Updated 02 November 2017

‘An artery burst inside my brain – and it changed my life forever’

When Bernadine began having severe migraines, she never imagined that within a few hours she would end up speech-impaired and paralysed in one arm.

When Bernadine began having severe migraines, she never imagined that within a few hours she would end up speech-impaired and paralysed in one arm.

On 5 September last year, the life of then 34-year-old Bernadine Pienaar from Bloemfontein would change forever after an artery burst inside her brain.

“I was fetching my son from school when I suddenly felt this headache come over me,” Bernadine, an administrator at a logistics company, recalls.

“Now I had had migraines before but this one felt significantly worse than anything I have felt before.”

Concerned, she phoned her GP, but the doctor wasn’t available. Instead, she was put through to the pharmacist, who said he would send a prescription to the nearest pharmacy – which happened to be at a hospital.

 “I walked past the emergency ward and wondered if I shouldn’t just get it checked, but I decided not to,” Bernadine says. “Something I regret to this day.”  

While the mother of one was waiting for her tablets, she was overcome with nausea and had to dash off to the bathroom. But she managed to get the medication and get home.

“When I got home, I phoned my mother-in-law who happened to visiting told her to take my son,” she said.

But the moment she saw her daughter-in-law, she arranged for someone to take Bernadine straight back to the hospital.

“I got to the hospital and had to fill in forms – I remember saying ‘I can’t anymore’ and went down on my knees and then I felt it.

“I suddenly went lame on my right side and passed out.

“At some point I came to and heard the nurses talking. ‘What’s wrong with her?’ one said and the other replied ‘Oh, she had an overdose.’”

At this Bernadine, in her state of agony, tried to defend herself. But to her horror, she realised there was no sound coming out of her mouth. She had lost the ability to speak.

“I was rushed off for a MRI scan and there it was,” she says.

“An artery had burst and the blood was going all over my brain – I’d had an aneurysm.”

Unfortunately, her insurance only covered four of the seven days she was in ICU, and from then on the bills were hers to pay. With the mounting medical bills, she also had up to three doctors visiting her every day – a speech therapist, an occupational therapist and a physiotherapist.

“Luckily my husband has a great boss who came and loaned us money for the rest of my stay in hospital so I could get better.

“I was in hospital for a total of three weeks and a week in rehab.

“I went to rehab every day until December at which point the money had run out,” she says.

But Bernadine was determined to get her life back, so she kept up with her exercises as best she could during December. She returned to work in January even with her slurred speech.

“I wasn’t able to use my right arm anymore so I had to teach myself to be left-handed at work rather than just sit at home.

Now, almost a year later, she can walk but with an aid and she still has a slight limp.

“I can talk with even though I have a slur and I still cannot use my right arm.”

Bernadine had hoped to connect with other people like her through some sort of aneurysm support group, but she couldn’t find one in South Africa. So she took matters into her own hands and started a Facebook group for aneurysm survivors.

“My doctor told me I was very lucky, as only one out three people even make it to the hospital and then chances of survival all depend on which artery burst was, how much it bled out and if they can operate and so forth,” Bernadine explains.

“I found that there were people around the country who had survived and were living with the effects of the condition every day, like me.

“The struggle to do things for myself is endless yet each day that goes by I am learning to do things for myself.

“I can dressed myself again, I am cooking supper for my family again, I can tie my hair with one hand, I can write and so the list continues,” she says.

Bernadine hopes to educate people about the condition.

“I always wonder what would have happened if I had just gone to the hospital sooner,” she says.

“I want people to see the importance of taking headaches seriously because you never know what it may be.”

Learn more about aneurysms – and how to spot them – here.