Every summer, Sally Dutter and her husband, George, put their Dallas home in the rearview mirror and head north to their family cottage in Grand Haven, Michigan.
In May 2018, they decided to pay an early visit to the 120-year-old cottage.
They arrived for Memorial Day, expecting to stay only briefly before returning later in the summer.
After the holiday weekend, George returned to Texas while their daughter took a plane back to college in New York.
Dutter stayed behind in Grand Haven to finish plans with a builder who had been hired to remodel their cottage.
She planned to drive back to Texas with her two labs, Sandy and Lilly—her “pet therapy,” as she describes them—the next morning.
But on May 29, as she talked to the builder, she began to get a severe headache.
“I felt terrible,” she remembered. “The builder helped me to the sofa, then texted my neighbor, who with her husband took me to the local hospital.”
She underwent a brain scan, the results of which prompted doctors to send her by ambulance to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids.
Her neighbors hopped in their car and followed the ambulance to the hospital. They alerted her husband by text. He caught the first plane back to Michigan the next morning.
Doctors delivered the diagnosis: burst aneurysm.
Surgery and recovery
As Dutter’s situation progressed, she leaned on friends and family for support.
“It was exceptionally scary,” Dutter said. “I thought any minute something more terrible would happen.”
She quickly found herself meeting with Justin Singer, MD, the Spectrum Health director of vascular neurosurgery who would perform her surgery.
“Dr. Singer was very calming and the nurses were amazing,” Dutter said.
The doctor and his team were able to wait for Dutter’s husband to arrive back in Michigan before performing the surgery.
“I got to see him before I went in,” Dutter said.
After a successful surgery, she still faced an intense recovery. She spent 16 days in the hospital, including 14 in intensive care.
She quickly realized she would need a dark and quiet environment for her recovery.
“My husband was with me the entire time in the ICU,” Dutter said. “(While in the ICU) I couldn’t tolerate any lights or sound because that would have made me sick.”
Doctors released her June 14.
She chose to stay at her Michigan cottage for the remainder of the summer with friends and family helping care for her.
Yet more work needed to be done: Doctors had to fix a second aneurysm.
Dutter, who volunteers at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas, decided to return home to Dallas for the second operation.
She chose a surgeon who Dr. Singer recommended and who had also been suggested by other medical experts.
The second surgery, in late September, also went well.
After the first surgery, her initial goal had been to walk to the mailbox.
Just six months later, after both procedures, she would run in a half-marathon—just to prove she could do it.
Power of positivity
A burst aneurysm can be life-threatening, Dr. Singer said.
About 40% of patients don’t survive the initial bleeding of the aneurysm, he said. Those who do survive and who get to a hospital in time have a nearly 100% chance of surviving.
The aneurysm Dutter suffered had been larger than most, which complicated the surgery, according to the doctor.
Quick action by the medical staff and surgical team worked in her favor.
“We are a high-volume, comprehensive stroke center,” Dr. Singer said. “Experience matters and we have a lot of experience. Therefore, we have a good ability to take care of these complicated cases.”
The length of Dutter’s stay in the hospital and the ensuing recovery were normal, Dr. Singer said.
But she also had other things going for her.
“She was in good physical shape and exercised regularly,” he said. “She had a good attitude and had a lot of friends and family present to support to her, which is critical to a patient’s success.”
As a testament of sorts to her positive attitude, Dutter wrote a letter to Spectrum Health CEO Tina Freese Decker in the wake of her experience.
Dutter listed a number of areas where she felt Spectrum Health excelled, drawing particular attention to the doctors, nurses and other staff members she encountered.
“They are absolutely the dream team of doctors, nurses, PAs, techs on the planet,” she wrote.