Summit Pediatrics Doctor survives brain aneurysms and runs a marathon
November 15, 2013
On May 6, 2012, Alison Delgado, a pediatrician who joined the staff at Summit Pediatrics in June, placed fourth in the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati, Ohio.
A few years earlier, she won the race, and although her fourth-place time was two-minutes faster than her winning time, Delgado and her husband Tim celebrated like never before.
The 2012 finish was a victory like no other because a few months prior, Delgado wasn’t able to run, let alone walk, lift her right arm or even put a full sentence together.
In fact, Delgado was expected to die.
Delgado was enjoying a bike ride on Oct. 16, 2010, and life was good.
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She was working full time at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and she and Tim were going on five months of marital bliss.
As she came upon an intersection, Delgado, who was wearing a helmet, was struck hard by a turning car.
"She broke her jaw, collarbone, sternum and four bones in her neck," Tim Delgado said during an interview with The Park Record. "She also bruised her heart and lungs."
Unknown to anyone at the time was that a blood vessel ripped and began filling the space around her brain with blood, creating a subarachnoid hemorrhage, which, in turn developed into an aneurysm, a bubble on the blood vessel that could burst at any time.
"The accident happened a few minutes away from a fire department and when they arrived, Ali was completely unresponsive," Tim said. "So they called University of Cincinnati Hospital Air Care."
Tim, who was a second-year medical resident at the hospital, was one of the responders in the helicopter. All he knew was that the crew were on their way to help a "Jane Doe cyclist in her 20s."
"The injuries were so severe that I didn’t recognize Ali until I looked at her clothes," said Tim, who is now working on a neuro-critical care fellowship at the University of Utah. "That’s when I stepped back and said, ‘This is my wife.’"
Discovering the first aneurysm
Alison wasn’t expected to survive the night, but she did.
Although a surgical team had treated the broken bones and stabilized her vitals, no one discovered her aneurysm until a week and a half after the accident.
"Because of where the aneurysm was located, which was near the area that controlled my right side and my speech faculties, I couldn’t use my right arm and I had trouble talking," Alison said. "I could understand what was being said, but if you showed me a picture of a cat, even though I knew what it was, I couldn’t think of the word cat."
The Delgados knew that something needed to be done, but the kind of surgery Alison needed was dangerous.
"Fifty percent of the people who suffer aneurysms die," Tim said. "Twenty five percent of the survivors become severely disabled and are placed in nursing homes or assisted care facilities for the rest of their lives."
Neurosurgical specialists were able to coil off the aneurysm.
The coiling, which used a wire to temporarily close off the aneurysm, was working and she began physical therapy.
"My mom said all of a sudden during rehab, I was a little more with it," Alison said.
Tim remained with Alison in the hospital and worked with her as much as he could.
"In order for her to attend therapy, I would get her up each morning and worked with her to brush her teeth and tie her shoes," Tim said. "We also worked on speech therapy and memory exercises and puzzles on an iPad."
Alison did physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy for two and a half weeks.
"I thought I’d be back to work in a couple of months," she said, smiling. "When I was released from the hospital, I was ready to get on with our lives and leave the accident behind."
The second incident
The couple was home for three days, trying to get back to normal, when the coiled aneurysm burst.
"We were lying in our bed and all of sudden, I yelled, ‘Ow! My head!’" Alison said. "The next thing I remember I was choking and lying outside the bedroom door, and Tim was on the phone with 911. I thought I was going to die."
"She still had her jaws wired shut and I saw she needed an airway because she was vomiting," Tim said. "I had to reopen her tracheotomy that we put in when we first flew her to the hospital.
Unfortunately, the incision on her neck where the original tracheotomy tube was placed was healing and closing.
"I was talking with 911 and they told me to put a tube back in," Tim said. "I went to push it in and wouldn’t go through. I pushed real hard and then it popped in and she coughed it out. I had to put it back in."
Tim carried Alison downstairs and called the emergency department and gave them her assessments.
