Meredith Staggers was driving through Houston, Texas running errands on Aug. 4 when she was struck by a blinding headache and forced to stop on the side of a busy road.
The 35-year-old Cake & Confetti founder suffered from migraines throughout her pregnancy before her third child was born in June, but the pain level in that moment was unlike anything she'd experienced, recalling stroke-like symptoms.
"I started seeing an aura in my left eye and started slowly losing my vision. My face started going numb and then I started losing feeling in my hands and feet," she tells PEOPLE. "I was trying to call my husband and I couldn't press the buttons on my phone, like it wasn't registering in my brain. I was finally able to contact him but 10 or 15 minutes later I lost the ability to speak coherently."
Staggers' husband rushed to her location and immediately took her to the emergency room. "When I checked in and they triaged me at the ER, they asked my husband, 'Is there any chance she's under the influence of drugs?' That's how incoherent I was," she adds.
Doctors ran a head CT scan and chest x-ray that both ultimately came back normal. Her next option: sit in the short-staffed ER waiting room to be seen. After waiting for nearly nine hours, Staggers decided to go home, brushing off the episode as a migraine that had now subsided.
However, Staggers suffered from some sort of migraine for six consecutive days. And less than a week after the ER visit, the mom of three was at an OB/GYN appointment with her daughter when she experienced another major episode. Staggers says she quickly lost vision and wasn't able to hold her child or communicate with doctors, but again believed she was having another migraine.
"I wasn't only just dealing with the postpartum hormones that an average woman experiences, I also had this unusual case of having to be in the hospital with my tiny little baby," she says, referring to the added stress of her newborn daughter being in the hospital due to RSV and pneumonia. "And so, in that moment I assumed I was having a really bad panic attack and it triggered this migraine again."
Staggers' nurse then suggested she see a neurologist just in case her episodes were more than what they believed to be hormonal migraines. The following day, she scheduled an MRI with her primary care physician.
The MRI revealed Staggers' migraines were actually due to a 5-6mm brain aneurysm — about the size of a fingertip — and she was immediately admitted to the hospital. An aneurysm is a ballooning of a blood vessel in the brain. When an aneurysm ruptures it releases blood into the spaces around the brain, which can cause a life-threatening stroke.
Staggers' neurosurgeon, Dr. Joseph Cochran at UTHealth Houston and Memorial Hermann, explains that her symptoms were caused by a leaking or bleeding brain aneurysm, which was located behind her left eye and pushing on the nerves. Staggers says she's "lucky" to have caught her aneurysm before it ruptured.
"When an aneurysm ruptures, only about half of people make it to the hospital, probably about 40% of people are dead before they get to the hospital," Dr. Cochran tells PEOPLE. "So it's a devastating thing but if you catch it before it ruptures, it can be very easily fixed with very little pain and suffering."
Within days, Staggers was scheduled for surgery.
"That was obviously very emotional news as a mom of three young girls and just feeling immediately really scared of what was to come. But at the same time, I did feel a huge sense of relief that I did actually have an answer to what had been going on," she admits. "It was just a very surreal thing because it happened so quickly. One minute it was like, 'Oh you're having a migraine,' and then the next it's no, it's something that's going to require surgical care."
"I would have never, in my wildest dreams, thought that it was an aneurysm," Staggers adds.
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On Aug. 15, Dr. Cochran performed an endovascular flow diversion, where a catheter is passed through the groin up into the artery containing the aneurysm. The device is then deployed, which acts like a stent to divert blood away from the aneurysm. He calls the procedure a "game-changer" as Staggers was able to be back home with her family within days, compared to an open brain surgery that would require a longer recovery period.
Though some sort of blood vessel imaging like an MRI is needed in order to detect an aneurysm, Dr. Cochran says anyone suddenly experiencing "the worst headache of your life" that could include nausea or vomiting should seek medical attention. He adds, "If somebody's having headaches, and symptoms are unrelenting, they should get some sort of imaging of the blood vessels in their brain to make sure that there's not an aneurysm."
The three main causes of aneurysms are smoking, high blood pressure, and family history or genetics, Dr. Cochran explains. For Staggers, genetics was likely the cause as she learned after recovering that she has a family history of aneurysms.
"Once I was diagnosed with mine, my mom told me my grandfather had two aneurysms, one of her cousins and then several other people in the family on the same side all have either died or had an aneurysm that was caught," Staggers says. "There were several cases in my family but it was something that before I was diagnosed, no one ever mentioned. And then that inspired my mom to go get an MRI and get checked out just in case."
"In general, we recommend that anytime somebody has an aneurysm that their first degree relatives get checked," Dr. Cochran adds. "So in Meredith's case, her children, her brothers and sisters would be worth getting checked to see if they had an aneurysm. And we do it with just an MRI scan so it's not an invasive study."
As a social media influencer, and in honor of September's National Brain Aneurysm Awareness Month, Staggers is hoping her survival story will help encourage others to stay on top of their health and get scanned if there is a family history of aneurysms.
"All of a sudden I was like, why is no one talking about this? I didn't feel like there was much awareness around brain aneurysms," she notes. "Whenever you go to the doctor and they ask about your family history, brain aneurysm isn't on there. They ask about diabetes, cancer, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and it just really made me realize that there's a huge void."
"So sharing my story, if I could potentially help one person catch it like I did then I would feel like it would be a huge success," Staggers says.