Many of us out there are guilty of avoiding doctors and hospitals. Sometimes it's a real phobia, or maybe just the fear of catastrophic news, the kind only doctors can deliver. For one California man, who we will call Bill, this avoidance nearly killed him and it should be a lesson to all of us out there that dismiss symptoms as minor, even when they clearly are anything but minor. He shared his story about a headache that he ignored and almost died as a result. The persistence of his girlfriend to get checked out and the skill of his doctors are the reason he is still here today.
Bill's medical problems began on an otherwise normal day. His plan for his day off was to get some maintenance done on his car, as well as his girlfriend's car and run some other errands. Of the day, he said, "Started like any other Sunday for me. I woke up, did a little workout and then headed out for the day to get some errands done. Number 1 on the agenda was to get both my girlfriend's oil changed, as well as my own. I drove down to the oil place and got hers done first, then drove back to her house and picked up my car. I drove back to oil change place in my car and had them start on changing the oil on my car."
This is where the day, and his life, changed forever, though he didn't know it.
While in the waiting room, something happened. "I was sitting in the waiting room watching YouTube videos," Bill said, continuing, "As I watched the video I felt a headache hit right behind my right eye and travel straight back to the back of my skull. Having never had a migraine before, I assumed that this is what it feels like and muscled through it. The pain was unrelenting but not unbearable, though I was a bit concerned at how fast it struck."
Like most people, he dismissed it as a simple headache and decided to return home after the oil change, rather than run his other errands, to "nap it off." So, he went home, took some ibuprofen and laid down for a nap.
"I woke up hours later still feeling this intense pain in my head. I decided I would sleep it off the rest of the night and in the morning I would be good to go to work."
Deciding to ignore it would be his first mistake, but it would not be his last.
The next morning, Monday, Bill woke up for work. He worked in construction and when he awoke, the throbbing headache was still there. It had not diminished despite all the rest he had gotten over the last 24 hours or so. His girlfriend became concerned and voiced that concern to him, but again, he dismissed it and decided he would need to take the day off to rest some more. Again, he had never had a migraine and didn't recognize that the symptoms he was experiencing were much different and much worse. When he dismissed his girlfriend's concern, she relented and "let me try to rest as much as I could for the rest of the day," he said. All day, Bill rested and napped, but nothing improved. "My symptoms were not getting better. The only relief I could find was taking painkillers, which I'm not a big fan of and napping."
Finally, on Tuesday, the third day with the same headache, his girlfriend had had enough.
When Bill woke up on Tuesday and the headache remained, his girlfriend put her foot down. "Against my protest, she dragged me to the ER...and saved my life." He had spent the last three days, more or less, on the verge of death, though he didn't realize it and he would quickly learn how serious the situation was when he finally got to the ER of the small hospital near his house.
One telling moment in the story, Bill admits to hating needles, perhaps an insight as to why he was so reluctant to go to the hospital in the first place. He says "I have an extreme phobia of hypodermic needles and anything intravenous. They sent me to do a CT scan of my head, without the contrast because I wouldn't let them tap an IV on my arm."
Once the doctors took a look at the CT scan, Bill's fear of needles would be the last of his worries.
As Bill was resting after his CT scan, he saw his doctor come "jogging down the hallway." It was then that Bill finally realized that maybe this was more serious than a simple migraine headache. The doctor knew how serious it was and explained to the man, "You've had a stroke and you've got a pretty major bleed going in your brain right now. I need to tap an IV on you right now, do another CT scan with the contrast and then get you out of this hospital and to Stanford ASAP!" Presumably, the doctor meant Stanford University's hospital, with experts in strokes and brain-related traumas. Bill was stunned. He was only 29-years-old, how could he have had a stroke?
He wouldn't have much time to process the information though, as the situation deteriorated from there.
Bill sat stunned. "I couldn't comprehend what was happening," and he knew he had to contact his family, on the East Coast, so he asked his girlfriend, the one that insisted he get to the Emergency room to be checked out, to call his mother, who lived in New Jersey.
Still working through the emotions of learning he had had a stroke, Bill was caught in a maelstrom of medical activity. Despite his huge fear of needles, they doctors inserted an IV, then they performed another battery of tests, including a second CT scan and then loaded him an ambulance for the drive over to Stanford Hospital, where he would receive the best care available. His case was so unique - he should have been dead according to one nurse - that he was "greeted by the entire Neurology department, both residents and students alike." They were amazed that he was up and about, he says that the first nurse he met said, "she 'couldn't believe I was even still awake, let alone walking and talking.' She told me, 'usually with something like this there are only two ways people come in here: either in a coma...or dead.'"
He was beginning to realize his miracle, but he was far from out of the woods and the miracle couldn't last forever.
