Survivor Around the Globe, Sarah Presley

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663160_255628699_XLargeThe evening of September 6, 2012, my life and my perspective on life changed forever. A few hours after returning from the Burning Man music festival, I suffered a brain aneurysm rupture. It started with a burst of pain in the center of my brain that quickly radiated and filled my entire head. I curled up in the fetal position and told my boyfriend that something was wrong. Thinking I was dehydrated, he brought me a bottle of water. The moment the water touched my lips, I began vomiting. I had tunnel vision, was light sensitive and in the worst pain I could imagine. This is when my boyfriend recognized that I was displaying the symptoms of brain trauma.

By the time the paramedics arrived, I was unable to sit up. It felt as though my entire body had gone rigid. I was taken to a local hospital where they diagnosed the aneurysm rupture. Next I was taken into emergency surgery. A thin platinum wire was passed through my femoral artery in my leg all the way up to my brain. The wire was then coiled into a ball inside the aneurysm to stop the bleed. The next few days were a blur — literally, because I had double vision. I drifted in and out of consciousness.

Once I was coherent, a team of cardiac surgeons came to deliver my next surprise. In addition to the brain aneurysm, I had also been diagnosed with a congenital heart defect — an aortic coarctation. A normal aorta should be as thick as your thumb. During my first few weeks of development, for unknown reasons my aorta formed constricted. It was constricted down to the point of a ballpoint pen! Doctors were amazed when I told them I was a runner, although they did mention that my collateral arteries were much larger than normal. This was body’s attempt to compensate for the deficiency. There has been research done about a possible link between adults with an unrepaired coarctation and brain aneurysms.

Exactly three months after my brain aneurysm rupture, I underwent surgery to repair my aorta. A stent was placed in the aorta to open it up and allow proper blood flow. Shortly after waking from surgery, I asked my surgeon how soon I could start running again and train for a half marathon. He gave me his blessing to start training as soon as I felt up to it.

Recovering from my brain aneurysm was one of the most humbling things I have ever done. When they first removed my catheter, the nurses offered me two choices. They told me I could use a bed pan, or I could call for assistance to the restroom. “You will get better faster if you get up.” Not being one to turn down a challenge, these were the magic words. Even though getting up to simply use the restroom seemed like a monumental task, I started looking forward to the challenge. When I returned home from the hospital, it would completely wear me out to walk down to the mail box. I began walking down to the mailbox several times a day. My muscles hurt. I constantly felt tired. But I never stopped pushing.

Soon after I started going for light runs again. Through the recovery process, I struggled with depression and the feeling of isolation. At only 29, I didn’t know anyone in my age group who had been through such a major medical ordeal. Whenever someone would tell me about a friend or family member who had also had a brain aneurysm, the story always ended with their death. Just once I wanted to hear about a brain aneurysm survivor who went on the run marathons and lived happily ever after. Ultimately, I became the person I so desperately wanted to find and connect to. I did it for me. I did it for other survivors.

In February 2013, I ran my first post-aneurysm half marathon (4th total). In June 2014, I ran my first post-aneurysm full marathon (10th total). Returning to running was a large part of my physical and mental recovery. It gave me a goal, it gave a purpose, it gave me a community and it helped me regain my sense of self.

Every day, I am thankful to be alive and that I am still able to run. To date, I have run 122 half marathons (119 of which are post-aneurysm) and 24 full marathons (15 of which are post-aneurysm). Oh, and the boyfriend who was with me the night of my rupture? We are just about to celebrate our 1 year wedding anniversary.

The Joe Niekro Foundation would like to thank Sarah for sharing her incredible story with us, we’re so happy to see such a strong survivor enjoying what they’re passionate again!

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