Hillary Shares Her Story

My name is Hillary. I am a physician, dog mom, runner, world traveler, and ruptured brain aneurysm survivor.

At age 32, I had just completed my medical training and moved from Dallas, TX to Raleigh, NC to start my first “real” job in my chosen field of Pediatric Endocrinology. I was staying with my parents until I could move into my own apartment and woke up early on July 4th. I was still jet lagged from a vacation in Kenya the week before and decided it would be good to run before it got too warm.

While stretching in the driveway, a strange sensation stopped and shook me for a brief moment (in hindsight it was the “pop”), but I still felt fine so took off on my run. Within 5 minutes I slowed to a walk and was aware enough to realize I was about to pass out. Fortunately I awoke almost immediately after having apparently weaved across the street and face planted on the sidewalk. Because it was a holiday, other runners were out and saw me go down. They called 911 and my parents.

At this point I had the “worst headache of my life” that we all learn about in medical school. I still didn’t realize I had a brain aneurysm, but I knew something was wrong and strongly suspected a brain bleed at that time. A series of tests at the ED and then the hospital confirmed a ruptured brain aneurysm and I underwent a coiling procedure treatment immediately. A 2nd coiling surgery was required 6 months later to fill some residual space in the aneurysm. The recovery was long, painful, and frustrating, especially for this Type A doctor.

For most of my life I wanted to help patients, not be one myself. However, my experience as a patient enhanced my skills as a physician. I better understand how some people can become addicted to pain killers, although it saddens me that they their life must be so terrible that to feel nothing is better than feeling anything. I primarily work with children with Type 1 diabetes and for years I couldn’t quite understand why so many gravitated towards me. Eventually I recognized that we both suffer from “invisible” illnesses. I can relate to feeling awful and not thinking clearly on the inside while receiving judgmental stares from others who don’t understand what it’s like. Even a treated brain aneurysm is an experience that will forever change one’s life and it can take years to accept and adjust to a “new norm”, just as my patients with Type 1 diabetes must. We both think of our lives in terms of “before” and “after”, and a grieving process is necessary for the prior “healthy” life we once had.

Being an aneurysm survivor and facing my mortality at such a young age has had some challenging but ultimately positive effects on my personal life as well. I started taking more chances, especially regarding travel opportunities. Why wait until I am older when that is not always a guarantee? A favorite trip was to the Galapagos, which was a dream of mine since college. I expected I wouldn’t have the funds until much later in life to visit, but I reprioritized my spending and vacation time to make it happen. I am so thankful at having experienced the beautiful islands and all their unique flora and fauna while I was still young enough to recall reading Darwin’s words as a student years before.

Undoubtably running has become my greatest passion. After my aneurysm rupture, the doctors told me that being a runner probably helped me have such a good outcome. In my mind that meant getting back to running was a great way to ensure this never happened again, and if it did that I had just as good of an outcome as the first time. It was very difficult physically for me t o start running again, but once I accepted my slower pace and joined a group, I quickly worked back up to a 5K and even half-marathon distance. The harder part was the psychological strength. Because my ruptured aneurysm occurred while I was running, any time I started to feel bad, whether from overheating or dehydration or just my new, persistent headaches, I would have panic attacks. I still recall one run sitting on the side of the road crying and repeating “I don’t want this to happen again” while people just passed me by. Fortunately one girl stopped and stayed with me the entire rest of the run. She is now my “running BFF” and her kindness has made me stop and assist others who seem to be in trouble. I still occasionally get panic attacks on runs, though they are far less frequent.

Because of those physical and mental challenges I experienced, I wanted to prove to myself and help others realize it’s possible to achieve things one never dreamed of. For me that included running a full marathon. It was not something I ever desired to do, but after the ruptured aneurysm, suddenly it seemed like a goal that MUST be achieved. I have now run 5 full marathons, with one of my all time best memories now being the 2019 Paris Marathon which I ran with my mom (it was her first at age 67) and about 30 others all from Raleigh, NC. This past fall I ran the Virtual NYC Marathon for the Brain Aneurysm Foundation, and hope to run for BAF this November in person, raising awareness and supporting brain aneurysm research.

 


My journey as a brain aneurysm survivor has not been an easy one, and unfortunately it is not over yet. My most recent MRA showed increased size, and given my age and history, my neurosurgeon and I decided that treatment with a clipping procedure is the best option. This is frustrating and deflating, but also reminds me of my strength and to reprioritize my life. Currently I am thankful that I have the chance to prevent another rupture (I never had symptoms before the first, even in retrospect). And while life certainly ensured I was in the right place at the right time 8  1/2 years ago, my support system is even greater today than it was then.

Being a brain aneurysm survivor is not something I ever expected to add to my resume. But it is one of the experiences that has taught me the most about myself and life, and for that I am thankful. I am an optimist and cheerleader at heart, and surviving a ruptured brain aneurysm has solidified that aspect of my personality. You are not alone, and I would love to help support and uplift you if you need ever it!

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