Patient Stories

Triathlete Competes After Ruptured Brain Aneurysm

Originally published April 25, 2024

Last updated July 11, 2024

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Triathlete Laura Brezin Kern stands in cardinal and black running attire in a garden setting

One year after a ruptured brain aneurysm, Laura Brezin Kern ran the Los Angeles Marathon. She credits the USC Verdugo Hills Hospital emergency department’s skilled response.

On March 9, 2022, Laura Brezin Kern, then 41, was working out in her La Cañada Flintridge home gym when she suddenly felt dizzy and lightheaded.

A Walt Disney Company executive and competitor in triathlon races since 2009, she remembers passing out and waking up shortly afterward with “the worst headache of my life.”  

Finding it hard to speak and move, she used her smartwatch to contact her husband, Steve, who was walking their dogs. 

Laura recalls him saying that she didn’t sound right and should call 911, which she did with difficulty. After her husband and the ambulance arrived, paramedics asked the couple if they had a hospital preference. Steve said the closest one, about a mile away, was USC Verdugo Hills Hospital

That decision probably saved Laura’s life. 

Upon arrival, an emergency department physician quickly collected her history, did an exam and ordered a CT scan of her head, according to Jonathan Crabb, MD, assistant medical director for emergency medicine at USC-VHH, which is part of Keck Medicine of USC.  

Dr. Crabb says the scan showed Laura had significant bleeding, or hemorrhaging, in her brain. The pattern also suggested an aneurysm — a diseased section of an artery where the wall weakens, potentially causing it to burst.  

“The initial response is very important because some of these hemorrhages can cause swelling of the brain and life-threatening trouble with breathing or circulation,” Dr. Crabb says. “So the patient first needs to be stabilized, especially making sure that the airway is protected. Then it’s important to get a specialist to intervene as quickly as possible to prevent further bleeding.” 

What is the treatment for a ruptured brain aneurysm?

Dr. Crabb says USC-VHH has an advantage in accessing specialized neurological care because of a phone hotline set up with the neurocritical care team at Keck Hospital of USC.

Benjamin Emanuel, DO, whose specialties include brain injury and critical care neurology, was the Keck Medicine neurologist on-call that day.  

“Any type of hemorrhage seen at USC-VHH comes to Keck Hospital because of our neurosurgeons, specialized neurocritical care unit, endovascular care and extra support,” Dr. Emanuel says.  

Because ruptured aneurysms pose a high risk of death, Laura was transferred to Keck Hospital just three hours after arriving at USC-VHH.

She was seen by Dr. Emanuel and Keck Medicine neurologist and endovascular neurosurgeon Matthew Tenser, MD, who conducted further tests to determine the right treatment.  

They didn’t just see me as another patient but rather as a unique human being.

Laura Brezin Kern, patient, USC Verdugo Hills Hospital

The next day, Dr. Tenser performed a minimally invasive procedure called a cerebral angiogram with endovascular coil embolization, in which very thin metal coils are delivered through a catheter in the artery directly into the aneurysm, filling the space and preventing future rupture and bleeding. 

“In cases like Laura’s, we try this procedure first because it’s less invasive, and is less stressful on the body than other procedures,” Dr. Tenser says. “And, even though we don’t necessarily know what caused her aneurysm, she’s safer now that we fixed it and are continuing to track it.” 

Laura was hospitalized for just 11 days — four to seven days fewer than is usual for her condition, according to Dr. Emanuel. “It’s a testament to how well she looked when she first arrived from USC-VHH, how well we took care of her and probably the fact that she is an athlete,” he says.  

The care he cites includes USC-VHH’s emergency department’s quick CT scan to diagnose her, their control of her blood pressure and headache with medication, and their ability to transfer her quickly to Keck Hospital’s specialists.  

“When she left the hospital, she was up and walking, and just had a headache,” Dr. Emanuel says. 

Laura was also very pleased.  

“The providers at both hospitals really listened to me and were able to quickly tailor their care to my needs very effectively,” she says. “They didn’t just see me as another patient but rather as a unique human being.” 

Laura Brezin Kern in Pasadena (Photos by Kremer Johnson Photography)

Returning to compete in a triathlon

While Dr. Tenser is continuing to monitor her medical status through follow-up brain scans and visits, Laura has resumed her work for Disney, without any long-term symptoms. 

Following her doctors’ recommendations, she waited a few months after her procedure to ease back into athletic training. Her biggest hurdle, she says, was “overcoming the trauma of my aneurysm and learning to not live in fear that it would re-rupture.” 

She received support and encouragement from another marathon runner and ruptured-aneurysm survivor, Kathy Nguyen. Together, they’ve become running partners with Jonathan Russin, MD, a Keck Medicine neurosurgeon who treated Kathy.  

Laura’s determination has paid off.  

A year after the aneurysm, Laura participated in the Los Angeles Marathon and, seven months later, in Ironman California in Sacramento. In the Ironman race, which includes swimming, biking and running events, she significantly beat her 2015 Ironman time.

Her performance also qualified her to participate in the upcoming Ironman World Championship in Nice, France. 

Laura credits her health journey for fueling a new perspective that helped her reach these achievements.  

“Now, I appreciate things more and have a lot more mental fortitude than before my near-death experience,” she says.  

To Dr. Crabb, Laura’s experience is an example of both the best possible outcome and a warning that “anyone with an unusual and severe headache, regardless of age or fitness, should get it evaluated right away.”  

He also notes that USC-VHH’s emergency department is distinctly positioned to provide high-quality care for a variety of emergency needs.  

“It’s a local hospital with a personal touch and community focus,” he says. “At the same time, it has a connection to a large academic center with all the specialists and treatment options not typically available at a small community hospital. So it’s the best of both worlds.”  

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Robin Heffler
Robin Heffler is a freelance writer for Keck Medicine of USC.

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USC Health Magazine 2024 Issue #1

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