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When 15-year-old Jessica Vargas from Cali, Colombia, started getting headaches two years ago, a brain scan told her family something they never wanted or expected to hear: Jessica had a large, complicated congenital aneurysm — a bulging blood vessel in her brain — on an artery that’s difficult to access.

Traditional invasive surgery would almost certainly be fatal, but not treating the aneurysm would be nearly as risky. The aneurysm could burst at any moment, leaving Jessica dead, blind or without the ability to taste or walk. Jessica was young and otherwise healthy, so doctors decided not to operate, monitoring it closely and hoping it would improve on its own.

Almost 500,000 deaths each year are caused by brain aneurysms globally. Half of the victims are younger than 50. Ruptured brain aneurysms are fatal in about 40 percent of cases, but of those who survive, about 66 percent suffer some permanent neurological deficit.

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Top image: Jessica Vargas pictured with her doctor, Jorge Holguin, an Interventional Radiologist at Clínica Nuestra, a healthcare partner of Corazón y Aorta in Cali, Colombia. Above: Corazón y Aorta specializes in cardiovascular surgery. They recently acquired an OEC 9900 mobile C-arm from GE Healthcare to perform diagnostic and interventional applications. Images credit: Pulse

As Jessica’s doctors monitored the aneurysm, her symptoms became more severe. She had difficulty swallowing and found it challenging to eat as she would consistently drop her silverware. “I couldn’t hold things, and I felt I couldn’t swallow well,” Jessica says. “I realized something was wrong with me.”

When she had trouble walking, her family rushed her to the ER, where a neurologist told Katherine Vargas, Jessica’s mom, there was nothing they could do. “The doctor bent her head, looked at me and said, ‘The girl will lose her sight, her mobility and she will become bedridden until the mass bursts, since it is unavoidable, ’ ” says Katherine.

The only alternative was a high-risk surgery. That’s when the medical team contacted Dr. Jorge Holguin, an interventional radiologist at Clínica Nuestra, a healthcare partner of Corazón y Aorta hospital in Cali, which specializes in cardiovascular surgery.

The hospital had recently acquired a piece of eqiupment from GE Healthcare to perform diagnostic and interventional surgeries. The machine, called OEC 9900 Mobile C-arm, used X-rays to image patients and special software to amplify the images.

Doctors used it to capture and enlarge the image of Jessica’s aneurysm so surgeons could use a catheter to prevent it from bursting. “The equipment is enough to perform endovascular treatment and treat Jessica’s congenital disease, which otherwise wouldn’t have a good outcome,” says Dr. Luis Felipe Medina, head of the surgical team and scientific director at Corazón y Aorta.

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Above: Jessica (left), her mother and the medical team who helped save her life. Images credit: Pulse.

The procedure involved placing a catheter through the groin into the artery containing the aneurysm and releasing platinum, which causes the aneurysm to clot and prevents more blood from filling the aneurysm. The equipment also ensures minimum radiation dose, a key consideration for a smaller, younger patient like Jessica. “The doctors were very realistic,” Katherine says. “They told me it was a hard procedure but they were going to try, as Jessica was young and deserves to live.
The surgery was a success. Jessica regained all of her senses, and it took her less than a month to walk again. Today, Jessica is fully healed and living without restrictions. “Jessica’s story is a lucky one,” Dr. Medina says. “Any surgically invasive treatment was impossible for her.”

Dr. Medina continues to use this and similar GE technology for several patients at Corazón y Aorta, including those with complex pathologies such as aneurysms and thoracic aorta dissections that need immediate attention. Seeing the success of these procedures, the medical board is providing similar equipment and services in facilities across Cali to complement cardiovascular surgery. Clinicians throughout Cali are performing new types of minimally invasive interventions, allowing patients to recover more quickly than ever before.

Jessica also has drawn inspiration from her medical team. “I want to study neurology and be an example for those who have similar health issues,” she says. “Trust the doctors. They want to do what’s best for us, to help us and save lives.”

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A version of this story originally appeared on GE Healthcare’s Pulse magazine.