CNBC’s Sharon Epperson On Surviving A Ruptured Brain Aneurysm — And The Financial Bind It Created
Chances are, if you look back through your family tree and ask around, someone in your bloodline has dealt with a brain hemorrhage. According to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation, an estimated six million people in the U.S. have unruptured brain aneurysms at this moment, or about one out of 50 people. Women suffer from them more than men with a ratio of 3:2. And when it comes to African-Americans, we experience them at twice the rate of white people. Not to mention, there are nearly 500,000 deaths a year around the world that are caused by ruptured brain aneurysms, and half of those who die from them are younger than 50.
But every story about someone having a brain aneurysm, particularly a ruptured one, doesn’t have to end with long-term disability or death. It can end quite triumphantly actually.
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For CNBC senior personal finance correspondent Sharon Epperson, 49, her life changed dramatically when she suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm last year. She had to have surgery to deal with the bleeding in her brain, and as a result, lost her ability to walk temporarily. She also had to take a year of medical leave from work as she focused on getting better. It was a situation that could have broken her. But with savings in place and disability insurance, as well as faith in herself and hard work, the mother of two was able to not only walk again, but also able to avoid being crushed by the financial burdens of a disability. Did I mention she was also able to take part in a 5k marathon for research in September?
Now back on-air at CNBC after medical leave and in great health, Epperson is sharing her story to raise awareness. But not only that, she also hopes to reiterate the importance of not just saving for a rainy day, but for the unexpected events, like a disability, that if not prepared for, could devastate you and your family financially.
MADAMENOIRE: Tell me about September 21, 2016, the day that everything changed. I know you were exercising before work.
SHARON EPPERSON: I was exercising before work. I was stretching. I wasn’t doing anything particularly strenuous at the time that it happened. Or at least, I didn’t think I was because I was lifting five-pound weights. And then I felt something very, very unusual, painful and just something I never, ever experienced before. I knew something was wrong. I had to get out of that class right away. And so I was able to walk, stand up and everything. I went to the parking lot and then I realized though, I could not drive. My neck was very stiff also so I couldn’t really turn my head. I just didn’t feel that I was in any shape to drive and so I text my husband and he came and picked me up and took me home. He got me some coffee and I still wasn’t feeling great, so he was like, “You know, let’s just go the doctor.” So we went to the doctor’s office and the doctor sent me to the ER. The other thing that was a tell-tale sign, according to the doctor, was that I was nauseous and I vomited on the way to the office. There were those things, in addition to having what I would describe as the worst headache of my life. Those were the things that prompted him to say, “You should go to the emergency room.” And so I went and I was in and out of consciousness during that. But I do remember my husband taking me to the ER and then being told that I should have a CT scan. I don’t remember having the scan, but I then remember the doctor telling me afterward that I had bleeding in the brain and I needed to get to the closest hospital that could treat that. I had another hospital in mind where I’d had my kids and that I was familiar with, and they said I didn’t have time. It’s only about 15 minutes further, it’s not like it’s that much further. But they felt like with traffic and stuff, they were concerned. They had the ambulance ready by the time they were telling us, and I just went immediately with them. The next thing I remember was that I was about to go into surgery.
Were there days leading up to the incident where you were feeling a little of or did this condition progress just in that day?
No. Just that day. I don’t have a history of migraines. I didn’t get chronic headaches or anything like that. I’m not a smoker, I don’t have high blood pressure — I didn’t have any of the risk factors that I knew of. I do know that I have a family history. Several people in my family have passed away from brain hemorrhages — the rupture meant that I’d also had a brain hemorrhage. But I don’t know what caused their hemorrhages. My maternal grandfather, my mother’s older sister and my maternal great-grandfather all died of brain hemorrhages, but I don’t know if an aneurysm caused that or not.
Were doctors able to tell you what may have contributed to it or was it a natural thing that just happens?
