been sleeping – or at least attempting sleep – in my own bed, unmonitored for the last 4 nights.

That first night in ICU was one of the worst of my life. Hourly neuro exams, more IV lines (success only found with an ultrasound machine), bloodwork, no pain medicine despite my pain on a scale of 1 to 10 being a 15. I was told that as of midnight I couldn’t have oral medication due to the angiogram procedure that would happen later that day. I was given morphine and dilaudid via IV which both only brought a brief relaxation to my body for 5 minutes, tops. Meanwhile, while the bed was actually fantastic, the hospital pillows were TRASH. I texted Felicia at some point that the next time she came, I needed her to bring my pillow from home if I was going to manage any sleep between these hourly check-ins. Lastly, and seems so minor, but my lips were unfathomably chapped and despite multiple asks, my nurse never retrieved my Burt’s Bees from my bag.

That morning, a tech from Echo came in, extremely apologetic for waking me, but advised he needed to do a heart/lung ultrasound. I agreed, but inquisitively asked, “Why are they making you do this? It’s my head, not my heart.” He reminded me, “You had a stroke, so we have to make sure everything else is in proper working order.” This was when the “stroke” word started to settle in my brain a bit more. Prior to leaving, he told me that I had been such a pleasant start to his shift. Through it all, I was priding myself on being a good, appreciative, and low maintenance patient.

Soon after, my new nurse joined me in the room to introduce herself and advised she had pain medication on the way to be taken by mouth. I advised her that I couldn’t have any as they had told me all night. She apologized that I had been subjected to pain all night when I could have taken some meds with 1-2 sips of water. I was so relieved, I almost cried. From there, I asked her if she would get my Burt’s Bees from my bag and she did so immediately. Relief in so many ways. By mid-day and for the rest of my 2-day stay in Neuro ICU, my pain level was consistently at a 1 to 2 level on the 1 to 10 scale.

I truly cannot say enough amazing things about the nurses who took care of me, listened to me, managed my pain, answered all of my questions, and also engaged in conversations that helped take my mind off my medical drama… or maybe trauma is a better word.

On Wednesday morning, I was taken for the angiogram procedure and was once again met with a fantastic medical provider. He apologized that I wasn’t brought directly to this hospital to begin with and instead had to take a full-day tour of Richmond HCA. He also put me at ease about the procedure since I was nervous about being awake, but sedated. He listened when I told him that sedation has made me nauseated in the past and if I reach that point, I will not be the still, calm patient he needed me to be. Pre-emptively, he gave me anti-nausea meds. The procedure went exactly as he promised, smooth and mostly pain-free, and also quicker than he predicted – originally an hour. It’s worth mentioning that we were all jamming out to Bad Bunny on the speakers the entire time.

I’m still shook at medical procedures… a little wire was fed through a vessel from my groin up to my brain. Like, who thought of this minimally invasive exam to further assess and diagnose? More importantly, HOW did they think of this?

The results of this confirmed that the brain bleed was originating from an arteriovenous malformation (AVM), which according to Google is a rare condition of abnormal tangles of blood vessels that causes problems with the connections between your arteries and veins. It is congenital, which means present at birth and/or developed in early childhood. They are most commonly found in the brain or spinal cord.

That’s the extent of my Googling from the moment I found out until now. All else is what I’ve learned from my neurosurgeon who stopped by the next day with options for treatment:

  1. Do nothing. This is only an option for patients whose AVMs have never bled.
  2. Open brain surgery. The most preferred and immediate solution to go in and remove it and know with certainty, and immediately, that it is gone and will not grow back. However, the qualifications that make someone a good candidate include: 1) the size of AVM and 2) the accessibility based on location of AVM. Mine is relatively small so I met the first, but the location of it would require digging through a lot of important brain matter. I’d be potentially risking my vision, speech, and overall cognitive abilities if I were to choose this option.
  3. Embolization. Minimally invasive (similar to the angiogram), but not frequently used for a variety of reasons and also presents a struggle due to location of AVM and being able to ensure success in obliteration.
  4. Gamma knife radiation. A one-time procedure where they target the AVM with radiation in order to harden the vessels over time to where blood can no longer flow. By nature, there are some risks with radiation and this option typically takes 1-3 years to work (i.e., to see full obliteration of the AVM). There is also no guarantee that it will work. Lastly, this option presents a latent period, where I could experience a bleed again, at which point surgery would be the only way to go, risks and all.

