Dec. 28, 2008, was a devastating day for John Nealon’s family. The 83-year-old father of 11 suffered massive bleeding in his brain, killing him three days later on New Year’s Eve in Ireland.
Ultimately, though, Nealon’s death may have saved the lives of five of his children, including one who lives in Chicago.
A year after Nealon died, one of his children started hearing ringing in her ear. She went to a specialist, and when the doctor heard about Nealon dying from a brain hemorrhage, he sent her for an MRI.
The images were a shock.
Not only did Pauline Nealon Shortall in Dublin have an aneurysm in her brain that could have ruptured and killed her at any moment, but so did four other siblings.
All five siblings had what’s known as a cerebral aneurysm, which occurs when there’s a weak or thin spot on a blood vessel in the brain that balloons out and fills with blood.
Rosemary Nealon McNulty, 59, of Lincoln Square, had two aneurysms that were “relatively large . . . and looked like they would have ruptured in the near future,” said Dr. Bernard Bendok, the surgeon who performed both of McNulty’s brain surgeries at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
“I was a ticking bomb and had no idea,” McNulty said. “I was shocked.”
An estimated 6 million people in the United States have an unruptured brain aneurysm, or 1 in 50 people, according to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation. Many aneurysms pose no threat, and people may have no clue they have one because, as was the case with Nealon’s children, they typically have no symptoms.
Yet 40 percent of people die when an aneurysm ruptures, the foundation says.
The sudden onset of an unusually severe headache, loss of consciousness, or getting nausea, vision impairment or vomiting can be warning signs.
Family history is a known risk factor for aneurysms, and family members are more likely to have an aneurysm rupture. Smoking or high-blood pressure also are risk factors.
The ringing that Shortall had in her ear turned out not to be related to her having an aneurysm, McNulty said.
But Shortall told her sister, “Oh, that was Daddy ringing me to tell me, ‘Get your head sorted out, girl.’ ”
Between 2009 and 2012, all five siblings underwent surgery to prevent their aneurysms from bursting, with the procedures done in three different countries.
“I feel enormously blessed and thankful that we’ve all come through it,” said McNulty, who will have to go for yearly MRIs but otherwise requires no other precaution, such as taking medication to avoid a rupture.
Bendok, a professor of neurological surgery and neurology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, said the Nealon family “is an example of how knowing your family medical history can save your life.”
As much as she misses her father, McNulty says the aneurysm saga the siblings went through is proof that their father is their “guardian angel.”
“We still reckon he’s looking out for us. And taking care of us,” McNulty said.