Initially, the first to respond were firefighters, who had thought they were responding to someone who had cut open her head, when in reality, she was bleeding inside her head.
"It was so deflating," Tim said. "We had to wait another 45 minutes for the paramedics to arrive because our neighborhood was in a brownout."
Tim rode with Alison in the back of the ambulance and upon arrival at the hospital went into the trauma bay and gave them a quick report.
Specialists assessed the situation and said an additional procedure, called an intracranial-extracranial bypass, was needed to save her life.
The irony was that Alison couldn’t undergo another surgery for another three weeks because the medicine that was required to keep her blood pressure up after the first surgery thinned her blood.
"If she stopped taking it, she would have developed a blood clot in her brain and she would have a stroke," Tim said. "If she continued taking it, she would have bled to death during surgery."
So, the Delgados had to wait three weeks, and in the meanwhile, the Delgado’s family had to monitor Alison to keep her stabilized. Three days before the surgery, Mario Zuccarello, chairman of the department of neurosurgery, talked with them about the procedure.
"He told us that he may have to clip some of the vessels close to the aneurysm, which put her in danger of becoming blind or paralyzed," Tim said. "That was terrifying, because she survived the accident and she survived the aneurysm she had at home."
"That was the first time I really understood how bad it was," Alison said. "I didn’t want to be a burden to Tim or my parents. But if I didn’t go through the procedure, I would have repeated aneurysms and probably die."
The surgery lasted 10 hours, and as it happened, Zuccarello didn’t have to clip off the arteries, Tim said.
"I went to Ali’s room and she was holding her right hand up to her head and crying," he said. "I was ecstatic, because that meant, she was responding appropriately to pain and also using her right arm."
Stop and go
The Delgados left the hospital three days after the surgery, and Alison was so weak that she couldn’t lift her heels off the ground. "She couldn’t get up the front step of the house, but she made it home for Christmas," Tim said.
Alison did physical therapy twice a week and then Tim would take her to the gym and work her harder because she kept telling him she wanted to go back to work.
In January 2011, Alison began attending teaching conferences again, and by February, she graduated physical therapy and went on patient rounds with her colleagues.
"She learned how to talk around her vocabulary deficits, even today, she still has problems with word-finding, but can do it really well," Tim said.
Then in March, doctors found another aneurysm on the other side of Alison’s brain.
"This whole thing was a blessing in disguise, because we wouldn’t have known about that aneurysm if these other things wouldn’t have happened," Tim said.
Another surgery repaired the new aneurysm at the beginning of March, and on March 25, Alison was cleared by Zuccarello to start running again.
She was also back to working full time in May.
Up and Running
ESPN got word through a couple of news articles by CNN and Runners World that Alison had survived three aneurysms and was running again.
The sports channel contacted the Delgados and began filming a 13-minute documentary called "Cycle of Life" for its inspirational E:60 program.
"They were moved by the story and the fact that Ali was an athlete and moving on with her life," Tim said. "They did initial interviews, and then the producer took maternity leave and the new producer had a new vision, so we did interviews again beginning in August 2011."
The film premiered a year after Alison’s accident.
The Marathon of life
Alison had the idea to run Cincinnati’s annual Flying Pig Marathon in May 2011, but decided to run the 5K the day before the marathon, instead.
"We wanted to commemorate what we achieved together in the past five months," he said. "She finished third, but we still finished together with our hands raise above our heads as a team."
As the couple watched the start of the marathon the next day, Ali told Tim she wanted to run the marathon in 2012. And she did. These past three years have been a nightmare, but also a blessing in disguise for the Delgados.
"Now I can sit down and help my patients who have had similar experiences and I can relate to them better," Tim said. "Ali and I found out when we felt that all hope was lost, we could stick by each other, and keep fighting and that’s something I can relay to my patients."
"I know what it’s like to be a patient and being terrified, so I know what the families of my patients are going through," Alison said. "This whole experience gave me a whole different perspective.
"God has a purpose for me here," she said. "I could have died. I could be blind or paralyzed, but I’m not."