Rosa Mondragon never thought her daughter’s headache was a cause for concern. Her daughter, like most teenagers, was often on her phone texting friends and catching up on social media. So when 18-year-old Sulecma started complaining about bad headaches, Mondragon thought the phone was the culprit.
Neither would have imagined that the headaches were life-threatening and would require the expertise of UC Irvine Health neurosurgery team to treat their true cause — bleeding in the brain, a rare condition in someone so young.
The pain began last December. After a week of mild headaches and nausea, Sulecma woke up with severe pain.
“It was the worst headache I’ve ever had. I just remember my dad was telling me to wake up, and I was in so much pain I couldn’t talk to him,” recalled Sulecma, who lives in Riverside.
Soon Sulecma lost consciousness. Mondragon administered CPR while her husband called 911. Paramedics rushed her to a nearby hospital in Riverside, where she was diagnosed with a subarachnoid hemorrhage — bleeding in the area between the brain and the thin tissues that cover it.
Sulecma’s condition was critical and physicians quickly made the decision to transfer her to UC Irvine Medical Center, the region’s only nationally certified comprehensive stroke center with the largest team of fellowship-trained neurologists, neurosurgeons and neurointerventionalists.
UC Irvine Health cerebrovascular neurosurgeon and neurointerventional specialist Dr. Li-Mei Lin and her team examined Sulecma immediately upon arrival. A CT angiogram revealed the cause of the hemorrhage — a brain aneurysm. Lin’s team performed endovascular coiling of the aneurysm, a procedure in which thin catheters and wires are guided through the arteries of the body up into the brain, and thread-like platinum coils are placed within the aneurysm to prevent it from rupturing or bleeding again.
After the procedure, Sulecma had daily ultrasounds in the Neuro-Intensive Care Unit to evaluate for vasospasms, or the narrowing of the blood vessels, that can happen up to two weeks from the initial hemorrhage.
“Sulecma is a very lucky girl. Subarachnoid hemorrhages are very dangerous. Fifty percent of patients die before reaching the hospital, and those who survive often are permanently disabled,” Lin said.
Sulecma was discharged just in time for her family’s Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. But in February, a follow-up angiogram revealed the aneurysm was regrowing.
Lin offered a curative treatment using flow diversion with the Pipeline™ embolization device, the latest neurointerventional technique for the treatment of brain aneurysms. This method uses a unique stent that is placed across the opening of the aneurysm to divert the blood away from it. The flow diverter stent also allows for new blood vessel cells to form, sealing off the opening of the aneurysm and healing this diseased part of the artery.
Lin is one of the most experienced physicians in the region using flow diversion. Sulecma’s latest cerebral angiogram was performed only five months after treatment and showed the aneurysm was more than 90 percent gone.
Although brain aneurysms and subarachnoid hemorrhages are extremely rare in people under 40, Lin says it is important to recognize when a headache could be a sign of a more serious condition.
“Patients with subarachnoid hemorrhages complain of having the worst headache of their life, thunderclap headache, or headache that is different from any other type of headache or migraine that they’ve ever had,” Lin said. “If you have these types of headaches, you need to go to the ER immediately.”
Mondragon advises teenagers and parents to not disregard strong headaches. “Most parents think the headaches will go away on their own or with ibuprofen, but if your child has a very strong headache, don’t ignore it. We didn’t know how bad it would get for my daughter.”
Today, Sulecma is neurologically intact — meaning she does not have speech impediments, weakness of arms and legs, visual problems or any other common side effects of subarachnoid hemorrhage. She is looking forward to starting her senior year at Norte Vista High School in Riverside and making plans for college.
“I want to become a nurse,” Sulecma said.