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From Near Death Experience to Survival Story - Danbury Hospital Surgeon Beats the Clock and Performs Life Saving Brain Surgery on New Milford Woman

Tuesday, October 05, 2010 - Danbury, CT

Scott Sanderson, M.D.

Sandra Berry of New Milford goes up and down the same set of stairs in her house countless times a day. It’s a task so simple and natural it hardly requires thought. However, a misstep on the stairs in April nearly ended Berry’s life. She skipped the last step, fell on her knee and banged the back of her head against the wall. Unaware of the severity of her injury, the 73-year-old shook it off and continued about her day.

A Life Threatening Injury

Less than an hour after the fall Berry was struck by an excruciating headache.

“Suddenly, I felt extremely intense and sharp pain. It was unlike any other headache I’ve ever experienced,” she said. She took two Tylenol and pushed back in the recliner, put her feet up and fell asleep. That is the last thing Berry remembers.

Her husband, Ed, followed his instincts and immediately rushed Sandra to New Milford Hospital. He was worried the injury may be complicated by the fact that Berry takes the blood thinner, Coumadin. He had good reason to worry. A CT scan confirmed blood on her brain. Berry’s fall had caused a major intracranial hemorrhage called a subdural hematoma. The blood thinners made the situation extremely dangerous.

Knowing the Warning Signs

A subdural hematoma is a fairly common type of hemorrhage in older adults and can often occur from what is considered fairly minor head injury, like hitting your head on a cabinet. However, patients on blood thinners such as Coumadin, aspirin and Plavix are much more susceptible to these injuries. Symptoms, which often mimic a stroke, include:

  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of Consciousness
  • Slurred Speech
  • Paralysis
  • Lethargy

A Race Against the Clock

Sandra and Ed’s daughter-in-law works at Danbury Hospital. She urged them to immediately transfer her there where they would have access to care from neurosurgeon Dr. Scott Sanderson, a surgeon with an exceptional reputation of acting swiftly and skillfully in stressful situations. “Time is everything. It is vitally important for these patients to be evaluated quickly if there is suspicion for a subdural hematoma,” said Dr. Sanderson.

Since New Milford Hospital did not have a neurosurgeon on staff at the time of Berry’s incident, the facility collaborated with Danbury Hospital every step of the way, sending over test results while Berry was en route in the ambulance. At the ER door Ed Berry recalls Dr. Sanderson telling him, “Mr. Berry, your wife has 20 minutes to live and I have only 20 minutes to save her, please sign this paper and I'll see you in 2 1/2 hours."

Life Saving Surgery

Within minutes of her arrival, Dr. Sanderson went to work performing a craniotomy to drain the bleeding on Berry’s brain. Although this procedure is routinely performed by neurosurgeons, in Berry’s case every second counted. Details of Berry’s delicate surgery involved:

  • Creating a reverse question mark incision on the right side of her scalp
  • Removing a piece of bone about the size of a hand
  • Gently opening the covering of the brain (dura)
  • Removing the large hematoma
  • Coagulating the bleeding vessel in the temporal lobe
  • Once the bleeding was stopped, closing the covering of the brain
  • Replacing the bone with small titanium plates and screws
  • Closing the scalp with suture

Dr. Sanderson then placed Berry into a medically-induced coma to allow her fragile body a greater chance to heal.

The Confusion Clears

Following the surgery, Berry remained in a coma for twelve days. She credits her love for the hit TV show “Law and Order” as helping her get through the ordeal. “Even though my body was in a coma, my mind was still active as I had numerous conversations with Actor Christopher Meloni, who kept me entertained and amused during those 12 days,” said Berry.

In total, her recovery spanned several weeks in the hospital. She has since had a few scares from headaches but is doing her best to get back to her old self at home. She’s walking fine, now just with much more care down the stairs.

“I really owe my life to Dr. Sanderson. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here to enjoy my husband, 3 sons and 7 grandchildren,” concludes Berry.

About Danbury Hospital

Danbury Hospital is a 371-bed regional medical center and university teaching hospital associated with New York Medical College, the Yale University School of Medicine, the Connecticut School of Medicine and Columbia University Medical Center. The hospital provides centers of excellence in cardiovascular services, cancer, weight loss surgery, orthopedicsdigestive disorders and radiology. It also offers specialized programs for sleep disorders and asthma management. Medical staff members are board certified in their specialties.

In the area of cardiac care, Danbury Hospital is ranked number one in Connecticut for cardiac surgery and in the top 5 percent nationally for overall cardiac care by HealthGrades®. This is the second consecutive year for the national award.

Danbury Hospital is nationally ranked in the Top 5% in the Nation for Women’s Health and a recipient of the 2009/2010 Women’s Health Excellence Award for providing services to women.

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