Back on Track After Life-Threatening Stroke

Runner resumes sport after recovering from bleeding brain aneurysm

Brooke Sydnor Curran, former Inova patient, is shown here finishing a marathon in Antarctica in 2012. She runs one marathon a month.

When Brooke Sydnor Curran, then 50, finished the 43rd Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC, last fall, it was a crisp October afternoon and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Her husband and three daughters were cheering her on and, like the previous 116 marathons she had run since 2009, she felt good.

As Brooke, of Alexandria, approached the finish line, she spotted another special face in the crowd — and smiled. “It was the doctor who saved my life six months earlier,” she says. 

Nilesh Vyas, MD, Director, Cerebrovascular Neurological Surgery at Inova Neuroscience and Spine Institute, a well-regarded physician and researcher, first met Brooke on March 17, 2018.

A Stroke Emergency

That fateful day began at Fountainhead Regional Park, where Brooke was ready to hit the trail for her morning run. She struck up a conversation with three women — total strangers — who were also heading for a run. “They invited me to run with them — and I agreed, which is very unusual,” Brooke says. “I’m normally a solo runner. It’s my time by myself.”

Having three unexpected running buddies was what Brooke calls “a miracle,” since five minutes into the run she experienced sudden excruciating pain in her head. When she came to a few minutes later the women walked Brooke to her car and stayed close as she phoned her husband, who arrived shortly. “I told everyone I felt good enough to drive myself home, so my husband followed me in his car,” Brooke says. “When we got home, though, my head still ached and I was exhausted. I thought a nap would help.”

By afternoon, her headache had gone from bad to unbearable, so she and her husband headed to the Inova Alexandria Hospital (IAH) Emergency Department (ED).

At least that’s how she thinks the day went, Brooke adds. “I have no memory of anything after the aneurysm burst.” 

Once at the Emergency Department, the doctors quickly determined that Brooke had suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH), a life-threatening type of stroke that happens when a brain aneurysm ruptures and bleeds into the brain. Immediately, Brooke was transported by ambulance to Inova Fairfax Medical Campus (IFMC) — the only treatment center for brain aneurysms in Northern Virginia. Dr. Vyas was immediately called in to see her. 

“Most brain aneurysms are asymptomatic and present no danger,” Dr. Vyas stresses. “Only if the aneurysm ruptures and bleeds into the brain does it become life-threatening. That’s what happened to Brooke.”

There was also concern of the tight location the aneurysm was in, he adds. “Often, we use a minimally invasive endovascular coiling technique to clamp a ruptured aneurysm,” he explains. “But Brooke’s case was rare and we had to perform open surgery.”

On the Run After Surgery

The surgery was a success — with the aneurysm obliterated and a forecast for no additional strokes and excellent neurological recovery, Dr. Vyas notes. Brooke, however, grimaces at the word recovery. Normally, for a bleeding aneurysm, it can take up to 12 weeks to recover, and an individual may have permanent problems such as trouble with speech or thinking, muscle weakness or numbness.

Fortunately, Brooke beat the odds. She originally lost 25 pounds, experienced muscle atrophy and even had to retrain her brain to walk. But after being in the hospital, she improved at home and was soon cleared to run. She is still going strong.

“I was running short distances within one month of coming home,” she says. “It’s as if my body was saying, ‘OK! This is what we do.’ And I’ve been running one marathon a month since October 2018. I don’t plan on stopping any time soon,” she says.

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