During a Friday morning yoga class in June 2016, Russ Vanderpool was leading a series of squats when a sudden, excruciating headache sent him to the floor. A student called 911. Within minutes, the 48-year-old father of three was on his way to Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Shortly after he arrived, it was clear that the situation was very serious.
Vanderpool was diagnosed with both an aneurysm and a rare brain condition called arteriovenous malformation (AVM). An AVM is a tangle of blood vessels that, in his case, contributed to the rupture of the aneurysm, causing dangerous bleeding in his brain. An AVM occurs in 1 in 100,000 people, about 10% of whom also have an aneurysm. Either condition can rupture, with results that can be fatal or leave permanent deficits.
Ali Aziz-Sultan, MD, chief of vascular/endovascular neurosurgery at Brigham Health, immediately began the first of three surgeries that he determined to be the safest and most effective way to address his patient's complex situation. Advanced imaging showed that the aneurysm was the first priority. Approaching the brain using a catheter threaded through a blood vessel in the patient's groin, Dr. Sultan sealed the aneurysm. This stopped the brain bleed.
Six days later, Dr. Sultan successfully performed the delicate work of rechanneling blood flow away from the AVM to prevent a future rupture, also done with an endovascular (within the blood vessel) technique. Dr. Sultan likens operating on an AVM to defusing a bomb: choosing the wrong blood vessel, or nicking the AVM, could cause a deadly bleed or stroke.
A third surgery shortly afterward necessitated opening Vanderpool's skull to remove the deactivated AVM. All three procedures went smoothly.
Given Vanderpool's condition, said Dr. Sultan, "He beat a lot of odds."
After the initial surgery, Vanderpool woke up confused, unable to move and uncertain of the risks ahead. But the exceptional skill and determination of staff within the Neurosurgical ICU (intensive care unit) immediately reassured him. "It is such a top-notch unit. I felt surrounded by professionalism and caring," he said. "I knew everyone had to be at the top of their game to get people through this."
When Dr. Sultan arrived, Vanderpool said, "He explained everything to me: what happened, what was done, my progress so far and what to expect. This communication is crucial to patients. It gives you confidence and hope."
Vanderpool pushed forward with his recovery, grateful for expert, life-saving clinical care that also preserved his physical and cognitive abilities. After about two weeks, Vanderpool returned home and soon resumed work as a computer solutions architect.
Remarkably, just seven weeks after Vanderpool left yoga class on a stretcher, he returned to teaching.
"My physical foundation contributed to my recovery," he said. But his commitment to helping others through yoga and otherwise is a mission that continues to propel him forward. "I want to use this time in a positive way."
Then came the 2019 Boston Marathon. Living close to the route, Vanderpool often had been a spectator. Despite his enthusiasm for fitness, he had not run more than 10 miles at a time in years.
A desire to get involved with other aneurysm survivors, and to give back, led him to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation and eventually to their fund-raising marathon team. When Vanderpool posted online about his plans to run the 26-mile race, he was touched by the many messages he received — some sad, all encouraging — from people who had lost much, including loved ones, to brain aneurysms.
Determined to carry others along with him on race day, he read aloud and recorded these written messages beforehand. Ten miles into the race, he turned to the recorded messages, listening over and over both to honor those touched by aneurysms and to power himself through the race. Facing the final miles, he took off his earbuds and enjoyed the cheering crowd to the finish line.
Three months later, Vanderpool returned to Brigham Health's Department of Neurosurgery. This time he carried his 2019 Boston Marathon medal.
Vanderpool saw the marathon as an opportunity to inspire others to push forward. With his care team assembled, he presented the framed medal as a gift dedicated to Dr. Sultan and all the team members who work tirelessly to improve treatment of aneurysms and AVMs. Nestled alongside the medal is Vanderpool's message: "Always carry hope."
"For him to go through this difficult process and then come back and uplift us . . . " Sultan said. "How much better does it get than that?"