Dr. Solomon’s Patient Jennette Says Yes to Brain Surgery
As Director of Marketing and Public Relations for Kleinfeld Bridal in Manhattan, Jennette Kruszka is used to helping people “Say Yes to the Dress.” The popular show on the TLC cable channel helps brides-to-be find the perfect wedding gown at Kleinfeld Bridal. She never thought she would be saying “yes” to brain surgery.
Jennette took some time off from Kleinfeld Bridal last spring to visit Spain with friends. The Brooklyn native loves to get out of New York and see the world. “I love to travel, so every year I try to go somewhere—to Europe, if I can,” she says. They spent one of the last days of their vacation sightseeing and decided to cap it off with a visit to the Ritz Hotel for a drink.
“As we were leaving, I said ‘I think we can walk back to the hotel from here. Let me pull up the map on my iPhone,’” Jennette says. “But as soon as I looked at my phone I had the worst pain that I’ve ever had in my life, in the back of my head.”
She tried everything she could think of to get rid of the headache. She drank water, in case the pain was related to dehydration. She took a hot shower. Nothing helped. She finally took some Tylenol and tried to sleep.
The next morning there was no change, so her friends had the hotel call a doctor.
Despite the language barrier the message from the doctor was loud and clear. “He wanted me to get to a hospital right away, because I probably had meningitis and needed to have a spinal tap.”
But Jennette was due to fly home the next morning and knew she’d feel more comfortable at a hospital in New York. The Spanish doctor was able to give her some pain relief that allowed her to feel well enough to eat and get a good night’s sleep. But when the medicine wore off, the terrible pain was back.
Jennette’s parents met her at the airport and took her straight to her local hospital in Brooklyn. That hospital did a CT scan and found that she did not have meningitis.
“Within five minutes of returning from the CT scan, there were five doctors in my room telling me I had two brain aneurysms and an arteriovenous malformation (AVM).”
The AVM was the source of the terrible pain. An arteriovenous malformation means that blood vessels had formed a kind of tangled knot. An AVM can occur in any part of the body. Jennette’s AVM was in her brain, and it was slowly bleeding into the surrounding tissue.
But as bad as that pain was, the slowly bleeding AVM wasn’t life-threatening or immediately dangerous. Jennette is lucky that her AVM pain led to a CT scan, because otherwise the doctors might have missed the silent problem that was actually threatening her life—an aneurysm.
An aneurysm is an area of a blood vessel that has weakened and is bulging outward. If an aneurysm in the brain bursts it can cause a fatal hemorrhage. The CT scan showed that Jennette had two of these—one small, and one large, which was in danger of rupturing.
The dangerous aneurysms had to be addressed first, and quickly. The AVM could wait.
To take care of the aneurysms, the doctors used a minimally invasive procedure called “coiling.” They made a small incision in Jennette’s groin and threaded a tiny tube through her blood vessels, up into her brain.
When they got to the aneurysm they released tiny metal coils into the space that was ballooning outward. These coils filled up the space and relieved the pressure, so that the blood vessel was no longer at risk of bursting.
This is a very delicate procedure. They had to do the aneurysms one at a time, over the span of a week, to give Jennette’s body time to rest in between. Once that was done and her aneurysms were stable, she was finally able to look into her options for addressing the AVM.
Her local hospital was not able to handle AVM surgery, so they sent her home with orders to find a good neurosurgeon. Time was on her side, now that the aneurysms were stable.
“They explained to me that typically you have two options: brain surgery, or Gamma Knife radiation. They told me I should take my time and research neurosurgeons. Luckily I live in New York and have access to such great doctors.”
Jennette read everything she could get her hands on about AVMs and brain surgery and Gamma Knife radiation. She knew that if she opted for brain surgery, that meant major surgery, with the surgeon opening her skull.
On the other hand, Gamma Knife radiation would mean no surgery, and probably an outpatient procedure. Gamma Knife radiation does not actually have anything to do with a knife. A Gamma Knife sends concentrated beams of radiation to target the precise area of the problem, without damaging the surrounding brain tissue. It can target areas deep inside the brain without the need for open brain surgery.
Jennette interviewed three different neurosurgeons and assumed she’d go with the Gamma Knife procedure because it’s the less invasive option. But when she interviewed Dr. Robert Solomon, Chairman of the Neurosurgery Department at Columbia University Irving Medical Center/New-York Presbyterian Hospital, everything changed.
“I loved how Dr. Solomon explained everything to me,” she says. “He made me feel so calm. He took the time to bring up my scans and show me everything on the computer, and he drew me pictures.”
Dr. Solomon explained to her that although the Gamma Knife has many advantages, it may not be the most effective choice considering the size of her AVM. Also one potential disadvantage is that it can take some time to know for certain that the procedure has worked. If she chose the surgery instead, the problem would be taken care of and done.
“I never thought I’d actually choose the brain surgery route. I thought, ‘Who would say yes to brain surgery?’” she says.
The operation was not going to be without risk. Dr. Solomon explained to Jennette that because her AVM was in the area of her brain that controls vision, she had a chance of coming out of the surgery with a condition called “hemianopsia.”
With hemianopsia, Jennette would be able to see only half of the field of vision in each eye. She wouldn’t be blind, but she would be unable to drive and possibly unable to work.
“I was so petrified I was going to wake up with [hemianopsia], because then you can’t really read, you could never drive again… I was worried about that and about being able to have a life and continue working.”
Still, the surgery meant that her ordeal would be over with, and she wouldn’t be walking around wondering if the AVM was shrinking, or if she’d end up facing this same choice again in the future. “I was so confident in Dr. Solomon,” she says. “I opted to do the brain surgery.”
After the surgery she was afraid to open her eyes. Dr. Solomon was by her side, encouraging her.
“I remember Dr. Solomon telling me to open my eyes. I remember saying, ‘No, Dr. Solomon, I’m scared, I’m scared.’ I was so scared to open my eyes. But thank God, I opened my eyes and I could see!”
Not only could she see, but the terrible pain was finally gone. Which was great, because lack of pain and normal eyesight meant that Jennette didn’t have to miss watching the New York Rangers in the playoffs.
Just two days after surgery Jennette was well enough to troubleshoot a way to watch the game.
“They didn’t have the sports channel in the hospital! I was able to livestream it on my phone. I was so excited that I was alive, and all I wanted to do was watch the hockey game from my hospital bed!”
It wasn’t long at all before Jennette was back at work for Kleinfeld Bridal and “Say Yes to the Dress.” In fact, just 10 months after her AVM surgery Jennette appeared on “Good Morning America” to talk about bridal trends.
As for more travel, she’s thinking about taking her mother to Aruba for her birthday. One day she hopes to go back to Spain, to see the country without needing to rush home for brain surgery.