How a simple MRI can change the course of a life

September 21, 2023
A woman with her two children and husband, sitting on a boat
Ashley Steadly with daughter, Amelia; husband, Ryan Steadly; and son, John. Thanks to a routine brain scan in 2021, doctors found and subsequently repaired an aneurysm in Ashley's brain. Photo provided

Ashley Steadly watched a friend die from a ruptured brain aneurysm. 

It was a harsh wake-up call for the then-40-year-old property manager. After all, it wasn’t her first brush with a condition that affects more than 30,000 Americans every year. Her grandmother and great-grandmother both succumbed to the same fate.

According to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation, when two or more relatives have proven aneurysms – that is, when an artery wall weakens and it abnormally balloons out or widens – members of those families may be at higher risk of developing one themselves. 

“The idea being if you had a mother and aunt with one, you are so much more likely to have one,” said MUSC Health neurosurgeon Alex Spiotta, M.D. 

But as scary as that might sound for those with a higher likelihood of getting them, he said, there are steps one can take to stay in front of things. “Quite simply, these people need to get screened.”

headshot of dr. spiotta, wearing a suit jacket and blue tie 
Dr. Alex Spiotta

That’s one of the big messages that Spiotta and his neurology colleagues will be preaching during the 17th annual BAF Research Grant Symposium, which will be held this week in Charleston for the first time in the history of the event.

Spiotta said that 50% of people who suffer a ruptured aneurysm don’t survive.

“The vast majority of people won’t know they have one until it ruptures,” he said. 

In addition to pushing people to get screened, Spiotta and nearly 100 of his colleagues from across the country will spend the daylong event discussing any- and everything having to do with brain aneurysms – new advances in the field, breakthroughs in current research, there will even be an appearance by Steadly, who finally brought herself to get screened in 2021. 

“When they told me I had an aneurysm, I was a little shocked,” Steadly said. “I mean, I simply did the screening because I wanted to check all the boxes, you know? Even with it running in the family, I never expected anything to be there.” 

Once the shock wore off, Spiotta explained what would need to be done to fix it. It sounded simple enough, she thought: a short, minimally invasive endovascular procedure that would require her to spend only one night at MUSC Health. Also easing her fears was the fact that this was the same surgeon who had successfully treated her aunt – yet another family member with an aneurysm – just a few years prior.

“In the end, it really wasn’t a big deal,” she said. “I’m just so thankful we saw it and took care of it.”

Steadly’s future will include annual MRIs to make sure no new brain aneurysms form – she has a 20% chance of developing another one. But it’s a small price to pay, she said, for peace of mind.

“Getting screened really is so easy and painless,” she said. “I’ll tell anyone who will listen to go and do it. It could save your life.”

Steadly also can’t help but to think about her own children while preaching that message –children who are statistically more likely to develop the arterial abnormality than the average person. This is yet another reason she’ll be on hand for the symposium: to support researchers who are looking for better ways to treat and combat brain aneurysms. Also supporting them will be the BAF itself, which annually awards roughly $2 million in grants to a dozen or so of the field’s leading researchers.

“It’s a real honor to have Ashley here and to have the BAF here, in our very own back yard to shine a light on all the great things that are happening in the world of brain aneurysms,” said Spiotta, who is now in his fourth year of serving on the BAF advisory board.