Mum-to-be with deadly brain aneurysm felt like 'ticking time bomb'

A mother felt like a ‘ticking time bomb’ after doctors discovered a deadly brain aneurysm at 36 weeks pregnant that could rupture and kill her at any time – but doctors were able to save her and the baby.

Sarah Pilgrim, 31, was 34 weeks old, along with her third child, 14-week-old Sydney, when she kept waking up with “severe” headaches in January 2022. She feared it was pre-eclampsia – a rare pregnancy complication – but all the tests came back negative until an MRI showed she had indeed suffered a brain hemorrhage.

The heavily pregnant mother was taken to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, where she was diagnosed with an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) – a tangle of unusual blood vessels. Doctors suspected Sarah was born with AVM and the change in her blood pressure during pregnancy dilated the vessels – potentially causing a fatal aneurysm and bleeding.

The medics had no choice but to perform an emergency C-section and delivered little Sydney on January 19 at 36 weeks. Sarah was taken a week later for a 10-hour operation to remove the buildup of blood vessels.

The mother-of-three was kept in intensive care and was finally reunited with her little boy two days after the operation – now the two are at home and doing well.

Sarah, a stay-at-home mum, from Attleborough, Norwich, said: “It’s unusual for this to have happened because I’ve had two children before and never had any problems. Something about this started the bleeding – we think it was the change in my blood pressure.

“It was frightening, aneurysms can be unpredictable, so the doctors had to act quickly. I was a ticking time bomb – I could have died at any moment.

“I came out of surgery looking like I’d done a few rounds with Mike Tyson. But I’m glad it was caught in time and my little boy also arrived safe and sound. We’re both lucky to be here.”

Sarah – who lives with partner David, 40, a sales manager, and their two children, Dexter, three, and Harvey, 10, – became pregnant with their third child in June 2021. Towards the end of her pregnancy, she began waking up with suspected migraines, which became more debilitating by the day.

She said: “At 34 weeks I suddenly got a terrible headache. I was in so much pain — I couldn’t even make a packed lunch for Dexter.”

Sarah was troubled by the symptoms, which suggested preeclampsia — a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure that can be fatal if left untreated. All the tests came back negative but Sarah continued to suffer from migraines so she went back to the hospital where an MRI showed she had a brain bleed.

At 36 weeks, Sarah was taken to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, where doctors diagnosed her with an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) – a tangle of unusual blood vessels. The condition is congenital, so she was likely born with it and can often have no symptoms.

However, doctors suspected that her pregnancy-related blood pressure change caused the AVM blood vessels in her brain to dilate, rupture, and bleed. Sarah was given the option to undergo radiation therapy for three years or immediate surgery.

She decided to have surgery, but was only able to undergo the procedure after the birth. However, a scan then revealed Sarah had also developed a bulge in one of the blood vessels – also known as an aneurysm – which can be fatal if they rupture.

Sarah Pilgrim in the hospital being treated for a brain aneurysm

Sarah said: “The doctors thought we could wait until I was born, but finding the aneurysm changed everything. Giving birth to the baby and having it operated on was my only option at that point if we were going to survive – they couldn’t risk leaving it. I was literally a ticking time bomb and they had to try to save me and the baby.”

Doctors had no choice but to give birth to baby Sydney, who weighed 7 pounds. He was taken straight to the NICU while Sarah remained in the NICU. A week later Sarah was scheduled for brain surgery and underwent a 10 hour surgery to remove the AVM and aneurysm.

She said: “I couldn’t give birth naturally because it would put too much pressure on my brain. I video chatted with Dexter every day and told him, ‘Mom can’t come home yet.’

“I was allowed to visit Sydney in the NICU but only for an hour a day – it was a really tough and scary time.”

Doctors managed to remove any unusual blood vessels and Sarah spent a month in the hospital recovering from the operation. Despite being born prematurely, Sydney did well and eventually mother and son were able to go home together.

Sarah Pilgrim and her family

Sarah is sharing her story to raise awareness of AVM and to encourage other people to get worrisome symptoms checked out. She said: “I know someone who had a brain aneurysm and unfortunately died.

“This could have happened to me if I hadn’t returned to the hospital after being sent home. It’s really important to listen to your body when something doesn’t feel right.

“I feel very fortunate to be here and so is Sydney – I will not take life for granted.”

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