Medical stories have the ability to defy belief. Zach Valentine’s story is no different.
Over the course of a couple of weeks, Zach went from a romantic night with his wife, to blinding pain in his head, to a complex brain surgery. His treatment was further complicated because, as a Jehovah’s Witness, it would be against his faith to accept a blood transfusion.
More Than Just A Headache
“Whenever I would cough or sneeze, it felt like my eyeballs were going to explode out of my head,” Zach said.
Three days into the searing headache, it was Zach’s wife, Theresa, who forced him to visit his doctor who sent him for an immediate CT scan.
From there, he was sent to the emergency department at Forsyth Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with an aneurysm and sent to John Wilson, MD, a neurosurgeon at Wake Forest Baptist and an expert in dealing with complicated aneurysms.
Zach had a fusiform aneurysm - the walls of one of his blood vessels, for unknown reasons, weakened and began to expand.
As an aneurysm expands it can cause severe pain and be in danger of rupturing. If the vessel had ruptured, there was a good chance Zach would have died.
“A sudden, instantaneous, blinding headache is the hallmark of a ruptured aneurysm,’’ Dr. Wilson said.
Dr. Wilson determined that Zach needed an extracranial-to-intracranial (EC-IC) bypass. Dr. Wilson is one of only a handful of neurosurgeons in North Carolina who perform EC-IC bypass surgery.
The fact that Zach is a Jehovah’s Witness created the potential for a problem during the surgery. One of the tenets of his faith is that he can’t accept stored blood, whether his own or anyone else’s.
The surgery required that Dr. Wilson cut off the damaged blood vessel and take another artery in Zach’s scalp, redirecting it to restore blood flow to his brain. The damaged vessel would then be removed.
While a blood transfusion is not typically needed, there is always a chance during neurosurgery that an aneurysm can rupture, which would result in the rapid loss of blood and the possible need for replacement with a transfusion.
Dr. Wilson suggested the use of a cell saver, in which Zach’s own blood would be put in a centrifuge-like device that separates his red blood cells. Those could have been returned to Zach had he needed them. Not all Jehovah’s Witnesses will agree to use the cell saver device.
Zach said he agreed because, “To my understanding, when there is bleeding, the blood is suctioned up into the machine to be cleaned and immediately recirculated back into the body. It basically continues an external circulation of my natural artery.’’
“For those of us who aren’t of that religion, it’s hard to understand,’’ Dr. Wilson said. “But of course we respect their wishes and their beliefs.’’
Getting Back to Life
Recovery wasn’t always easy. Early on there was a great deal of pain, Zach said, and in the following weeks, he battled bouts of anxiety. But his love of family—Theresa and their daughter Lorelei—helped him through the difficult times.
“We have a tremendous love of life. But my faith in God surpasses that,’’ Zach said of his ordeal. “So that helped comfort me.’’