Headache Misdiagnosed As Vertigo Ended up Being Life-Threatening Brain Aneurysm

Headache Misdiagnosed As Vertigo Ended up Being Life-Threatening Brain Aneurysm

Quick, efficient, and expert care gave an aneurysm patient another shot at life.

On the night of March 17, 2015, Tamara Shelton’s husband, Mike, found her sprawled on the floor. Frantic, he called emergency services. Only later would they learn that a brain aneurysm caused her to lose consciousness.

Surprisingly, Tamara had experienced only a single instance of a severe headache with pain and dizziness two months prior to her diagnosis. Yet it was enough to make her see a doctor who ordered a CAT scan and blood work — but the tests all came back normal. Instead, she was treated for vertigo.

“I knew walking out of that hospital that something wasn’t right. I knew that I was being misdiagnosed,” she said.

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As a daycare owner, having an occasional headache was nothing out of the ordinary for Tamara. The night she passed out, Tamara knew that she wasn’t having a normal headache.

“This one was different. It felt like something in my brain had popped. It was the worst headache I had ever experienced — much more intense than any of the headaches I had up to that point.”

In the ambulance, Tamara remembered that her aunt had suffered from an aneurysm. It was the last thing she said to the paramedics. A week later, she awoke in the ICU at Keck Medicine of USC.

A successful treatment

Jonathan J. Russin, MD, assistant professor of clinical neurological surgery and associate surgical director of the USC Center for Neurorestoration at Keck Medicine of USC performed life-saving brain surgery. He discovered that Tamara had a variation in the shape of the arteries that provide blood to the brainstem. The shape of Tamara’s blood vessels resulted in the formation of an outpouching or aneurysm.

Surgery was intense, taking most of the day, and Dr. Russin worked diligently to repair the damage — and kept Tamara alive.

“It was a crazy surgery; I hemorrhaged for the second time during surgery and had complicated surgical obstacles during as well. Dr. Russin is my guardian angel,” she said.

Road to recovery

Tamara’s survivor tattoo.

Surviving surgery was only the first hurdle; recovery was a completely different ordeal. Tamara spent 22 days in the ICU undergoing memory, cognitive and physical exercises to regain her full abilities.

Tamara credits the staff at Keck Medicine of USC for pushing her during the physical and emotional therapy she received.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without the therapist and nurses — and of course my husband and daughters,” she said. “They motivated me to get home sooner instead of going to an aftercare facility.”

Six months after her aneurysm, Tamara returned to the hospital for a follow up angiogram, this time with William J. Mack, MD, associate professor of neurological surgery at Keck Medicine USC.

To her relief, Tamara’s recovery was so successful that her next angiogram isn’t scheduled for another five years.

“I’m just so grateful, especially for the little things, the kinds of things you don’t even think about, like being able to look outside every morning, feeling the sun, touching my grandchild’s head and rolling back from my diagnostic test,” she said.

A life of gratitude – that is just another example of The Keck Effect.

USC Neurosciences creates world-class clinical programs to meet each neurology patient’s individual needs. If you are in the Los Angeles area and are looking for exceptional care, schedule an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting https://neuro.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment/.

By Heidi Tyline King