On November 6, Michelle Sweeney woke up at her usual time for work. As she stood in the bathroom, though, she felt a strange sensation.
“I had a weird feeling,” Michelle recalls. “I felt like I might be bleeding. I kept looking at my hands and arms, and then looking at myself in the mirror. I thought, ‘What’s the matter with me?’”
A moment later, Michelle collapsed and ended up sitting on the toilet. Her roommate called to her through the door.
“I’m still hearing her—I can’t be dead!” Michelle thought to herself. But she couldn’t move and couldn’t speak. Michelle’s roommate kept talking, while Michelle wished that she would just open the door.
Suddenly, her roommate threw the door open. Upon seeing Michelle conscious and apparently all right, her roommate immediately left, closing the door behind her.
A feeling of hopelessness came over Michelle. But a moment later, the door opened again.
“She must have noticed the look in my eyes,” says Michelle.
“What’s wrong? Are you okay?” her roommate asked. Michelle did not respond.
“Oh my God!” she said. “You’re having a stroke!”
Michelle’s roommate called 911. The ambulance arrived in minutes, and Michelle was taken to Strong Memorial Hospital. She was rapidly given a battery of tests which included a CT angiogram and a CT perfusion study. These tests showed that the clot was lodged in the left middle cerebral artery
Michelle was given an intravenous medication called Tissue Plasminogen Activator, or tPA, to attempt to break up the clot and restore blood flow to the brain. But the medication did not work. So Michelle was rushed to the angiography suite.
The imaging studies also showed that Michelle was a good candidate for a relatively new procedure called a MERCI thrombectomy.
Michelle’s 18-year-old son signed the consent form and then watched as his mother was rushed into surgery.
The Neurosurgeon made a small incision in Michelle’s groin area and inserted a thin catheter. With the help of real-time images of Michelle’s brain, he then threaded the catheter into the clot. Then, with a small wire that had been inserted through the catheter, he captured the clot and drew it safely back out through the catheter.
By the time Michelle was wheeled back to her room, she was already feeling more lucid.
“Every time a nurse came into my room, they lifted up the bottom of my shirt,” Michelle recalls. “By the third or fourth time, I asked what they were doing. They said, ‘That’s where your incision is!’” A tiny bandage on her lower abdomen was the only sign that Michelle had just undergone brain surgery.
Later, the neurosurgeon would show Michelle the actual images of her brain during the surgery.
“He showed me where the clot had been,” she says. “It was clear that there was no blood flow in that area. My brain was dying at the time. But then, he removed the clot and all those arteries were filled with blood! It was amazing.”
For the time being, Michelle had lost many of her physical and mental abilities. She couldn’t remember her son’s name, and had a difficult time speaking English or Spanish. Still, she knew that she wanted to get home. Her nurses told her that when she could get dressed by herself, she could go home.
“I told God, ‘If you give me the strength to get up and out of this bed, I’m going to do it!’” says Michelle. Within days, Michelle demonstrated that she could dress herself in under five minutes.
Michelle’s recovery was rapid. Five days after her stroke, Michelle was sent to rehab. And three weeks after arriving in the hospital, she was back in her own home—just in time for Thanksgiving.
For the next three months, Michelle would undergo intensive physical therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy. And within 6 months, she would achieve nearly a 100% recovery.
“She is back to all her normal activities,” reports her neurosurgeon.
“I have a lot of will power,” reports Michelle. “And I have my grand baby. She is my motivating force every day!”
Michelle has now returned to the activities she enjoys most, such as cooking, drawing, painting and being active outdoors. But she is acutely aware that, without her neurosurgeon and his team, her life would be notably different. Without the advanced care she received at URMC, Michelle would most likely have spent the rest of her life in a nursing home.
“My Neurosurgeon is my angel,” says Michelle. “He saved my life. Without him, I don’t know where I’d be or what I’d be able to do. And his staff, they were my angels, too. I give thanks for them every day.”
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