In Death, Father Saves the Lives of Five of his Children

Northwestern Medicine
Neurosciences April 21, 2014
Rosemary McNultyIn many ways, Rosemary McNulty and her eight sisters and two brothers are just like every other large Irish family. As kids, family photos were taken on staircases and everyone crammed into one car for family trips, where the boys would dare their father to drive faster through the Irish countryside.

But in one way, they are very different.

“I was a ticking bomb and had no idea,” said McNulty, who met her Chicago born husband Bill in Ireland in 1987 and after many international moves, moved to Chicago in 2003. “I never had a headache or a single symptom and neither did any of my siblings.”

Rosemary and her siblings were all screened for brain aneurysms after their father suddenly died from a massive brain hemorrhage in 2008. MRIs revealed aneurysms in five of the siblings, and McNulty’s MRI revealed she had two aneurysms. In 2012, Northwestern Medicine® neurological surgeon Bernard R. Bendok, MD, performed McNulty’s two lifesaving surgeries at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

An aneurysm is a weak area in the wall of a blood vessel that causes the blood vessel to bulge or balloon out. When an aneurysm occurs in a blood vessel of the brain, it is called a cerebral aneurysm. According to the National Institutes of Health, people with a small, unruptured aneurysm may have few if any symptoms, while a growing aneurysm may result in localized headaches, eye pain, vision problems or loss of feeling in the face. In the event of a rupture, symptoms are sudden and severe and can include headache, nausea and unconsciousness.

There is no way to prevent them and about one percent of the population has some type of aneurysm in the brain. In total, there are about 30,000 aneurysm ruptures each year in the United States, leading to potentially devastating consequences, said Bendok, MD, who is also a professor of neurological surgery and neurology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

In many cases, including McNulty’s case, it is safer to treat an aneurysm before it ruptures, Bendok added.

“This family is an example of how knowing your family medical history can save your life,” Bendok said. “Many people don’t realize this, but like heart disease and cancer, the earlier an aneurysm is detected, the more treatable it can be.”

Although aneurysms can occur at any age, they are most prevalent in adults ages 35 to 60 and more common in women than in men. Though most aneurysms are spontaneous, Bendok recommends that people like McNulty with a family history of aneurysm should be screened. Identifying and treating an aneurysm before it ruptures can make the difference between life and death. A ruptured aneurysm is fatal in approximately 40 percent of cases.

McNulty will return to Northwestern Memorial for yearly checkups, but her most recent imaging shows the aneurysm has not returned. Today she is in great health and makes often trips back home to Ireland to visit her family.

“My family has been through a lot - five brain surgeries and we’re closer than ever,” McNulty said. “When I go home to Ireland, my mom, at 85 years old, still cooks every Sunday for anyone who shows up to her house. We are lucky to have each other.”

To learn more about neurological surgery at Northwestern Memorial, visit our website or connect with us on social media. To make an appointment or find a physician, call 312.926.0779.