Now Bill's fear of needles had to be overcome, as the doctors inserted a total of 4 IVs into his arms for various purposes and tests. Bill was so close to death, the doctors believed, that they asked him to sign over his power of attorney before he deteriorated, which they also believed would happen rapidly. To the doctors, it still made no sense that Bill was anything but on death's door. Over the next few hours, they would work to reduce the swelling and stop the bleeding in his brain, the blood was a result of the stroke. They worked to bring down his blood pressure in this effort and he was in and out of it for a while.
Wednesday morning, four days after the symptoms began at the oil change place, his parents arrived from the East Coast. They arrived in time for Bill to get his first angiogram, a painful procedure which he describes in detail. "If you've never had an angiogram...consider yourself lucky. I've had 3. They lay you on a table and sedate you with drugs, though you are NOT asleep. They then tap your femoral artery through your groin and run a catheter all the way up to your neck where they directly inject contrast dye to get a more clear picture of the veins and arteries in your brain. Let me repeat, YOU ARE AWAKE FOR THIS!
The first angiogram was inconclusive, they still didn't know how or why the stroke occurred, exactly. "The blood actually blocked the picture and they couldn't see anything." But, as he said at that point, "I was stabilized, the bleed had stopped and I was allowed to leave the hospital by Friday morning."
It would be weeks before they could figure out why such a young man had a stroke, but they would.
Six weeks after the stroke, Bill returned to the hospital to follow-up and get a second angiogram, hoping to finally figure out what had caused the stroke that almost killed him. This time, they discovered the cause. "I had what is known as an Arteriovenous Fistula burst inside my brain. It's when an artery incorrectly attaches itself to a vein and pumps high-pressure blood into a low-pressure system, thus causing the vein to burst."
According to the doctors, there were two causes of this kind stroke: a severe blow to the head or simply bad luck. For Bill, it was the latter.
Now that they had a cause, they hoped to fix it with surgery and he went under the knife for an intense operation which involved opening up his skull. As he described, "I was put to sleep, had my head cut open and my brain operated on for 12 hours by the BEST neurosurgeons in the world. A 3rd angiogram was performed while I was asleep because they could not locate the fistula at first."
Bill's description of post-surgery is intense, "I awoke later that night in the most immense amount of pain I have ever been in. While I was asleep, two more IV's had been put into my arm, an A-line had been put in my wrist again, and I had a C-line, which is an IV in your chest that runs to your heart, put in as well. The fentanyl was about 5 minutes of relief followed by 55 minutes of me begging for more painkillers. They could only dose me once per hour...needless to say it was the longest night of my life."
But the surgery was a success! Unless his bad luck returned, he was out of the woods and he would be free to live a normal life from here on out. There were some routine complications from the surgery, for example, his vision was blurry and he was seeing double and he would need to wear an eye patch for a few weeks but a couple of days after the surgery, he was out of the hospital. Albeit in a fair amount a pain, but thankful that the worst was over.
Unfortunately, his luck did not hold.
A year and a half after the stroke and the surgery, Bill's vision had gone back to nearly normal and he preparing to return to his job as a construction worker. He was excited, it had been a long 18 months out of work and he was more than ready to go back. His company eased him back in, and rather than being an on-site worker doing the big stuff, he would start with a less physically demanding job in the tool room. Shortly after lunch, on his way back to the tool room after going to the bathroom, he knew something was wrong. He describes the feeling: "I could see the door, but in my peripheral vision there was what I describe as a floating bubble, that had the scene from my left still playing in it like it was on repeat and it was flashing like a strobe light."
Was he having another stroke? He wasn't sure. He took a seat and closed his eyes, hoping to shake off whatever was going on. but instead, he got "nauceous, light-headed" and his left foot "began to tingle." From there, he doesn't remember much, he blacked out and came to later with his boss standing over him.
So, it was back to the hospital and a slew of new tests. At first, nothing seemed out of the ordinary with the tests and Bill was released with a case of what the doctors thought was nothing more than dehydration. Later, after some follow-ups with his doctors at Stanford, he was diagnosed with a seizure disorder as a result of the stroke and his refusal to go to the ER in a timely fashion. He explains, "The issue, as I've been told, is a direct result of the stroke and not the surgery. Due to the amount of time I allowed blood to flow into my brain, it has caused bruising and damage to that area of my brain which is what lead to me having the seizure. Had I gone to the ER right when it happened, things may be different today."
There are some consequences of the diagnoses. He can no longer work in a physically-demanding construction job, which was what he loved to do. He also lost his commercial driver's license. Thankfully, his company has kept him on in other positions that are less physically demanding, but he will still require another 2-3 months of recovery before going back to work.
He ends his story with a plea to all us folks out there that don't take our health seriously or take it for granted: "Please, I'm begging you! If you ever feel like something is wrong with you...DO NOT HESITATE! GO TO THE HOSPITAL! Don't be like me, Mr. Toughguy, thinking you can get through it. You know your body better than anyone else on this planet, which means you also know when things aren't right."
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