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Healthy Balance

A New Normal: Surviving an Aneurysm

Sisters Pam Barile and Rhonda Sydnor of Lynchburg couldn’t be more different. Born seven years apart, Pam was quiet and reserved, while Rhonda was social and, she admits, loud and bossy. Not surprisingly, they didn’t get along. In fact, Rhonda says: “We despised each other.”

That changed in September 2012.

Over Labor Day weekend, Rhonda made ham biscuits and, despite their history of not getting along, called Pam to ask if she wanted some. They ended up talking for 40 minutes.

A couple of days later, Pam didn’t show up for work. When a concerned friend went to her house to check on her, Pam was lying on the floor, unconscious and covered in bruises. Eventually, her care team determined the bruises came from Pam’s dog trying unsuccessfully to wake her up.

They rushed Pam to the nearest hospital, and she was transferred to UVA. Doctors determined that Pam had had a subarachnoid hemorrhage, a type of stroke where a blood vessel ruptures, and blood fills the area around the brain and spinal cord.

In other words, “Pam had an unusually large brain aneurysm which literally exploded,” says vascular neurosurgeon Kenneth Liu, co-director of the UVA Stroke Center.

Stroke Symptoms?

Every year, strokes kill more women than breast cancer. Learn more about stroke symptoms and how UVA treats strokes.

Liu, who was on-call at the time, saw Pam’s brain scans and immediately came in to operate on her. Around 1 a.m., he finished and delivered bad news to Pam’s waiting family: It didn’t look good, and she probably wasn’t going to make it.

The news was especially hard for Courtney Campbell, Pam’s daughter, who was getting married the next month. Suddenly, she didn’t even know if her mom would live that long.

A Wedding at a Rehab Hospital

Pam was transferred into UVA’s neuroscience intensive care unit. As she fought for her life, Rhonda’s assertive personality came out. She recalls going down a wall of doctors consulting with each other, notebook out, interrogating the doctors about Pam’s care. “They were so patient,” she recalls.

Rhonda always believed her sister would survive. But there were low points; she recalls seeing Pam in congestive heart failure, “pumped full of drugs” to keep her blood vessels open and her blood pressure up.

Pam had drains in her head to relieve pressure. She underwent three additional surgeries in the coming weeks. But she began to improve, and, after three weeks, she left the ICU and went to a less intensive unit. After a week there, she was ready for UVA-HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital.

Pam attended her daughter's wedding while recovering from an aneurysm
Courtney held her wedding at UVA-HealthSouth so her mom could attend.

But then there was the question of what to do about the big wedding Courtney had planned. She decided to instead have a small ceremony at UVA-HealthSouth so that her mom could attend.

The photos from the wedding show Pam smiling and looking healthy, dressed up for the occasion. But she doesn’t remember it.

Pam’s family liked UVA-HealthSouth, especially the proximity to UVA Medical Center and Liu. But after three weeks, Pam had to be transferred to a facility in Lynchburg for insurance purposes.

There, Pam fell and broke her hip. Follow-up brain scans also showed swelling. So she came back to UVA for more surgery. Orthopedic surgeon David Weiss, MD, fixed her hip, while Liu put a shunt in her brain and put back a part of her skull that he had removed during the original surgery.

She had more surgeries, and more complications, the following summer. Altogether, even Rhonda can’t remember exactly how many surgeries there were, but she guesses nine or ten.

“Dr. Liu and other doctors were always positive but also honest about the long road with hills and valleys ahead,” Courtney says.

Recovering From a Stroke

Despite the complications, Pam’s recovery was impressive. She moved in with her parents after she was discharged, then moved into Rhonda’s house. Rhonda worked with Pam for several hours a day, helping her re-learn to write, read, eat, dress herself and other skills that most adults take for granted.

A year after her mom’s stroke, Courtney had another wedding ceremony, the larger one she had initially planned. Pam didn’t remember the UVA-HealthSouth wedding, but she remembers this one.

Ultimately, nearly 18 months after her stroke, Pam began living on her own again. She does her own laundry and ironing and loves getting her nails done. Although she has trouble cooking, she enjoys going out to eat. She can’t drive, but Rhonda helps her get around.

after pam's aneurysm, she and rhonda became closer
Rhonda (left) and Pam

Before her stroke, Pam was a heavy smoker, but she has since quit. She also walks every day, trying to stick to a schedule because she doesn’t have great short-term memory.

Although Pam wasn’t able to return to her full-time job, she began volunteering twice a week at Virginia Baptist Hospital. She makes patients’ beds, walks them to therapy, and, perhaps most importantly, shares her own story with them to give them hope.

“It’s a new normal,” Rhonda says. “But it’s OK.”

Liu, Pam’s vascular neurosurgeon, admits that he initially didn’t think Pam would survive. “She has made a remarkable recovery,” he says. He credits his team at UVA, which includes neurologists and nurses who specialize in treating stroke. That team is “able to tailor care for these complex patients and choose the treatment option that is safest and most effective.”

In 2015, Pam became a grandmother when Courtney gave birth to a son. Pam recently attended his Mickey Mouse-themed first birthday party.

“I’m so glad to be alive,” Pam says.

Rhonda has advice for anyone recovering from a stroke: “It’s not the end of the road,” she says. “The brain is amazing.”

Before Pam’s stroke, Rhonda never thought her family would be this close. Now, these two sisters who never got along see each other every day.

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