An aneurysm occurs when one of your brain vessels becomes engorged with blood, like a mind-erection. Only you definitely don't want this kind of boner, because if it ever ruptures, a cerebral aneurysm can lead to a stroke, loss of brain function, and even death. We wanted to know what it's like to live with something so terrifying hanging over (or in, rather) your head, so we talked to Frank Hitls, who was diagnosed with a potentially lethal brain-rager back in 2013. He told us that...
We live in an era of scientific wonder. Not only are we on the verge of instant cancer diagnoses, but we've also possibly come up with an AIDS vaccine in a pill. Surely, verifying a brain aneurysm is basically instant and involves like, some sort of nanobots? Not so much:
"My initial diagnosis was in April 2013. This was done with a standard MRI and showed an aneurysm of roughly 4 mm, and that was that, right? Not quite: the neurologist wanted a few more CT scans to see the shape of the aneurysm. This took place in July, and then she told me I actually didn't have an aneurysm." So Frank was never sick, and this whole article is nothing but a hallucination you're having after winning the Powerball Jackpot and blacking out from all the excitement, right? Wrong again!
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images
We'll give you a second to come down.
Frank continues: "Just to be sure, the neurologist wanted me to come in for a 3D MRI. It then confirmed that I did have an aneurysm after all."
To be double-super-duper-extra-macchiato-sure, the hospital also conducted a cerebral angiogram. "This is where they open up your femoral artery [located in your groin], slide a tube up to the neck, and release a dye for an accurate 3D model of all the vessels in the brain." This finally confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that Frank had an unruptured aneurysm in his head. And all it took was seven long months of wondering if those weird headaches were going to kill him or not.
"Whoops, looks like we left the groin tube in there. See you Monday."
The thing about cerebral aneurysms is that they can rupture and cause permanent brain damage and/or death, but the majority of them never do. So when a doctor diagnoses you with one, what they are really saying is: "You're probably fine, or then again, maybe you'll up and die. Shrug emoji."
"When the doc had confirmed my aneurysm," Frank told us, "I asked him what the rupture rate was. He said 1-2 percent each year. He then asked if I knew what would happen if it ruptured, and I told him: 50 percent chance of death, with another 25 percent likelihood of permanent damage ... When updating my dermatologist about the aneurysm, he said I was handling it well. I said that life is full of surprises, and that I could get hit by a bus. He said I was much more likely to die of the aneurysm. I told him his bedside manner sucked."
"Or maybe this mole will get you! Ha, kidding ... maybe ..."
"Part of me feels silly for worrying about it, but the consequences of a burst are so severe that it's terrifying. This emotional pinball gets very tiring very quickly." As do Frank's unproductive talks with his neurologist, like:
Frank: "So, I should be worried?"
Doc: "I didn't say that."
Frank: "Could it burst at any time?"
Frank: "Do we know what triggers these bursts?"
Doc: "Other than a spike in heart rate? No."
Frank: "Oh. Do they ever burst while someone's sleeping?"
Doc: "They do. But the chances are small."
Frank internally: This was productive!
"You could always lie here forever."
After the diagnosis, Frank's doctor gave him a list of things he must avoid to stay safe, including all drugs (yes, caffeine, as well as smoking and drinking), and any extreme physical activity. He was also told to be careful while going on hikes, to the gym, or other places where he wouldn't be able to get immediate help if his aneurysm burst. Essentially, the safest thing that Frank can do is stay home and browse the Internet -- which, without drugs, is all but intolerable.
"I'm on a low blood pressure medication to keep my heart rate from getting too high, because I'm not supposed to let my pulse get above 180 or so," Frank says. "What happens if my pulse gets too high? As long as I'm on this medication, I just pass out. I didn't believe it until I was pushing myself during a run. Before I knew it, my vision clouded, I got dizzy, and I slumped to the grass like a powering-down C-3PO."
*pant pant* "Uh-oh." *pant pant* "Uncle Owen?!"
Without those meds, high blood pressure could cause Frank's aneurysm to rupture, and the only warning he'd get would be headaches, nausea, or vomiting -- also known as stuff that you get like every day for a million innocuous reasons.
