Sue Corrigan has long blond hair and a living room that shouts out her love of music, with a gaggle of guitars and amps, and two microphones at the ready. As she talks animatedly about her happy life as a member of the local “chicks with guitars” duo, The Taylor Chicks, you’d never guess she was fighting for her life just a few short years ago.
In October 2010, Corrigan suffered a brain aneurysm and subsequent bleeding—a subarachnoid hemorrhage, in medical speak—necessitating major surgery and a scary, touch-and-go, 46-day stay in the ICU. Doctors at Kaiser Permanente on Morse Avenue in Sacramento said that even if she survived, there was a good chance she would never regain normal function of her left side, potentially calling an end to—among other things—guitar playing.
As we sit at the dining room table of the Elk Grove home she shares with her musical and life partner, Cheri LaDue, the 48-year-old Corrigan reveals a medical journey that began like atonal heavy metal guitars at full throttle and ended sweetly, like a Brahms lullaby. With LaDue’s help—and additional details from her neurosurgeon, Kaiser’s Jeremy Ciporen, M.D.—here’s her story.
It all began with a migraine…
Corrigan: I’ve been a migraine sufferer my whole life, so getting horrible headaches is nothing unusual for me. We had been out the night before at a winery. I’m not a wine drinker, but some stressful stuff happened that night, and I started smoking and drinking wine like it was Kool-Aid. I woke up the next day with a screamer headache. It didn’t seem to be anything unusual. But it didn’t go away throughout the morning. Cheri had gone to a friend’s house to watch football, and the headache kept getting worse, so I asked her to come home.
When I went outside to have a cigarette, I instantly had pain throughout my neck and my upper chest, going down my arms. I was doubled over in pain. I thought I was having a heart attack. So we went to the hospital (Kaiser South Sacramento) and they checked my heart, and my heart was fine. They said they figured it was probably another migraine and gave me some medicine for that and sent me home. I have really no memory after that. I remember lying down on the gurney and them putting the heart monitors on me and nothing beyond that.
LaDue: When we took her home, she couldn’t walk—couldn’t put one foot in front of the other. So she went down to sleep, and I assumed she would wake up all better.
Corrigan: But when I woke up—I don’t have any memory of this—I apparently was behaving very strangely.
LaDue: At first it seemed like she was OK, but she was confused, incoherent. When I went to give her some toast, she was leaning against a wall with her head in a box, rolling her hands, saying, “I want my coffee—I need to make my coffee.” I started to freak out a little. I thought it was maybe the morphine that was causing her to be loopy. But I found out it wasn’t. So we went right back to the hospital. The doctor came in and started asking questions. She couldn’t really remember her name, things like that. So he took her right in for a CT scan and afterward sat me down and said, “This is a matter of life and death. She has a brain bleed.” Her ventricles were full of blood already, which is deadly. The doctor said she would be in an ambulance and up to Kaiser Morse in 20 minutes. So I rallied the family, and everyone gathered at the hospital. The doctors laid out her options.
Ciporen: Upon admission, Sue required a drain to be placed within the ventricle of the brain to relieve swelling. The ruptured aneurysm was not amenable to endovascular treatment with coils through a catheter placed in the groin vessels, so the recommendation was to secure the rupture via open cranial surgery and clipping.
LaDue: But because of genetics, the smoking and the drinking, and the dehydration of Sue’s body at that point, when they went to clip the aneurysm, her carotid artery on the right side just disintegrated in front of the surgeons.
Ciporen: The diseased vessel was like wet tissue paper and could not support the clip, and the artery ruptured.
LaDue: This was serious stuff. So the doctors said they had a Plan B . . . that they were prepared for Plan B.
Ciporen: Plan B was to gain control of the active bleeding vessel by clipping in front of, and just behind, the aneurysm. This was accomplished while preserving Sue’s normal communicating vessel anatomy that serves to provide the blood supply and oxygen to her brain to avoid stroke. Plan C would have required an emergent cerebral bypass. Thankfully, this was not required. A few days after surgery, Sue went into vasospasm (as do approximately 33 percent of people with subarachnoid hemorrhage). Vasospasm is when the vessels narrow to the point of restricting critical blood supply and oxygen to the brain, and can result in stroke. By providing intensive medical treatments and delivering medication directly into the affected cerebral vessels, strokes were prevented.
