On October 30th, 2014 my life as a carefree 19-year-old changed.
At the time, I was a Division I collegiate golfer and always up for a good time. My team called me “Sunshine,” and I probably smiled more than anything.
Yet, on that day, I woke up in my dorm room at Sacred Heart University with a neck so swollen that I looked like a bullfrog. My suitemates were confused and concerned. My voice octaves were so high when I spoke and it was impossible to swallow water. I was in a complete panic. I didn’t know what to do, so I got into my car and drove 3 hours home to my Dad who is an emergency room physician.
My father has been an E.R. doctor for 31 years now, so not many things surprise him. But my immensely swollen neck opened his eyes.
I had many doctors examine my neck that day, but nobody had an answer for what is was. My dad decided to order a CT scan, and the techs did my entire head. That CT scan discovered nothing in my neck, BUT it did discover what was about to change the next 5 years of my life.
That CT scan discovered that I had a front left temporal lobe brain aneurysm. That tech who happened to scan more than just my neck inadvertently saved my life and so did that random neck infection.
During Christmas break in 2014, I met my neurosurgeon for the first time. The following week I had my first procedure, an angiogram, to see how serious this AVM was.
AVM stands for arteriovenous malformation, which means it’s an abnormal connection between arteries and veins in the brain.
An angiogram is a diagnostic test that uses x-rays to take pictures of your blood vessels. A long catheter is inserted through the bloodstream to deliver dye into the arteries, making them visible on the x-ray.
After my angiogram, my neurosurgeon came back to me in the recovery area and spoke to my mom, dad, sister, and myself. He informed me that this AVM couldn’t be ignored, yet told me how lucky I was to have found it at such a young age. So, I had three options:
Option 1: ignore it and do nothing.
Option 2: Linear accelerator (LINAC) radiation which I would only need one treatment of but it would be an all day process and isn’t 100% guaranteed to get rid of the AVM.
Option 3: full on brain surgery.
When I heard the words “brain surgery,” I became terrified. I didn’t realize what I had was that serious. My doctor walked out of the room, and I started crying to my sister and mom in pure fear. Everything was happening so fast and I truly didn’t know how to process what was going on.
A few weeks after my angiogram, and before going back to school for my second semester of my sophomore year, I had a sit down meeting with my neurosurgeon. We had to decide what I was going to do about my front left temporal lobe AVM. After about two hours of going through all of the options, the risks and rewards of each, I asked him a deciding question:
“If I were your daughter, what would you do?"
My neurosurgeon confidentially answered “LINAC Radiation”. We scheduled radiation for July 2nd, 2015.
In-between the time of my first angiogram and my radiation treatment I was perfectly fine. I lived my life, but was just always cautious of my head. I showed no symptoms of an AVM and continued to live as I always had.
Luckily, the college sport I played was a non-contact sport–golf. July was coming up and I didn’t tell anyone this was going on besides my closest friends, teammates, and obviously, my family.
July 2nd was here! The big day!
I went into radiation with a positive attitude. By the time this day came along, I had understood everything that was going to happen. I was accepting the journey. It was a very early, and a very long day.
My parents and I arrived at the hospital at 4:30am, and I had an IV in me by 6am. Again, if you know me, the IV was probably my least favorite part of the day.
I have a bad tendency of passing out, whoops!
To shorten that very long day up, I had a halo put on my head (No, not an angels halo) while I was under getting an angiogram. If you don’t know what a halo is, it is a metal brace keeping your head from moving. The halo itself is around your head and is held in place by four screws in your skull.
This halo was going to keep my head in place for the radiation part of the day.
The radiation treatment was scarier in my mind than it was in real life. The nurses placed me on a table, and drilled my halo into the metal surface. Then, they asked what music I’d like to hear during the procedure and about 45 minutes later it was all done!
The day of my radiation was a lot easier with a positive attitude. All day, doctors and nurses were telling me how lucky I was to have found this AVM. The worst part of that day was probably having the halo screwed into my head for about 6 hours. On top of that, my dad refused to let me have any pain medication for the halo (*Insert eye roll*) so my neurosurgeon shot me in the head with Novocaine every few hours to ease the pain. Not ideal, but I like to think it made me tougher since I had 4 screws in my skull and no pain medication.
After radiation I had to get an MRI every 6 months for 3 years as a follow up to check the progress of my treatment. If after 3 years nothing changed, I would need to get brain surgery.
The first year seemed to have flown by and I was looking good! My AVM had gotten smaller and I was perfectly healthy. Then, out of nowhere, things took a turn at the year and a half mark. On November of 2016, something really weird happened to me. I had this feeling that I had just blacked out, but I knew it was happening, and I also heard noises in my head. That feeling lasted about 15 seconds and then I was back to normal…was I losing my mind?