Unfortunately, that’s why they call a ruptured aneurysm the silent killer. Because it’s something that is an malformation that grows over time. It can take years and years and years. There are many people that have them, something like six million people according to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation, but only 30,000 per year is a rupture. And for those who’ve experienced it, it is significant, and many of those people do not live.
You were doing rehabilitation for quite some time and even had to relearn how to walk. So what was that experience like for you, especially when you consider that you ended up running the TeamCindy 5k Run for Research nearly a year later? Tell me what that was like for you, going from learning the basics again to having this triumphant moment.
I had to think of it as day by day. I think anyone who faces a major challenge in their life has to think of it moment by moment and day by day. Not, “A year from now I want to be running a 5k.” I didn’t know anything about that race. At the point where I was learning how to walk again, I didn’t know much about the foundation at that point. So every day, my job was to get better. I’ve always been a hard worker and my previous self was very type A about everything I did. I tried to be the best and do the best and be at the top of my game. But that kind of determination and dedication to my recovery, I think was really important. So when I talk to people who’ve had a slight injury or who’ve had physical therapy, they say, “I hate going to physical therapy. I hate doing my exercises.” I didn’t always love it, but I did it. And I did every single thing they told me to do. I never missed an appointment. And I think that was really important for me. Having the support of my family and of my friends and my faith guiding me the whole time was key. But you just have to do it. You don’t just lay there and get better. You have to actually get up and try and it was scary. One of my best friends was with me when I took my first steps. That’s a really weird thing, to not walk for weeks and be told that you’re going to get up and try. I literally just took baby steps and worked my way up to walking most of the 5k and running it again [laughs].
I read that your diligent financial routine really helped with the time you were away from work. What advice would you give others? No one sees these things coming and the way we spend, a lot of us, especially young people, don’t save the way that we should. So what advice for people of any age, as a financial expert, would you give since you lived through it and kept everything together financially?
It’s hard to be disciplined in anything for a lot of people. Whether it’s disciplined in, “I’m never going to call in sick for work when I’m not really sick,” or disciplined in saving more than you think you’re going to need and live below or at your means. All of those things require discipline. Or even just exercising regularly, it all just requires discipline. It’s not easy and it’s not easy to save. It’s something I started as a younger person when I first started working. It’s easier to do when you start early. It’s not impossible to start later, but it is easier to do when you start early. For a young person I would say, it’s great to see that paycheck and see it as the full amount that’s there, but I just never saw it that way. Whether it was because I had money immediately taken out and put in a retirement account at work or that I had it immediately taken out and put into a savings account. I try not to be tempted. So my full paycheck never goes into my checking account. It’s always siphoned off somewhere, part of it into a 401K, part of it into a savings account. And I actually have a couple of savings accounts. One for more long-term. I have two kids so I’m trying to save for that. And then the other is savings so that when these monthly bills come that are bigger than my weekly expenses, I have money for that too. So I don’t see it. The money I actually see is the money I can spend a little bit more freely with because I already know that I’ve paid myself the important bills. I paid myself in terms of saving for my retirement. Paid myself in terms of saving for short-term and long-term expenses that may come up. So I think that kind of discipline, it’s not easy, but I think it’s very, very important to have. And it doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time. It doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy getting my nails done or going to the spa every now and then or occasionally buying a new pair shoes on sale. You just have to do that. It’s really very, very important because you don’t know what’s going to happen, and thankfully I had that mindset already. It was helpful because I did have disability insurance through my job. I worked in some income but it wasn’t my full pay. There were times that I had to make sure I had a cushion. And disability doesn’t magically start by the way. You stop working one day and the next Friday you were supposed to get paid, but you’re now on disability. So the paychecks may not come that Friday. It might take a good minute for the paperwork to go in for disability, maybe a week or two weeks. And maybe they don’t pay you if you get paid every other week, maybe disability payments only come once a month. So that’s a whole new way of budgeting. So having a cushion that’s just your own money, your own savings for these kind of emergencies, is a very important thing to have. It’s critical to have actually.