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Dustin Higgins: Stroke

Dustin wears a charcoal gray suit and a white collared shirt. He has sunglasses. He is bald. He is standing outside in a field lined by trees.

In 2017, Dustin Higgins was living life full steam ahead. A husband and father to two teenage boys, he put in long hours providing for his family as a software engineer. A typical work day involved a 160-mile round-trip commute to work from his home in Boonsboro, Maryland – not to mention a seven-mile treadmill run, too.

That all changed when he developed a bad headache that persisted for three days. At first, Dustin tried to power through it. But on the third day, he woke up with a sore throat and had difficulty speaking and swallowing pills. Dustin went back to sleep only to be awakened by his wife, who was concerned about his condition.

The situation grew even more serious as he tried to get dressed. While putting on his shorts, Dustin fell over. He signaled for his wife to call 911. One ambulance ride later, Dustin was undergoing a series of tests, including a CT scan and MRI, at his local hospital.

The Path to UPMC Stroke Institute

When these tests picked up something very small at the base of Dustin's brain stem, his neurologist forwarded the results to experts at the UPMC Stroke Institute, a Comprehensive Stroke Center, for further clarification. They determined Dustin had suffered an arterial dissection, or a tear in the lining of the artery, which was blocking blood flow to his brain.

At 2 a.m., Dustin was transported to Pittsburgh. In intensive care at UPMC Presbyterian, he underwent his first angiogram, a special x-ray test that can determine artery blockages. The angiogram confirmed that the arterial dissection had caused a blockage to Dustin's brain, which resulted in a small stroke, or transient ischemic attack (TIA).

TIAs occur when blood flow to the brain is blocked temporarily and are often called "mini-strokes" because they cause stroke symptoms that last for a short time, then go away. Common TIA symptoms include numbness on one side of the body, sudden confusion, and trouble with swallowing.

"It was a small stroke," Dustin says. "But it was big in impact."

UPMC stroke experts monitored him closely, administering medication to eliminate the blockage. A second angiogram identified a pseudoaneurysm, or false aneurysm, had developed at the site of Dustin's arterial dissection, leaking blood into the surrounding tissue. Dustin's care team, headed by UPMC neurosurgeon Bradley A. Gross, MD, blocked the blood vessels supplying blood to that area of his brain by inserting a device called an aneurysm coil to prevent further damage.

"Had the team at UPMC Stroke Institute not seen and fixed me, there's a good chance I would have been sent home to have a major stroke," Dustin says.

Finding a New Normal

Dustin spent eight days at UPMC Presbyterian before getting the all-clear to return home, where he underwent a three-week rehabilitation program at his local hospital.

He took a leave of absence from work, which lasted a year and half. The aftereffects of his stroke, combined with other health complications, threw his balance off and made acclimating to different temperatures difficult, forcing Dustin to get used to a "new normal."

Despite these difficulties, which were physical in nature, Dustin found a silver lining. He got to spend more time with his kids, which ultimately led him to quit his job and start his own software company, where he has the freedom to choose his own clients and work from home.

"UPMC really gave me the chance to change my path," Dustin says. "I ended up in the right place, at the right time."