In October 2014, St. Thomas More student Kennedy Kirsch was preparing for a spring school mission trip when she experienced an odd "almondly" taste in her mouth every time she turned her head to the left.
She decided to get it checked out, and it was a decision that would ultimately save her life.
Kennedy, 17, a talented athlete who enjoys basketball, soccer, track and weightlifting, underwent several tests to determine the cause, but doctors couldn't find the source.
But when doctors did an MRA scan of her head, it revealed a 3-millimeter unruptured brain aneurysm behind her left eye. The scans from an MRA, which stands for magnetic resonance angiogram, provide pictures of blood vessels inside the body in areas such as the brain.
Since the unruptured brain aneurysm was smaller than 7 millimeters and showed no signs of growth, Kennedy and her parents, Karl and Shannon Kirsch, were told to regularly monitor it for changes.
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Doctors scheduled Kennedy for another MRA in three months and sent her home.
The time in between the first test and the second was stressful for the family, as they tried to research aneurysms online and found very little information pertaining to Kennedy's age group.
They had been told that severe headaches that couldn't be controlled with Tylenol could be a sign that the aneurysms had ruptured, so "every headache she had at school was a worry,” Shannon said.
The second MRA revealed that the aneurysm hadn't changed, but doctors referred her to the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, because of the risk factors involved with someone her age.
Doctors at the institute told the Kirsch family that Kennedy would need open brain surgery. She would have to miss her mission trip, but was able to take her finals before traveling to Phoenix for surgery.
“Our doctors got us to the right place at the right time,” Karl said.
On May 22, Kennedy had surgery to clip the aneurysm, a process in which a small metal clip is placed around the base of the aneurysm to prevent it from bursting.
To hide the scar, their neurosurgeon, Dr. Robert Spetzler, made an incision from the top of her head in the hairline — they barely had to shave any hair — down through her jaw muscle. He then pulled back the skin to gain access to her forehead, where he had to go through part of her skull just above her left eye, to place the clip around the aneurysm.
“The amazing part was realizing just how lucky we have gotten, when Dr. Spetzler came out and said the aneurysm was fragile and would have burst sooner rather than later,” Shannon said. “We were so thankful.”
After the surgery, Kennedy put together a website — brainaneurysmclipping.simplesite.com — and a YouTube video, to share some of things she wished she had known about the recovery process before starting it.
“I had clicking in my skull, which they said was from air pockets and my skull healing,” Kennedy said. “My vision was sensitive and I needed sunglasses. And my brain felt too big for my skull. It was pounding.”
Despite some of the lingering effects of the surgery, Kennedy didn't miss a beat, at school or on the playing field. By mid-July, she was back on the soccer field, playing the sport she loves.