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Heather Abramovic: Cavernous Malformation

Heather pets her horse's muzzle. She has straight shoulder length brown hair.

The Challenge

Twenty-three-year-old Heather Abramovic was your typical college senior. Her life was full of studying, hanging out with friends, and preparing for life after graduation. But that all changed one afternoon in December. While staying at her parents’ house over holiday break, she woke up in the middle of the night, alarmed.

"I’m getting married next year and my goal is walk down the aisle and dance with my husband without any assistance." — Heather

The entire left side of her body had “a very strong pins and needles sensation.” Her family rushed her to the emergency room where doctors discovered she had bleeding in her brain. After additional testing, she was diagnosed with a cavernous malformation, an abnormal group of small, weak blood vessels, near the base of her skull.

At first, doctors told her that surgery to remove the malformation wasn’t needed. She had no lasting side effects from the hemorrhage and was hopeful this was just a minor incident. But after hemorrhages the following June, July, and August of 2012, she and her family realized that surgery may be the only option. While in the hospital following brain swelling from the fourth hemorrhage, she suffered a fifth, more severe one that left her unable to use her left side.

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Heather’s neurosurgeon, Dr. Robert Friedlander, Chairman of the UPMC Department of Neurosurgery, explained to her that if the malformation was not surgically removed, it could eventually bleed to the point where it could cause severe damage, or even death.

“I basically had a ticking time bomb in my head,” says Heather. “Once Dr. Friedlander told me that, I knew it was time to take action.”

The Solution

Heather and her family decided to move forward with the surgery. Because the malformation was located deep within her brain, Dr. Friedlander planned to use a new brain mapping technology – known as High Definition Fiber Tracking (HDFT) – to help guide the surgery while reducing the risk of further complications. Pioneered at the University of Pittsburgh, HDFT allowed Heather’s surgical team to view the detailed wiring of her brain fibers to determine the most effective way to execute the surgery. Using this approach, Dr. Friedlander was able to successfully remove the malformation.

The Results

Four months after the surgery, Heather’s recovery is going better than expected. She is making strides in physical therapy and continues to see improvements on a daily basis. Although her left side is still weak, Heather hopes to eventually make a full recovery.

“I’m doing things now that five months ago I thought I would never do again,” she says. “My physical therapy is really helping me get back my normal movements.”

But a goal that Heather certainly wants to meet is one that she and her family will remember for rest of their lives.

"I’m getting married next year and my goal is walk down the aisle and dance with my husband without any assistance,” she says. “And thanks to Dr. Friedlander and all these great people, I’m pretty sure that’s going to happen."

Our patient stories profile a number of patients who have had minimally invasive brain surgery at UPMC. Although everyone's care experience is unique, we hope that sharing these stories will help other prospective patients and their families better understand these procedures and their potential benefits.

Heather's treatment and results may not be representative of all similar cases.

Read More Neurovascular Stories