This weird “feeling” continued to happen more frequently yet I didn’t tell anyone.
It was now December of 2016 and I had just gotten home for winter break of my senior year of college. The first day I was home I had one of these episodes right next to my sister, who is now an emergency room physician. I had no idea what I was saying to her, yet, I was talking to her.
My sister turned to me and told me I was making no sense, but we moved on. The following day I had three episodes of this “feeling” and I completely broke down. It was getting worse and worse! I had no idea what was going on and it was becoming scarier. I swore I was becoming schizophrenic!
"I took psychology; I know it happens in your 20’s!" I finally told my dad.
I was a wreck, but also terrified as to how he was going to react or what he was going to tell me. My dad said, “You’re having petit mal seizures”.
Petit mal seizures are different from grand mal seizures. When having a petit mal the person will stare into space for a few moments or talk and not really make sense. In their head though, it’s a totally different situation.
Inside my head I would hear noises and had no idea what was going on, complete terror for about 15 seconds. The day after I told my dad, I had an MRI done and met with my neurosurgeon.
My neurosurgeon explained to me that these seizures were caused by edema or swelling that was in my brain from radiation. He was a bit surprised that this was happening to me a year and a half after having the treatment done.
That day he put me on anti-seizure medication and explained to me that I couldn’t drive for 3 weeks, I couldn’t drink, couldn’t be too stressed, and had to get 8 hours of sleep every night. The driving situation was fine since I was home on break and didn’t need to go anywhere.
Yet the other three…I was 21-years-old, a senior in college and he’s telling me I couldn’t drink, be stressed, and had to get 8 hours of sleep every night all while being a student-athlete?!
Let me know how easy that was for me to comprehend!
While I was home, I had an EEG test, which still bothers me to this day.
An EEG is a test that detects abnormalities in your brain waves. During this test you have wires on your head while lying down, and a bright light in front of your face. The lights will then change and start flickering and you can’t look away. To this day, when I drive and the sunlight comes and goes in tree lines, it will bother me so much that I need something to block it immediately.
When I was home and this was all going on my parents noticed that I wasn’t okay. I no longer had any energy and it was hard to bring a smile to my face. I would be so fearful to have a seizure that sometimes when I went to bed I didn’t want to wake up. I didn’t want to deal with the “will I or will I not” have a seizure today.
I hit an all time low in my life and I didn’t know how I was going to bring myself back up. Every time I had a seizure my energy was instantly drained. I didn’t know how I was going to go back to school being a full time student-athlete with this burden and fear of each day.
Second semester of my senior year came around, and without the support of my teammates, and close friends I don’t know how I would have survived. Everyone was beyond helpful and always made sure that I was okay. I also quickly became my friends personal Uber for nights out because I was always the designated driver! It wasn’t the worst thing because when they were drunk they would pay me! Easy money!
I started to like this way of life. I didn’t miss drinking anymore, I still would go out with my friends and I liked that I knew that everyone was safe because they had a designated driver. I slowly started to come out of the rut that I was in.
I’ll never forget what one of my teammates said to me one day, which brought so much joy to me, and made me proud of myself. He said,
Bonner, it is so cool that you still go out and have a good time even through everything your battling. It shows what kind of person you are. You’re a fighter, Bonner."
This made me so happy because I wasn’t going to let this AVM and these seizures keep me from being me. It brought me down to a low point in December/January but by February of 2017, I was feeling like myself again.
I had my last seizure May of 2017 during senior week. I was working out with one of my best friends and it happened. I didn’t let it stop the fun of senior week, but I was more cautious of my bedtime that week. I haven’t had a seizure since, almost 2 years later!
This past summer, July 31st 2018, I had my three-year angiogram checkup and found out that my AVM was completely gone! I was beyond ecstatic yet couldn’t believe this brain journey was over. I am still on my seizure medication for life, but just to be cautious.
This AVM was definitely a wakeup call at 19 years old, but it made me stronger and a better person. It taught me and showed me how strong I am.
Since the beginning of this journey, I have graduated cum laude undergrad and magna cum laude in graduate school at Sacred Heart University; got a lucky shamrock tattoo to remind myself of my journey; was with my golf team when we won the Northeast Conference Championship to go to NCAA’s; and I recently got a job with IBM.
If you know me and are reading this and helped me during this time, thank you.
You might not have known how sad I was on a daily basis, or you might have. You might not have thought you helped, but you probably did and didn’t know it. Doing all of this at such a young age when most kids are only worrying about class, their sport, and relationships really woke me up in life.
I realized that you can’t dwell on the little things and to be grateful for everything and everyone you have. My experience also opened my eyes to how prevalent these situations actually are. Like most things in life, experience creates a sense of understanding. Whether you are someone who has faced similar adversity or are still facing it, know that you are not alone!