Picking up a laundry basket, she felt 'the worst headache ever.' It was a brain aneurysm.

By Lindsey Giardino, American Heart Association News

Alma Gonzalez survived a ruptured brain aneurysm. It was just the start of the health challenges she would confront. (Photo courtesy of Alma Gonzalez)
Alma Gonzalez survived a ruptured brain aneurysm. It was just the start of the health challenges she would confront. (Photo courtesy of Alma Gonzalez)

On a sunny spring afternoon, Alma Gonzalez was home alone folding laundry and talking on the phone to her husband, Jose.

She finished the chore and bent over to pick up the full basket. As she stood up, her head felt extremely heavy. She mentioned this to Jose. It was "the worst headache ever," she said. Maybe you're just tired, he said, and suggested she lie down.

So she did. Once on her back, she had trouble breathing. She could barely lift her head. Alma, then 42, knew this wasn't a normal headache.

Still on the phone, Alma told Jose she needed to go to the hospital.

"Is your headache really that bad?" he asked.

Definitely. She dialed 911 and told the operator she had a severe headache and that her head felt as heavy as a brick.

The operator said she was sending an ambulance. Fearing that Alma could lose consciousness or become immobile before help arrived, the operator asked her to carefully walk downstairs and unlock the front door.

She slowly made her way down the stairs. She also called her sister. The conversation was interrupted when Alma rushed to the bathroom to vomit. Dazed, she still had the wherewithal to wash her mouth and grab her insurance card and purse while she waited for the ambulance.

When it arrived, Alma told paramedics she'd prefer to walk to the ambulance herself. She wasn't ready to accept something serious was happening.

At the hospital, several relatives joined Alma in the waiting room. Her excruciating pain worsened, prompting her to cry out in pain to her sister, "It hurts, it hurts, it hurts."

Alma was used to dealing with pain on her own, refusing to see the doctor or take medication unless necessary. But this level of pain was unbearable.

Her family pushed for her to get seen more quickly.

Finally, a nurse came with a wheelchair for Alma and took her to a room.

The next thing Alma remembers is waking up in a hospital at the opposite end of her Nevada town.

"Do you know what day of the week it is?" a nurse asked.


It was Thursday.

Alma had a brain aneurysm that ruptured and led to a stroke and seizures. She'd been transferred to a hospital better equipped to treat her condition.

Between that Monday and Thursday, doctors found the aneurysm behind Alma's right eye. After a surgeon treated the aneurysm, Alma was placed in a medically induced coma to help her brain heal. Her family wasn't allowed to touch or talk to her when they visited because sound and touch agitated her.

When the bleeding in Alma's brain finally subsided after about three weeks, she was released from the hospital.

A few days later, her chest hurt so much she had trouble breathing, so she went back to the ER. A doctor told Alma it was a urinary tract infection and sent her home.

Alma was confused. Her chest pain surely couldn't result in a UTI, right?

The next day, she still didn't feel well and went to the ER yet again. That's when a doctor found three blood clots in her lungs, known as pulmonary embolisms.

Alma spent the next week in the hospital. Doctors inserted a filter in her lungs to thin the blood.

Two days after being released, she was again in excruciating pain. Doctors found a fourth blood clot in her lungs. This time, she was able to treat it with medication.

Months later, Alma returned to the hospital to have the filter removed. That's when the radiologist noticed something and referred her to another specialist. Turns out there were cysts on Alma's kidneys.

Once doctors had that information, they believed polycystic kidney disease was at the root of all that had happened – from the brain aneurysm down to the pulmonary embolisms.

"I will never put my health last again," said Alma, who on April 9 marked six years since her ordeal began. Each year, she commemorates it by watching the video of herself walking to the ambulance that was captured by her security camera. That footage reminds her of just how strong and determined she is.

Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

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