‘I’m alive, and I’m grateful to be here’

Outdoorsy woman survives brain injury, thanks to UCHealth
January 20th, 2016
Colleen Keeffe, with daughter Jordan, take a break while hiking at the Great Sand Dunes National Park prior to her brain aneurysm. A year after she was stricken, they are hiking once again. Photo courtesy Colleen Keeffe

Recently, Colleen Keeffe went for a 10-mile hike on the Ute Trail near Manitou Springs. At one time, that would not have been a big deal for the athletic, outdoorsy mom. This time, it was cause for celebration.

Just about a year prior to that hike, Colleen, now 56, almost died.  She thought she would never walk again. And she feared she had brain damage.

It was a late September afternoon in 2014 and she was planting mums in her front yard when she was levelled by an excruciating pain in her head.

“It felt like a horse had kicked me,” she says. “I knew immediately that I had had an aneurysm burst in my head. Don’t ask me how, but I knew.”

Her daughter, Jordan, then 12, was scared when her mom walked into the house and told her to call 911. Colleen fell to the living room floor and began vomiting. Jordan directed the EMTs to their house in southwest Colorado Springs.

“She was amazing,” Colleen says.  Neighbors, seeing the ambulance, came running – it’s that kind of neighborhood, she says – and told her not to worry, they’d take care of Jordan for her.

By the time she got to the Memorial Hospital Emergency Department, her husband, Julius Byrd, had arrived.

The EMTs and staff at the hospital first thought her pain might be a severe migraine, but Julius was sure it was not. Julius, she says, “can be very convincing when he wants to be.” At his insistence, they did a CT scan.

“The doctor took one look” at the scan and put her on a Flight for Life helicopter and airlifted her to University of Colorado Hospital (UCH) in Aurora.

Colleen was right. An aneurysm had burst in her brain. It’s not surprising she guessed the cause. Aneurysms have plagued her family – her father has an inoperable one and her grandfather died from a ruptured aneurysm and subsequent stroke before she was born.

Colleen doesn’t remember much of anything after she was stricken.

“I remember part of the ride to the hospital and after that, nothing – the next time I was really aware of anything was a week later, when I woke up after three surgeries on my brain,” she recalls now.

The trauma

Jason Rich, an instructor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and a physician’s assistant in the neurosurgery department at UCH, recalls Colleen’s case well.

He’s the guy she still calls when she has questions about her case.

Rich says that Colleen’s neurosurgeon, Dr. Joshua Seinfeld, had to perform three surgeries on her brain.

“She had a small and very complex aneurysm that required three surgeries to get the clip in a location that we felt it was treated most appropriately,” Rich says. The problem is not uncommon with very small aneurysms, he adds. “And it was in a difficult place to reach.”

Any time someone suffers a burst brain aneurysm, he says, it can be fatal. But the fact that Colleen was relatively awake, alert and responsive after each surgery was a good sign.

Roughly one-third of such patients “never make it to the hospital,” he says. Another third experience anything from partial to serious disability for the rest of their lives. And the last third, like Colleen, experience a major recovery.

Despite what her caretakers say, Colleen’s memory of her first week at University Hospital is a blur.

“I guess I was intubated at one point and I pulled the tube out, so they had to put mittens on my hands,” she’s been told.

When she remembers finally waking up, “there was a hole in my head, with tubes leading out,” she says. She was so sedated, “I know I had a lot of visitors, but I can’t remember most of them (from that first week).  I couldn’t keep my eyes open – the light hurt them so bad,” even in her darkened room. “I couldn’t read or watch TV. All I could do was lie there.” So it helped having visitors to pass the time.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to die’ and I was actually in so much pain sometimes I wanted to. I was ready to,” she says, because she didn’t think she’d ever recover from what she had been through.

“I felt like letting go. It hurt so bad. I was afraid I was going to be a vegetable,” she says.

At some point, she also had a minor stroke, which can happen in cases like this.

The next phase

Once Colleen was stable and starting to recover, however, her attitude became more positive, even though she had more obstacles to overcome. Like physical therapy.

“I had to learn to walk again,” she says. “I really thought at first I wasn’t going to be able to ever walk again, much less run and hike.” It began with baby steps. Her leg muscles had atrophied and her right hamstring had tightened up so much while she was bed-ridden, she could barely move the leg. Getting back in shape was hard, painful work.

But there was good news, too.

“I had physical therapy, and also occupational therapy, but they soon discovered that I had not had the brain damage we all feared, and so they discontinued the OT,” she says.  “It was such a relief to know that.”

The hospital staff was outstanding, she says.

“When I was in trauma, it was all about keeping me alive,’ she says, “but as I got better, the care became – I don’t know – gentler? They were all very kind, but also insistent that I do what I needed to do to get well again. I remember what a big day it was when I graduated from the bedpan to the bathroom!”

And she credits the speed of care, from emergency response to emergency room to operating room, for saving her life.

“It all happened really fast,” she says.

She also believes that because she was so physically fit before the event, it aided her recovery afterward.

“I had good muscle memory, so I think I bounced back faster than most people might,” she says.

The aftermath

When she left the hospital in early November of 2014, Colleen was still using aids to walk. She still had lots of outpatient physical therapy ahead of her. It wasn’t until May of 2015 that she felt “like Colleen again.”

Now she lifts weights and walks or runs every day. She’s finally up to speed – as fast as before, but it took many months to get there.  She and her family still go on hikes.

She has had some losses, too.

Already slim, she lost 35 pounds while in the hospital. “I was emaciated and none of my clothes fit,” she says.  She had no appetite, though that has gradually come back.

“My sense of smell and taste are affected,” she says, so food just doesn’t taste as good as it once did.  “I lost the peripheral vision in the lower part of my left eye and sometimes it affects my depth perception, especially when I hike. I have to be careful.”

Her short-term memory sometimes fails her, “but that might just be age,” she says laughing.

The follow-up care has been excellent.  She’s “so impressed with the health system’s ongoing support,” even after she left the hospital. They assigned Jason Rich to her to answer questions she might have about what happened to her, and he’s always there with an answer when she calls, she says.

“He is extraordinary, as are Dr. Seinfeld and the entire staff,” Colleen adds.

Her near-death experience has left her with a positive outlook.

“Sure, I’ve lost some things. But those are small things in the big picture,” she says. “I’m alive, and I’m grateful to be here.”

About the author

Linda DuVal is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs and a regular contributor to UCHealth Today. She has written travel articles for major U.S. newspapers and national, regional and local magazines. She spent 32 years as an award-winning writer, reporter and editor for The Gazette in Colorado Springs.