LaDue: Sue responded to the treatments fairly well, though her left side was non-responsive at first. The two main concerns at this point were: a) Is she going to live? and b) How is she going to come out of this, physically? But through it all, I have to say, once she survived the surgery and woke up, the doctors were fairly confident that we were going to get her back—to some point, at least. But it was super scary. My first thought was—well, other than we would miss her—that if her left side is affected, she’s not going to be able to play guitar, and she’ll be so depressed, who will want to be around her anyway? But she was a trouper, and while medicine obviously had a lot to do with her recovery, music is a big piece of this story. Soulfully and motivationally speaking, I think it’s the heart of this whole story.
Corrigan: We have a little baby Taylor guitar, and Cheri would bring it to the hospital and play and sing for me, and she brought in my iPod, so we were listening to music all the time. The hospital is a scary place, but listening to that was very comforting to me—made me feel like there was someone in the room for me.
LaDue: One of the things I told the nurses was, “When it comes to music, we have our favorites. But right now, it’s all Amy (Grant), all the time.” Because not only is her voice so perfect, her words are so positive. So I brought the guitar in—this was early on—and I’d just pass the time playing it. At one point, Sue reached out and touched the guitar, but she wasn’t really all there. But one day, when she was a little more awake, she kept reaching for the guitar and I said to her, “Hey, show me a D chord.” She grabbed my arm and kinda made a D chord. It just made me think, “The wheels are spinning in there.” She couldn’t talk, she had a tube to help her breathe, she was in and out of it. But one day I asked her to play a song we play together, “Shame on You.” Meanwhile, two or three nurses were gathering at the doorway. And all of a sudden, Sue starts forming the chords. The nurses couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. After her hospital release, Corrigan returned home for several months of recovery before returning to her job as an administrative assistant at Cosumnes River College. Other than a permanently dilated right pupil (the result, apparently, of nerve damage), a slight post-surgical indentation in her forehead and occasional short-term memory loss, she’s the same old Sue—minus the cigarettes. Mysteriously, magically, she’s also come out of her shell as a singer, and in a big way. “Getting her to sing used to be like pulling teeth,” says LaDue. “But post-aneurysm, she’s been singing more than ever. Whether this shift was physiological or psychological, we’ll never know.”
“That part truly is a miracle, in itself,” chimes in Corrigan, with a short, happy laugh. For both, the experience was a wake-up call to make every day count—to go for the joy factor. Pre-aneurysm, music was a part of their lives. Post-aneurysm, it’s front and center, with regular gigs at the Elk Grove Sports Bar & Grill and Strings in Rancho Cordova. At Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill in Folsom, The Taylor Chicks recently won an eight-week open-mike competition. They’ve even got a single in the works. “We’re having a lot of fun,” says Corrigan. “The whole [medical] incident now feels like a lifetime ago. I have the indentation on my forehead, and I do have a shunt, so I have reminders that it happened. But I don’t even get headaches anymore, except sometimes when I have a couple of beers.” Often, Corrigan says, she finds herself thinking about what role luck and timing played in her survival. “I think about the fact we had been in Cabo that summer, in July, and I think, ‘What if it had happened when we were in Cabo? What if it had happened when I was driving my kids (she has three) around town?’ I’ve had a lot of those kinds of thoughts.”
For LaDue, a physical education professor at Cosumnes River College who knows a thing or two about health and medicine, Corrigan’s remarkable recovery continues to amaze.
“Especially knowing what we know now—that nearly half of the people who have a ruptured brain aneurysm die instantly, and that of those who survive, one-third have major deficits, one-third have moderate to severe deficits and one-third have minor to moderate deficits—there’s no doubt in my mind the whole thing is a miracle. For me, spiritually speaking, it’s just a testament to the power of what faith can do—and modern medicine.”