A woman’s severe migraines after giving birth were actually an aneurysm

  • Meredith Staggers experienced severe migraine symptoms after giving birth.
  • She was eventually diagnosed with an aneurysm.
  • This is Staggers’ story as told to Kelly Burch.

This essay is based on a discussion with Meredith Staggers. Edited for length and clarity.

During my pregnancy with my third daughter, Dottie, I started getting migraines. They were miserable and the pain seemed to be concentrated behind my left eye. But they weren’t debilitating. I could still take care of my other girls, who are 2 and 5. I had headaches during my mid-pregnancy as well, so I figured it was just my body reacting to the hormones.

Around 28 weeks, the migraines suddenly stopped. Unfortunately, I was put to bed because I had too much amniotic fluid. As soon as it was safe for Dottie to surrender, I was challenged. She weighed less than 6 pounds, much smaller than my other girls. But she did well, and I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that mom and baby were both healthy.

Then, when Dottie was only 3 weeks old, my husband contracted COVID. I was worried that Dottie had it too, so I took her to the ER. She was negative, but had RSV and pneumonia. We went to the intensive care unit. She was intubated and her lung collapsed. Because we were exposed to COVID, we were isolated in the hospital for 12 days. There were many times when we thought Dottie might not make it.

I thought the stress had gotten to me

A few weeks later I was driving, having what can only be described as a mental breakdown. I had experienced postpartum depression and anxiety with my first – now I could feel it creeping in, exacerbated by the stress of nursing Dottie. I had panic attacks and kept hearing beeps from the hospital machines telling me my baby was alive. Plus my migraines are back.

As I was driving that day, I noticed that my lips were tingling. Soon I couldn’t feel my arms or legs. I knew something was wrong, so I pulled it. I hung up on my mom and tried to call my husband, but I couldn’t get my hands to do what I wanted. He told me later that when I succeeded, it sounded like I was talking gibberish.

My husband found me and took me to the ER. I couldn’t follow the simplest commands. The hospital did a CT scan, chest x-ray and blood work. They thought I had a stroke, but everything came back to normal. I tried to convince myself it was just a panic attack.

My symptoms continued to worsen

However, my symptoms continued. I thought maybe I was taking the wrong dose of my anxiety medication. An appointment with a psychologist was weeks away, so I went to see my Gynecologist, who had prescribed the drug.

When I got to the appointment, the symptoms flared up again. I couldn’t feel my hands and couldn’t see more than a foot in front of me. Dottie was crying, but there was nothing I could do to help her.

The providers at my office told me I was having a panic attack. I had been through a lot, they said, but now I was fixing myself at work. My husband met me at that appointment but refused to believe that these were symptoms of postpartum anxiety.

The next few days were terrible. I threw up and couldn’t sleep. Each headache was the worst pain of my life — until the next one, which was somewhat more severe.

My husband made a telehealth appointment and the doctor ordered an MRI. As we were walking home from that appointment, my phone rang.

“We don’t want you to panic,” the provider said, “but we need you to pack a bag and go to the hospital. You have an aneurysm.”

I had surgery the next day

I couldn’t process what they were saying. For weeks everyone told me I was fine. Now there was evidence that I was clearly not well.

At the hospital, the exam revealed a large aneurysm behind my left eye, right where my pain had been concentrated. My doctor, Joseph Cochran, said it was leaking, which probably explained my symptoms. The next day I had surgery to remove it. Since the initial recovery, I have not had any migraine symptoms.

After my surgery I found out that my grandfather had two aneurysms. The biggest risk factors are smoking, high blood pressure and genetics. Dr. Cochran said it’s possible my genes are to blame.

As a new mom, postpartum is so overwhelming. I was ready to brush aside my symptoms, as were some of my providers. Luckily, my husband talked me into it. I hope what I went through might encourage people to go and check something out if it’s wrong. I’ve learned that it’s better to be safe than sorry.

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