"My doctor told me that if I ever experience those symptoms unrelated to anything else, I should call 911 right away, as the aneurysm's either gotten significantly larger or has burst," Frank explains. "So sometimes I have to figure out whether I'm feeling like crap because of some poorly cooked fast food chicken, or because I've got two hours to live unless I get to a hospital."
"Well, at least this was my last meal."
What's worse, Frank also risks a rupture if he has vigorous sex of any kind. That's right: He is medically forbidden from rocking anyone's world.
The weird thing about humans is that we know we're going to die, but we don't acknowledge it until someone tells us our neck is going to explode next week or something. And when we finally do, we grab life by the balls and twist, like Frank did.
"You know those things that you always want to do but never make time for? I make time now, because I don't know how much is left. I completed my first triathlon last year, and want to try skydiving next. I took the plunge on taking a new job in Chicago. A move to Chicago would have filled me with fear and worry a few years ago. Not so much anymore ... I also signed up for Tinder and have gone on a lot of dates."
Okay, well, some of those things are more hardcore than others. We'd happily skydive before trying Tinder.
"Aren't you going to jump?"
"Oh no, I just wanted to throw my phone out from here to be safe."
Frank continues: "I've had several friends think my aneurysm is fascinating in a voyeuristic way. When I was telling a childhood friend that solo hikes make me nervous because I might die during one, she countered that 'Dying on a hike would be really romantic.' I think they may have seen too many movies, but I do admit that the visceral worry of 'What could go wrong' is gone from my mind, because my version of 'What could go wrong' is significantly scarier and more likely."
Frank could be attacked tomorrow by a coked-up rhino with a machine gun strapped to its horn, and he wouldn't feel all that different from today: It's still the grim specter of death finally getting fed up with the foreplay and skipping right to the XXX stuff.
No matter how fully you live your life, eventually the triathlon ends, the parachute opens, and the Tinder randos give you their traditional goodnight stab, leaving you all alone with nothing but your thoughts.
"Getting older now unnerves me," Frank admits. "As I approach my 30th birthday, friends have told me that I'm obsessed with age, and I just might be. Getting older makes me feel uncomfortable because it adds days onto my life. I'm 10,857 days old, and I don't know if 10,858 will be my last. I know that's a little melodramatic, but getting older carries a subconscious level of dread for me now."
George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images
No one should be sad around cake.
Like Frank, a lot of people with brain aneurysms carry an emergency card that explains their condition in case they're found unconscious. Some get MedicAlert or Life Alert jewelry which serves a similar function, and also does duty as a constant reminder of their impending death. But death isn't the thing that really scares Frank. In fact, he hopes that his aneurysm does kill him if it ever bursts.
"What seems scarier in the event of a burst aneurysm? Death or being mentally impaired? Mentally impaired, hands down. Since I don't believe in an afterlife, dying is just an awkward light switch going off to me. But mental impairment terrifies me. I love to read, think, reason out problems, enjoy movies, and all of that could be gone. What would be worst is that I would watch my peers continue along with their lives relatively carefree, while that path would be gone for me."
Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images
At least he could still enjoy Michael Bay movies.
Wow, there but for the grace of God go you, right? Or maybe God is a poor choice of words. "There but for the grace of random fucking chance go you."
Csaba Deli/iStock/Getty Images
There's a valid reason aneurysms are one of Archer's biggest fears: They have no known cause, and it is indeed random fucking chance who gets them. Science doesn't have a precise number on it, but according to Frank, "when I asked my neurosurgeon about prevalence, he said that autopsies speculate that 20-25 percent of people have aneurysms, while this ABC News article states that at least six million Americans have one." And most, of course, don't know that they have it.
The Mayfield Clinic states that "85 percent of aneurysms are not diagnosed until after they rupture." Just in May of last year, burst aneurysms claimed the lives of a college graduate from Texas and a 25-year-old woman from Florida, and put a 15-year-old Californian softball player and a New Jersey assemblywoman in the hospital. So unless you've had extensive MRI tests done recently, there's no guarantee that you don't have an aneurysm right now, waiting to explode your brain meat like something out of a low-key Scanners.
AVCO Embassy Pictures
"Happy Birthday, Gran--"
Ah, what the hell. Hit up Tinder, everybody!
Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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