Hoag neurosurgeon removes ‘inoperable’ brain lesion to save a young stroke patient.
When Michelle Wulfestieg counts her blessings every day, chief among them is Hoag Hospital. Her incredible story began nearly 20 years ago, long before she came under the care of the gifted physicians at Hoag.
Raised in Anza, CA, a small community situated in the mountains near Idyllwild, she was a typical 10-year old in 1993 when she began experiencing severe headaches. Tests revealed she had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and that she had a large pulsating mass of tangled blood vessels and arteries in her brain, known as an arteriovenous malformation (AVM). She had suffered a massive stroke.
Michelle, now 25, was told that the sausage-shaped lesion was protruding deep into her brain. Due to its size and precarious location, her previous doctors decided surgery was too dangerous. Instead, they recommended she undergo radiation treatment to shrink the AVM which it did. However, it also damaged the motor strip on the left side of her brain, causing permanent paralysis on the right side.
“After the radiation treatment, a sizeable portion of the AVM remained lodged in my brain,” says Michelle. “My neurosurgeon from another facility at the time sent me home, saying, ‘Just live every day to the fullest.’ That’s exactly what I decided to do.”
Michelle graduated from Hamilton High School in Anza and California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, where she earned a BS degree in psychology. She met her future husband, Steven, shortly before graduating in 2004, married him in 2005, and embarked upon a career. Then, while completing her master’s thesis one evening in January 2008, her old nemesis revisited her.
A Second Stroke
“The night I finished my thesis was the night I had my second stroke,” Michelle says, adding, “Somehow knew I had to finish it. I wrote the last paragraph, then took it down to a print shop. All of a sudden the room began spinning.”
After arriving at home she lay down on the couch and began drifting in and out of consciousness. Thinking fast, Steven drove Michelle to a fire station near their home. There, paramedics stabilized her and whisked her off to nearby Hoag Hospital Emergency Department (ED). Staff there acted quickly. A CT scan confirmed that Michelle had suffered another stroke.
“The doctors told Steven that if they didn’t surgically remove the AVM, I wouldn’t make it through the night,” Michelle says. “If I did have the surgery, the chance of survival would be 50/50.”
Not liking those odds, Steven consented to his wife’s surgery, which began almost immediately and lasted 5-½ hours. During surgery Hoag neurosurgeons gingerly delved into her brain and removed the AVM without complication. Following surgery they induced a coma to allow her brain to rest and eight days later she awoke in a daze.
A ‘Miracle’ Recovery
“The miracle of healing that I’d been praying for all my life happened when I woke up from the coma,” she says. “I felt an overwhelming sense of peace. I wasn’t frightened, I felt no pain, and best of all the once-inoperable AVM was gone.”
In addition to Hoag’s expertly trained and fast acting ED staff, Steven credits William R. Dobkin, M.D., the neurosurgeon who performed brain surgery on Michelle, with saving her life.“He was outstanding,” Steven says. “Not only is he a great surgeon, but he came in every day to update and encourage us. I don’t think Michelle would be here today if it weren’t for the people in ER, Dr. Dobkin and the entire Hoag staff.”
Learning to Live Again
“After I awoke from the coma I was like a toddler,” Michelle shares. “I had to relearn how to do almost everything all over again - including walking, talking and eating.”
It took months of difficult physical, occupational and speech therapy at Hoag but today Michelle is back at work as the Executive Director of the Spencer Hospice Foundation in Santa Ana. She and Steven are forever grateful to Hoag for that gift - and for the gift of her life.
“Everyone from the home health aids on up were doing much more than what their jobs required them to do,” she says. “The nurses where amazing and even the housekeepers let us know they were praying for us. I knew everyone really cared about us.
“I can honestly say I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the incredibly talented staff at Hoag, who literally saved my life,” she adds. “Hoag is the best hospital in the world as far as I am concerned.”