Vanessa McKinley chalked up her neck pain to pushing too hard in the gym.
But the next morning, it felt like someone had taken a sledgehammer to the back of her head.
At her husband’s urging, McKinley went to the emergency room, where doctors told her she had a brain aneurysm. The Bellevue woman later learned she had three.
Six months after the diagnosis, McKinley has had the potentially deadly aneurysms surgically repaired. Her positive attitude and supportive gym family kept spirits up. It’s helped her gradually work back into the gym routine she loves.
McKinley, 39, first started working out about six years ago. She wasn’t happy with her appearance and started having problems like heartburn and acid reflux.
She signed up for a two-hour Zumbathon at Fitssentials, a Bellevue gym.
“That’s all it took,” McKinley said. “It was an amazing place.”
She went to classes and started lifting weights. McKinley dropped more than 30 pounds and got certified as an instructor. She was hitting the gym six days a week, boxing and teaching MixxedFit classes around town. MixxedFit combines dance movements with bodyweight toning.
“All I wanted to do was do that for other people,” she said.
At the gym, McKinley always has a “glass half full” attitude, said gym owner and instructor Naviere Walkewicz.
“So much spirit comes out of her. No matter what kind of day she’s having, she spreads joy,” Walkewicz said.
In April, an ER doctor diagnosed McKinley with a brain aneurysm. Stunned, the mother of three initially told the doctor he had the wrong room. A brain aneurysm is a balloon-like bulge in an artery that can stretch and burst, causing a hemorrhagic stroke, brain damage, coma or death.
“They say your life flashes before your eyes. In that span, I saw my daughters graduating and getting married without me,” she said. “I said there’s no way.”
Doctors sent McKinley home and told her to make an appointment with a neurosurgeon. In the meantime, she had to live her life. She was cautious and toned down her exercise routine.
“The amount of stress it puts you through is something I don’t wish on my worst enemy,” McKinley said.
When she met with a neurosurgeon later that month, he told her she didn’t have one aneurysm — she had three. McKinley had aneurysms on different arteries, so doctors had to perform two surgeries, said Dr. Bill Thorell, her neurosurgeon at the Nebraska Medical Center.
“You don’t want to put both vessels in jeopardy at the same time. You prioritize based on risk,” Thorell said.
Doctors told her of risks like stroke and vision loss.
The first surgery went well, and she stayed in the intensive care unit for a day. Shortly after she got home, her face went numb, and she started losing vision in her left eye.
Doctors gave her hyperbaric oxygen therapy twice a day for five days, which helped restore her vision.
Her remaining surgery in September went well. Thorell said they’ll continue to check on McKinley over time to make sure everything’s healing.
Sticking with exercise is “perfect. It’s exactly what we want,” Thorell said of McKinley’s routine.
The hardest part, McKinley said, was being away from the gym during recovery.
“My biggest problem was I went from working out six days a week, inspiring and coaching others, to not being able to do anything,” McKinley said. “I’m not the type of person to sit still. If I’m not this fit person who’s helping everybody, who am I?”
McKinley started going to classes at Fitssentials, even when she couldn’t participate. Being around her friends and fellow gym members brought up McKinley’s spirits.
McKinley told Walkewicz, the gym owner and an instructor, that she felt lost without her exercise routine. So Walkewicz told her to come in, even if she only felt comfortable tapping her feet or shaking her head.
“She’s the perfect example because she can show you that no matter what the obstacle is, she’s found a way,” Walkewicz said. “... No matter how small one step forward is, no matter how minuscule, that’s progress.”
Now she’s been cleared to work out three days a week. She does light cardio, like jogging, elliptical and dance fitness.
“It pushed me to say ‘I can do this.’ Even though these aneurysms were a really low point in my life, it was for a reason they were given to me,” McKinley said. “I truly have a new outlook on life.”