What It’s Like to Survive a Ruptured Brain Aneurysm

After making a miraculous recovery, a brain aneurysm patient shares her experience — and everything she’s learned along the way — with Healthnews.

It was a regular Monday, and Angela Sustaita-Ruiz, a 51-year-old mother, had just gotten on a Zoom call when she knew something was wrong.


“Suddenly, I experienced the worst headache of my life,” she tells Healthnews. “The pain was so sudden and severe; it quickly moved from the back of my head to my forehead.”

Then, her neck began to stiffen, and the pain was accompanied by tingling — a sensation she found to be concerning. Severe nausea then kicked in, her chest started tightening, and her face and right arm began to go numb.

“I knew I needed to get to the hospital immediately,” she says.

Fortunately, Sustaita-Ruiz's husband was home when this happened, and he took her to the hospital right away. When she arrived at the ER, she began vomiting, so they rushed her in for a CAT scan and MRI.

These tests determined that she’d had two brain aneurysms — one of which had ruptured.

“When the aneurysm ruptured, it was the most terrifying moment of my life,” she says. “The pain was unlike anything I had ever experienced, and I knew something was seriously wrong. As the symptoms quickly escalated, fear and panic set in. I was overwhelmed by uncertainty and the realization that my life was in danger.”

What is a brain aneurysm?

Brain aneurysms are a weakness or bulge in an artery that can have a risk of breaking open, causing bleeding in the brain, according to Robert Wicks, M.D., the co-director of Cerebrovascular Surgery at Miami Neuroscience Institute, part of Baptist Health South Florida. Brain aneurysms often occur at a point where an artery divides into two branches.


“On a very basic level, aneurysms are a spot of weakness along a blood vessel that does not have all the necessary layers of the blood vessel wall,” Wicks tells Healthnews.

According to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation, roughly 6.7 million people in the United States have an unruptured aneurysm at some point in their lives — or one in every 50 people. The annual rate of rupture is approximately eight to 10 per 100,000 people, and almost 500,000 deaths worldwide each year are caused by brain aneurysms. Half the victims are younger than 50.

The greatest concern with brain aneurysms is the risk of rupture, he says — which occurs when the aneurysm breaks open and causes bleeding over the surface of the brain. This can lead to severe outcomes, causing death or major disability in up to 50% of people who suffer a ruptured aneurysm. Surgery is typically the go-to treatment if an aneurysm has ruptured or is likely to rupture.

But not all aneurysms go on to rupture.

Wicks says the most difficult part of treating this condition is determining the best management for every individual aneurysm. He says characteristics such as the size, shape, location, and the risks of treatment must all be carefully considered.

Risk factors for developing aneurysms include smoking, uncontrolled high blood pressure, and people with a family history of brain aneurysms or cystic kidney disease. He says people with immediate family members who have suffered a ruptured aneurysm may benefit from getting a screening study — a special type of MRI called an MR angiogram (MRA) of the head.

Subtle signs

While a brain aneurysm rarely causes any symptoms unless it bursts, Sustaita-Ruiz says that, looking back, there were signs she should have paid more attention to.

“I had ongoing pain behind my right eye for several months, which I dismissed as [being] from working too much,” she says.

The week leading up to the rupture, she had unexplained nausea that never went away. And the morning of the rupture, she was extremely nauseous and irritable from not feeling well.


Wicks says unruptured aneurysms, which are usually asymptomatic, can also cause double vision or other visual symptoms if they become large.

“It’s important to note that everyone has different symptoms, so you should listen to your body and, if something seems off, you should seek medical attention,” she says.

A miraculous recovery

Sustaita-Ruiz was treated by a team at Baptist Health’s Miami Neuroscience Institute, including Wicks. The team determined that based on the location of her rupture, the best treatment option was to insert coils into the aneurysm.

This was done by placing catheters into the blood vessels in her neck and then threading smaller catheters from there into her brain, where the aneurysm was located.

A small balloon was then placed inside the blood vessel to protect the main portion of the artery, and coils were placed into the aneurysm itself to fully close it. Following treatment, she remained in the intensive care unit (ICU) for two weeks, where she was carefully monitored.

“The whole recovery process was daunting, and there were moments of doubt and fear,” she says. “However, I tried to maintain a positive outlook. There were challenging days when I felt depressed or anxious, but focusing on gratitude helped me to stay motivated.”

Before the aneurysm, Sustaita-Ruiz led an extremely active lifestyle. She had completed four marathons and nearly reached her goal of five before her health setback.

Despite uncertainty about whether she’d be able to return to her active lifestyle quickly, if ever, Sustatia-Ruiz remained determined to make a full recovery. And she did.

“A little over a year after my aneurysm, I achieved my goal and ran my fifth half marathon,” she says. “It was an incredibly emotional experience and a powerful reminder of the resilience we can find within ourselves despite the obstacles we face.”


The importance of support and advocacy

Sustaita-Ruiz attributes much of her successful recovery to the support she received, both from her medical care team and her loved ones. She says the love of her family and friends helped her face the situation with courage.

“Given that ruptured brain aneurysms are fatal in about 50% of cases, I feel profoundly blessed and grateful to have survived with no permanent neurological complications,” she says.

But she hopes people understand that brain aneurysms can happen to anyone, often without warning. While they are serious and can be life-threatening if they rupture, she says early detection and treatment can save lives.

That’s why she shares her story — to help more people become aware of the symptoms and encourage them to seek medical attention if something feels off.

Like Sustaita-Ruiz, Game of Thrones actor Emilia Clarke has long been open about the two brain aneurysms she experienced in 2011 and 2013, sharing her symptoms and recovery process in an effort to help demystify the brain injury.

Recently, in an interview with Big Issue, Clarke further opened up about her struggles, sharing that she feared she would lose her job as a result of her first aneurysm.

“Emilia Clarke speaking out about her experience with brain aneurysm rupture helps to bring an important spotlight on this relatively rare but dangerous medical emergency,” Wicks says. “It is a hope that stories such as hers will help to direct public policy towards funding more research in brain aneurysms to answer important questions, such as what causes brain aneurysms to develop and what causes aneurysms to rupture.”

Sustaita-Ruiz says she also shares her story so those who’ve experienced an aneurysm know they’re not alone, and that there are many resources and communities out there to help navigate this journey.

“Raising awareness and funding can make a huge difference in outcomes and recovery,” she says. “This experience has completely shifted my perspective on life: I no longer take my health or my loved ones for granted and am deeply focused on living a life with purpose and gratitude.”


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