Surviving a Silent Threat

“People can’t even tell that I’ve had brain surgery. I do not have the words to express my gratitude for everyone at Saint Luke’s Health System.” 
— Stacee Cassidy

Skip breakfast, and it’s not unusual to feel a little off. That’s what 47-year-old Stacee Cassidy thought was happening in April 2022, while she was on a Zoom call for a leadership meeting with her church. But feeling “off” turned into a critical situation within moments. Stacee felt a strange sensation of fluid rushing from her shoulders to her head. “My body froze and I fell to the floor, hit my head, and started throwing up.” 

Stacee was still conscious, and luckily, her iPad had fallen face-up alongside her. Although barely able to move, she was able to tap on it and speak. She told her fellow leaders in Washington, D.C., that she needed immediate help, and they were able to alert paramedics in Kansas City.

Throughout this time, Stacee hadn’t panicked, but then she glanced up and saw her puppy in the hallway. “The way he stood looking back at me—he wouldn’t come near me. That’s when I knew I was in trouble.” 

Stacee was able to army-crawl her way across the floor to unlock the front door for paramedics, who took her to a nearby hospital. But Stacee was still in danger. While at the hospital, she experienced a seizure. Recognizing that Stacee was experiencing a neurologic issue and needed specialized care, doctors transferred her to Saint Luke’s Marion Bloch Neuroscience Institute. As the region’s top center for advanced neurologic care, both in critical and long-term cases, the team at the Neuroscience Institute regularly cares for patients with particularly difficult and challenging neurologic conditions.

Doctors determined that Stacee had a brain aneurysm—a weakened spot in the wall of an artery. It had ruptured, leading to a hemorrhagic stroke, or bleeding in the brain. Stacee’s condition was life-threatening, and doctors performed emergency surgery to repair the aneurysm and save her life, but Stacee still had a long road to recovery. 

She spent the next several weeks at Saint Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute, a state-of-the-art inpatient facility located on the Saint Luke’s South Hospital campus in Overland Park. There, she underwent therapy to regain her ability to walk, rebuild her muscles, re-learn basic movements and functions, and cope with short-term memory loss. 

She praises the team at the Rehabilitation Institute for having both a depth of expertise and a personal touch, aiding in her recovery 
by doing whatever she needed at any particular time. “My team had the perfect balance of when to push me and when to give me a little grace to let me work through it,” she says. “They worked so hard, against all the odds, to make sure I was okay.”

In the meantime, however, Stacee’s doctors had uncovered the root cause of her aneurysm: Stacee had an arteriovenous malformation, or AVM, in her brain. An AVM is essentially a tangled-up ball of arteries and veins. Because they are not properly connected, they can disrupt blood flow. This can cause an aneurysm, which can then burst, as it did in Stacee’s case. 

"Her aneurysm was treated, but her AVM—the underlying cause of the aneurysm to begin with—remained untreated,” explains Yifei Duan, MD, the Saint Luke’s neurosurgeon who met with Stacee after her initial emergency surgery.

AVMs themselves are rare, and even in people who do have them, they do not typically cause aneurysms. The majority of people with AVMs do not experience symptoms. Looking back, Stacee only remembers having some headaches for a couple of weeks prior to her incident. Like most people with the condition, Stacee had no idea she had an AVM.

During their visit, Dr. Duan told Stacee and her adult daughter, Jada, that the condition was aggressive. The only way to treat it was to remove it surgically—and the sooner, the better. Although he told her there was a high success rate, Stacee was still unprepared for the news. “It sent me into tears,” Stacee recalls. "After weeks of rehab, Dr. Duan just gave us tissues and let us cry.” 

Dr. Duan explained the procedure, and Stacee decided to move forward with surgery two weeks later, in August 2022. The surgery was successful. Afterward, Stacee shifted her entire focus to her recovery. 

“I decided, ‘Now I’m gonna take my life back.’ I made that conscious decision,” she says. “It’s important to realize that your recovery process has a lot to do with your perspective. You’ve got to trust your health care providers and do the work. No one can do it for you.”

Three months later, Stacee returned to work, and her latest scans show she has been completely cured of her AVM. She reports no lasting negative effects. 

“People can’t even tell that I’ve had brain surgery. I do not have the words to express my gratitude for everyone at Saint Luke’s Health System.”