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Woman survives three brain aneurysms, stroke

Sheryl Baker is a survivor of three brain aneurysms and a stroke and continuously works to spread awareness. - Wesley Remmer/staff photo
Sheryl Baker is a survivor of three brain aneurysms and a stroke and continuously works to spread awareness.
— image credit: Wesley Remmer/staff photo

Sheryl Baker hopes her story will save others.

Sheryl Baker is not alone. Her story, however, is one few live to tell. Baker, 52, is a brain aneurysm survivor.

A product of a Navy family, Baker moved to Tracyton as a 6-year-old and has lived in Kitsap County ever since. She married Rick, her husband of 33 years, in 1975 and together they raised a son, Jeremy, who graduated from Central Kitsap High School in 1995 and the University of Washington in 2002. Now the office manager for a local dental firm, Sheryl enjoys Kitsap County living.

It’s been more than a year since the day she had a severe stroke and survived a series of three brain aneurysms, including one that ruptured.

A day she vaguely remembers, May 27, 2007 changed everything.

On a camping trip at Steamboat Rock State Park, Baker spent Memorial Day weekend cruising Eastern Washington’s remote roads on a motorcycle, sleeping on the shores of Banks Lake and enjoying the company of friends. The three-day weekend, she said, was “glorious.”

She recalls waking up early the 27th, a Monday, to wind and looming rain clouds. With holiday crowds and dicey weather coming, she walked with Rick to the shoreline to retrieve the family’s Jet Ski, hoping to pull it out of the water while the weather and crowds still cooperated.

“Rick walked me down to the lake shore and watched me jump on the Jet Ski to head out into the water,” she remembered. “There were no other boats out on the lake yet, but I wasn’t worried, (because) I had done this hundreds of times by myself.”

While Rick drove the trailer to the boat landing, Sheryl boarded the Jet Ski and motored through the “no wake zone,” beginning a 10-minute journey across the lake to the boat landing, where she would meet Rick.

“Just as I hit the throttle, a huge wave (out of) nowhere slammed me in the face and all down the front of me,” she recollected. “It was cold, but not nearly as cold as the thunderous headache that immediately followed.”

Sheryl struggles to remember what happened next.

“A few minutes later I awoke sitting in the lake on the boat ramp,” she said. “Rick was telling me that help was on the way.”

She had stayed her course on the Jet Ski, speeding dangerously close to the shore.

“Rick said he was standing on the dock watching for me,” Sheryl explained. “Finally I appeared, but he said I was coming into the no wake zone too fast.

“As I approached closer he said my eyes were ‘blank’ and he knew something was wrong. A few feet from the pier I fell off the Jet Ski backwards into the water.”

Rick pulled his wife from the water and called 911.

At a nearby hospital in Grand Coulee, a CT scan revealed blood on Sheryl ’s brain, indicating an aneurysm. Doctors discovered she actually had three aneurysms and one had ruptured when she was on the lake. They recommended she be treated at Sacred Heart, a larger hospital in Spokane.

“The winds were too high to send me by helicopter, so the decision was made to ‘medivac’ me by airplane,” she said. “I do have a vague memory of being put on the plane, but no memory of the flight or of my arrival at the next hospital.”

At Sacred Heart, doctors coiled each aneurysm, a procedure that threads a tiny catheter from the groin upward into the brain artery and to the aneurysm to seal off blood flow. The operation was a success, although Sheryl did sustain a stroke after surgery.

“There are only two radiologists in the state of Washington who do aneurysm coiling, and I happened to be at a hospital where one of them was on staff,” she said.

After a month in the hospital and a rehabilitation center, Sheryl was released to begin recovery on her own.

“I remember laying (in bed) at night during my stay in the hospital and wondering why I was still alive,” she said. “My survival is nothing less than a miracle.”

A loyal, loving support group helped make the recovery process smooth, Sheryl said.

“I have the very best group of friends and family,” she added. “They were there with me every step of the way.”

The recovery process continues to move along as Sheryl makes 12-hour roundtrip visits to the doctors in Spokane who originally treated her.

“I have a slight paralysis in my left hand and a continuous low grade headache,” she said. “My cognitive skills are still somewhat slow, but I’m coping with it.”

Now, Sheryl works full-time at the dental firm and spreads aneurysm awareness around the community.

“I haven’t missed a beat there. I want people to know that brain aneurysms need attention,” she said. “I want people to know how prevalent brain aneurysms are.”

According to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation, an estimated 6 million people in the United States have an unruptured brain aneurysm, about one in 50 people. Of those people, the foundation reports, 50 percent will die.

Aneurysms are most prevalent in people ages 35-60, but can occur in children as well, the foundation reported. They also are the leading cause of strokes.

Warning signs include cranial nerve palsy, dilated pupil, double vision, pain above and behind the eye, localized headache and drooping eyelids. Brain aneurysms can be genetic, too, the foundation reported.

“I truly believe that if you have a history (of brain aneurysms) in your family, you need to have an MRI,” Baker explained, emphasizing the importance of early detection.

While her story illustrates the dangers of aneurysms, Baker hopes to save lives rather than tell her own survival tale.

“The story isn’t about me,” she said. “What we’re trying to do is raise awareness for brain aneurysms.”

As part of her ongoing effort to spread awareness, Baker spearheaded the first-ever Brain Aneurysm Awareness 5K Walk in Silverdale, scheduled for Sunday, June 29. The walk begins at 10 a.m. at the Silverdale Waterfront Park.

“I feel like I’ve been led here,” Baker said. “That’s my goal, to get out there and spread the word.”

Along with Cindy Phillips, a friend of 22 years and a major voice in spreading aneurysm awareness, Baker hopes the walk becomes a tradition.

Proceeds from the walk will go toward brain aneurysm awareness. The community is encouraged to register or make a donation online at www.bafound.org. The $20 pre-registration fee includes a T-shirt and spot in the walk.

The Silverdale Waterfront Park is located at 3337 N.W. Bryon St. For more information or to register, e-mail cindyboyd4@msn.com.

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