When Donna Ford, 52, fell at her home in Livingston, Texas, a year ago, she ignored it.
His left leg was previously amputated, so “falling is not uncommon for me,” Ford, a nurse, told TODAY.com. Although she fell on her buttocks, she felt a “charge” high up in her head. “I didn’t touch anything, but I felt it,” she said.
Ford went to work that night and developed a headache, “but that’s not unusual either,” she said.
However, by the time she returned home from her late shift the next morning, Ford says her vision was “cut off” and she heard a “rushing noise” in one of her ears. At that point, she asked her husband to take her to a self-contained emergency room, who transferred her to a nearby hospital.
There, Ford was diagnosed with a subdural hematoma, which occurs when blood pools in the skull and puts pressure on the brain, the Mayo Clinic explains. Ford received a brain scan and was later released, she said, but her condition quickly became more serious.
“I went home and slept that night,” she recalls. “But when I woke up I started throwing up. And as a nurse I knew that was not a good thing.”
Back at the self-contained emergency room, another brain scan confirmed that Ford’s brain hemorrhage had “worsened significantly,” she said. So the staff decided to fly her to Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center in Houston, where she received an even more startling diagnosis: leukemia.
Sometimes unusual bleeding can be a sign of cancer
Ford was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL), a specific type of leukemia that affects the bone marrow and is caused by two specific genetic mutations, according to Medline Plus. Like other forms of leukemia, APL affects blood cells and platelets, making it harder for the body to form blood clots properly.
Most people with APL have relatively mild symptoms, Dr. Adan Rios, an oncologist at UTHealth Houston and Memorial Hermann who treated Ford, told TODAY.com.
These signs can include bruising easily, heavy periods, nosebleeds, and small red spots under the skin called petechiae, Medline Plus explains. Other symptoms of APL can be more vague, such as fatigue, joint pain, and loss of appetite.
But about one in 10 patients “will have severe bleeding, and it’s often bleeding in the brain,” Rios says. People with this type of cancer have problems with excessive bleeding, which can make it difficult to treat complications like this that require surgery, he explains.
Severe bleeding and experimental treatment
Today, APL is quite often treatable with the current treatments we have, Rios says. “So (a brain bleed) is a complication that can derail a potentially curable disease.”
Until recently, doctors had only two options for treating patients in Ford’s situation: first, if the bleeding wasn’t too severe, they could progress with cancer treatment and hope the bleeding didn’t stop. wouldn’t make it worse, he said. Or, if the bleeding do worsen, they would require invasive brain surgery to treat the hematoma.
“It becomes a very difficult process,” says Rios, which carries higher risks for the patient. “You can imagine how complicated and potentially catastrophic this set of circumstances is,” he says.
But there was another option. And Ford has become the third patient in the United States to successfully undergo a new type of minimally invasive treatment.
During the new procedure, surgeons insert tiny catheter tubes through the groin area to the brain. From there, they can block the cerebral artery that supplies the bleeding, most commonly the middle meningeal artery, Rios says.
With the correct artery blocked, “blood supply to the hematoma ceases and the hematoma begins to shrink in size,” he explains.
A spectacular recovery process
The surgery may be minimally invasive, but the results can be dramatic and quick.
“Within 24 to 48 hours, (the patients are) essentially back to normal without having to undergo neurosurgical intervention in the brain,” he says. “It is a wonderful illustration of the progress that has been made in the management of these complicated disorders.”
After the procedure, “I had a little bandage on my thigh, but that’s it,” recalls Ford. “I didn’t feel any pain anymore. The vomiting was gone. I just felt a lot better.”
The confusion Ford had felt after her fall also dissipated a week after the operation, she said. “It took me a little while to figure out exactly what was going on and to remember what they had told me,” she recalls.
But, once the brain hemorrhage was treated, her doctors could focus on treating the underlying cancer. And, last month, Ford completed her last of four rounds of chemotherapy, she tells TODAY.com. She will now continue to go for follow-up appointments
And, she says, her 15 years of experience as a nurse helped keep her spirits up through the process, even when her situation was dire. Ford, whose parents donated their bodies to science, is proud to follow that lineage, becoming a success story for a developing method of surgical treatment that Rios says could soon become the standard of care.
“It was pretty scary, but deep down I knew what was going on and I knew it could be dealt with,” Ford said. “I was calm in the sense that I knew I was where I needed to be.”
This article originally appeared on TODAY.com