A Ticking Inside Her Head

How one woman’s crisis prevented even more of them in her family.

One of the first things you learn about Stephanie VanBendegon is that she’s a veritable open book.

Want to talk about the ruptured brain aneurysm she suffered at the age of 34? The one followed by a stroke and, if that wasn’t enough, a craniotomy, all in the span of four months? Sure, grab a chair. How about being the youngest person by a good couple of decades, probably, in a stroke support group? Absolutely, she loves those people like family and is happy to share. With a couple of quips and a belly laugh, too.

“I actually just celebrated my two years aneuversary,” the West Bend resident jokes about her hellish experience.

It began on an otherwise normal May day in 2013. She was going about her business at Anixter, where she’s a customer service supervisor. But with a bad taste in her mouth, VanBendegon went to the restroom to brush her teeth for the second time that morning.

Upon walking back out, she was so discombobulated that she dropped down to rest right there on the workplace floor. Immense head pain followed, and VanBendegon started screaming and crying. Anixter’s warehouse manager called 911. The paramedics happened to be only a few blocks away, which may be one reason she’s still alive to tell the story.

“If work hadn’t called 911,” VanBendegon says, “I’d be dead.”

At the first hospital, she was diagnosed with a subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH), which is a ruptured brain aneurysm that causes bleeding into the brain. According to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation, 15 percent of SAH patients die before reaching the hospital. That facility was unable to treat it, so VanBendegon was transferred to Froedtert Hospital & the Medical College of Wisconsin, where she would stay for 27 days and two surgeries.

Up to 50 percent of people who have a brain aneurysm could die from it, says Froedtert’s Dr. Marc Lazzaro, the interventional neurologist who performed VanBendegon’s first surgery. “These numbers are difficult [to gauge],” Lazzaro says, “because patients can die before it’s recognized. That’s why it’s such a delicate issue.”

After surgery, VanBendegon told Lazzaro that her maternal grandfather had a brain aneurysm followed by a stroke that killed him, and her still-living aunt had three brain aneurysms. The condition is believed to be hereditary, so Lazzaro advised that VanBendegon’s parents and two sisters be tested.

Stephanie’s younger sister, Christine, a scientist in Philadelphia, was found to also have an aneurysm that hadn’t ruptured yet. She quickly underwent surgery to avoid future rupturing. Christine is one of an estimated 6 million people in the United States who carry around an unruptured aneurysm in their brain. She was the only other person in Stephanie’s immediate family who tested positive for one.

Ten days after her first surgery, while lying in her room at Froedtert, Stephanie VanBendegon had a stroke. This was not completely unexpected, as chances of stroke increase after a ruptured aneurysm. A balloon was inflated into the blocked blood vessel to reopen blood flow, and VanBendegon was discharged within three weeks.

Now two years later, VanBendegon leads a mostly normal life. Because of the stroke, she hasn’t regained full feeling in her left side, and the once-fast typist is now much more deliberate at the keyboard.

She has titanium clip screws, a platinum coil and a plate inside her head, prompting support-group jokes that she wears her bling on the inside. But VanBendegon perseveres and, in some ways, is even thankful for the way it all unfolded.

“I’d totally go through all this again,” she says, “so I could save my sister from having hers rupture.”

‘A Ticking Inside Her Head’ appears in the July 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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