Given the choices, and weighing the risks and benefits, I’ve opted for gamma knife radiation, which will happen within the next month or two once this initial bleed has fully resolved. As much as I didn’t want to have brain surgery, I told the neurosurgeon that I did wish it were located somewhere more accessible because I would have selected that option just to have it done and over with and on to recovery. He agreed and said if it were located elsewhere, he would have had me in the OR that week. I cannot say enough great things about him and his approach. I feel so confident in his care and professional experience.

I was later visited by speech therapy, physical therapy, and occupational therapy specialists and passed all of their exams “with flying colors.” With that confirmation and the directive of my neurosurgeon to go another 24 hours of blood pressure monitoring sans medication (I’d been taken off it after the angiogram), I was told I’d be discharged the next day. And, I graduated from ICU to the general neuro unit, where I was able to sleep for 4-hour stretches, which was glorious. I also had amazing nurses during this stay.

I returned home late on Friday, December 8th, and crashed SO hard in my own bed. I’ve been resting ever since and starting to feel better and better with each passing day, minus the fact that I contracted a cold and the coughing and sneezing creates added pressure in my head.

As I aim to close out this very long blog, I wanted to share in some important gratitude because I have been OVERWHELMED by the love and support I’ve received from family, friends, and coworkers.

To Mom & Dad, thank you for coming to see me every single day. Mom, your natural tendency toward caretaking and nurturing brought me right back to childhood days when I was sick and you’d take care of me. And to Dad, your normal Marine advice of “Go run it out” would NOT have been the best idea here, but your unwavering optimism with each new twist and turn of this medical saga has been a light. I love you both immensely and am so glad I was only an hour away instead 14 hours!

To Felicia, my person… thank you for remaining assertive about seeking medical care. You know me well enough to know that I would have continued to wait it out, suffering in silence. Several nurses and doctors confirmed that had you not been forcing me back when I wasn’t getting better, things definitely would have gotten worse and I likely wouldn’t be here writing this blog. Thank you as well for everything you did… keeping my closest friends updated with countless group chats, picking up my prescriptions, packing hospital bags, bringing me Tropical Smoothie and visiting just because, cleaning up my bathroom and bedroom which were war zones from when I was fighting for my life, doing my laundry (including my bed sheets), putting in grocery store orders (and picking them up), and literally so many other things I’m sure I’m forgetting. I owe ya big time! Also, thank you for the laugh when you saw me on the final day in ICU and told me I looked like a sea lion in an oil spill and then proceeded to unload an entire bottle of dry shampoo onto my hair.

To Christine & Tim, thank you for visiting on my first day in the ER and every time thereafter. Your smiles and company helped take my mind off the pain. Your consistent check-ins and beautiful flower arrangement have reminded me of how well-loved I am.

To Lauren, thank you for forgiving me for my approach in telling you via text [while you were at work] that I had a brain bleed, knowing that you are my friend that needs a less nonchalant approach. Nonetheless, thank you for rearranging your crazy busy life to visit me in the morning after daycare drop-off and before work. And thank you for lying to me and telling me I looked great despite the fact that Felicia showed up later that day with the cold, hard truth. Your friendship means so much!

To Sharie, Ashleigh, and Cierra: Thank you for your consistent affirmations and support while I was in the hospital. You all breathed so much life into me. Thank you as well for being my first surprise visitors upon returning home. You all traveled through horrible rain to spend the day with me and showered me with ALL the best Beyoncรฉ swag, comfort items, truly thoughtful gifts, and perfect company. Included in this from afar… to Yetti, thank you for pacing your apartment floor sick with worry for me and for continuing to remind us of the power of The Group Chat. Also, sending me Audible credits to continue to build my never-ending library? You know the way to this reader’s heart, especially knowing that physical reading may be a rough go for a bit. To all of you, I don’t know what I’d do without you all as my lifelines.

To Denise & Justin: Thank you for being my second surprise visitors, even though Justin was in a lot of pain himself. Denise, my amazing big sister, you pre-made me six full meals to keep me well-fed and four non-alcoholic beverages to satisfy my wine-loving heart. I’m happy to say again that at least I’ll have my full head of hair when you two tie the knot in April, since this was my primary concern upon learning that brain surgery might be needed.

