It was not just a headache: A West Michigan woman's life saving journey

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The healing process for 35-year-old Dawn Toukkala has been anything but predictable.

"One morning I woke up and I was in brushing my teeth and I had like a dent in my head." 

It was just another step in the journey that started nearly three months before.

“I don't remember anything," including giving birth to her daughter.

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It all started with a headache that she had for three days. Toukkala collapsed at home and her boyfriend rushed her to Spectrum Health's Emergency Department.

"She required immediate life saving measures.”, Dr. Justin Singer was the on-call neurosurgeon who treated Dawn when she walked into the emergency room.

"We got a stroke alert saying there was a person in the hospital." 

Dr. Singer said he quickly realized it wasn't just Dawn's life that was in danger, because she was also 39-weeks pregnant.

The ICU and the Emergency Department quickly mobilized.  

Dr. Singer diagnosed Dawn with a brain aneurysm, and he knew there was only one option to keep it from rupturing.

"Take a large section of her skull bone off. So we could relieve the pressure and prevent her from having the brain damage from the brain kind of herniating over to the other side - which is something that is life threatening."

Dr. Singer removed the aneurysm and stabilized Dawn but there was still the concern for her unborn baby, "Discussing when to take the baby out, if we needed to take the baby out and how to take care of her was also a little bit complicated in the situation."

Dawn's baby was born via C-section in the same operating room where she had the surgery for her aneurysm.

But it was another four days before Dawn woke up. 

"I remember they wanted me to sign some paperwork for Emily like her birth certificate and stuff," said Dawn. 

Dawn's eyes welled up as she sobbed uncontrollably, but it’s not because of what she went through, it’s because her brain is still healing. 

“They told me what happened is to the emotional part of your brain, and so I cry all the time and they said that I could like start laughing at inappropriate moments," said Dawn. 

Dawn quickly snaps out of her emotional moment like it never even happened. She breaks down and recovers several more times during the course of our interview, which Dawn takes in stride just like the rest of her healing process.

Dawn spent six weeks at Spectrum Blodgett going through rehab.

Her parents brought her daughter Emily to visit every day.

“And I felt bad because I planned all along to breast feed her but I couldn't because of the medicines that I was on," she said. 

After she was discharged, Dawn started physical therapy.

"It's a lot of walking. A lot of focus on standing and specific tasks we do every day," Dawn said. 

Spectrum Health physical therapist Michele Weaver is helping Dawn achieve her main goal - being able to take care of her daughter.

"We want to try to make the nerves in the brain function as well as possible so we have to challenge them,"  Weaver said.

But physical therapy is only part of Dawn's healing process.

Remember that dent in her head?

"When we take the bone off we call that procedure a hemicraniectomy," Dr. Singer said. 

Dr. Singer told Dawn she was now ready for her second surgery, reattaching her skull. 

"Well, they told me that they were either going to keep it in the freezer at the hospital or they could put it in your abdomen. And I was like well is it in the freezer or in my stomach?". Dawn asked. 

Dr. Singer had chosen to keep it in Spectrum Health's cryofreezer until it was time to put it back on.

"We take the old bone, we thaw it out and we put some titanium plates and screws on and that helps us to hold it in place. It never really revitalizes and regrows necessarily.", described Dr. Singer.

Dawn will likely need months of physical therapy. And even more time to come to terms with her new normal, “It's just weird. Like why? Why would this have happened?", a question in which Dawn may never have the answer.

But it is an amazing story that fortunately she will be able to tell her daughter Emily all about.

There are only 20 to 30,000 aneurysms like Dawns every year in the United States. Many don't get to the hospital before they rupture. Dawn was fortunate that Spectrum Health is also a nationally recognized Comprehensive Stroke Center, one of only a few in the country.

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