As a college freshman majoring in computer science, Ross, 18, attributed his pounding headache and excessive nausea to a common stomach virus. He visited his university’s student health office the next day and was advised to rest. Two days later, he had lost most of his balance, wasn’t able to walk, had facial numbness, and the pain in his head had become unbearable.
Ross didn’t want to miss another day of class but his mother, fearing he had meningitis, insisted he see a doctor. She took him to UPMC Jameson, where a CAT scan revealed a brain bleed called a cavernous malformation, which is a microscopic cluster of abnormal, dilated blood vessels.
The Path to UPMC
Ross was flown by medical helicopter to UPMC Presbyterian where an MRI and an angiogram confirmed his diagnosis. Thankfully, there was no aneurysm and the bleeding had stopped. Located on Ross’ brainstem, the malformation caused stroke-like symptoms, including loss of balance, disturbed vision, and facial numbness. Due to its precarious location, it cannot be removed and is something Ross will have to live with the rest of his life.
After four days, Ross was transferred to the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute at UPMC Passavant. He participated in physical, occupational, and speech therapy to regain his activities of daily living abilities, such as walking, balance, dressing, bathing, speaking clearly, and dealing with numbness of the face and mouth.
“My condition was frustrating but I just got up each day and did what I had to do,” recalls Ross. “I didn’t dwell on whether or not I’d get better. There was no point in being upset about my situation. I just had to get better.”
Ross took that mindset with him to therapy each day and made great progress. His physical therapist, Amanda, had him stand on a foam pad with his eyes closed to improve his balance.
Danielle, his occupational therapist, created a scavenger hunt throughout UPMC Passavant and asked Ross to find places such as the gift shop, chapel, and cafeteria. This activity helped him improve his balance and walking. Danielle would also set up cones with plastic squares and coins on top of them, and Ross had to use clothespins to pick up the coins, which improved his concentration and agility.
During speech therapy, Ross would read out loud and exaggerate the enunciation of words, which helped both his speech and eyesight.
“I was really impressed by my therapists’ creativity,” says Ross. “They kept me challenged and were very encouraging. The therapy definitely helped speed up my healing process so I could get better faster.”
After a three-week stay at the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute, Ross was discharged with no assistive walking devices. He will continue doing outpatient physical therapy and plans to start his spring semester of classes in January, less than three months after his diagnosis.