To Tiffany & Anthony: Thank you for my two sweet nephews. I re-watched every “feel better soon” video and scrolled through every picture an embarrassing number of times. But for real… BRING ME THAT BABY! Doctor’s orders…

To Rob, every phone call and text communication we shared brought me an unshakeable sense of peace and calm. This comes as no surprise to me. You told me you loved my spirit… not knowing you helped me maintain it. Thank you for being you.

To Chloe & Penny… MELAPENNCHLO for lifeee! Penny, no more long trips… bad things happen while you’re away. Thank you all for checking on me regularly and for keeping only positive vibes so that I can make it across the pond in June for Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour!

To Kelsey, thank you for the Spoonful of Comfort TLC care-package that brought me to tears. It was such a practical gift and filled with so much love. Thanks as well for suggesting that WILD cult documentary on HBO Max… nothing like severe levels of delulu to make me feel better about my own brain.

To Gabe, thank you for immediately sending me a meal when I shared the life update with you.

To Domo, thank you for validating my experience so effortlessly and bringing my awareness to the gravity of the situation because somehow, it still hasn’t fully hit me. Thank you for adding me to your prayer list, and being courteous enough to ask if it was okay to do so first. You’re a true gem.

To Gabrielle & JT… my Adele Stans! Thank you for allowing me to create a trauma collage of all of our hospital selfies. While I think my medical condition technically wins, I still will never ever be over Gabby’s. Speaking of, you’re welcome for not saying something like, “I have a brain bleed” and then disappearing from the chat for 6 hours.

To John, thank you for being someone who wears his heart on his sleeve. Your emotion when hearing this story over the phone again shows me how well-loved I am. Thanks for keeping our people in the know — Susan, your sweet message and Taylor Swift Sugar Cookie recipe warmed my heart!

To my coworkers, who likely will not see/read this, thank you for all of the support. I was told to focus 100% on my health and everything at work would be handled. It has been such a relief to be able to do just that. I’ve been overwhelmed with flowers, care-packages, and consistent messages of well wishes and check-ins. I’ve always said the best thing about my job are the people I work with. This remains true.

To every single person who has reached out, expressed love, and offered support, prayers. Thank you and please keep them coming!

Lastly, to my therapist, thank you for helping me start to tread the waters of processing this trauma. I told you that everyone said I was too calm, and that every time I sent a voice note, they said it sounded like I was talking about something happening to someone else. It still feels like it did. I know this will change with time, but I appreciate that for now, I can reframe this time that I look at as “doing nothing” into radical and unapologetic rest that is needed in order to heal… while shifting my attention to my pursuit of love, which I immediately knew meant my writing. It’s time for me to pour into it again.

If you’ve made it this far… my goodness, you’re a real one. I’ll officially close with this:

I firmly believe that everything in my life happens FOR me, not TO me. It’s an affirmation I’ve carried with me for years and it came up in therapy the night before all of this started. I somehow carried it with me over these last two weeks. This experience is now part of my journey in this life, and due to the nature of treatment, it will likely be an ongoing part of my journey for several years.

Would I have chosen this for myself? Not in any lifetime. But the Universe has chosen it for me (since birth actually)… and I trust that it is with good reason, with perfect timing, and with profound and limitless opportunities to make my passion for storytelling a true legacy.

And of course, this all serves as a reminder that I am, and will forever be…

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2 thoughts on ““The CT Scan Does Show a Brain Bleed”

  1. Uh. Mel. I love you so! And I am SO glad you made it through this not just with your life, but with your same spirit intact. You have been a lifeline for me through all that life has thrown me these last few years, and I am honored to return that love to you. Though I hate that this happened, I’m grateful for the divine timing, location, and support you were able to have. AND I’m glad it has forced you into unapologetic rest and recovery so that you can get back to you safely.

  2. Thank you so much Melanie for being so vulnerable and sharing your journey with the world. There is so unforeseen growth and opportunities for progress because of individuals like yourself who are willing to share their experiences. This particular life challenge is yet another testimony to your resiliency and fight in life, showing how truly great you really are. Keep blazing paths and showing up each and every time life confronts you. You are amazing!

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