Palmetto Health recognizes Brain Aneurysm Awareness Month in September

Posted on 8/30/2017

Santa Claus saved by fast action of the Palmetto Health Richland neurosurgical team

Yes, there is a Santa Claus – although there was a time when we very nearly lost him.

Mickey Leith takes pride in his annual role as Santa Claus. Every December he dons the red cap and suit for public appearances at Dutch Square Center, where local children climb onto his lap for family photos and whisper toy list confessions. As a bonus, they get to tug on his authentic, naturally grown whiskers.

On a less-jolly day, Leith was returning home from a weekend road trip and was about to enter the church where he serves as a deacon when suddenly he went numb and fell to his knees. Leith’s wife, Karen, thankfully was there and rushed him to Palmetto Health Richland where a CAT scan revealed the culprit: a ruptured cerebral aneurysm.

Cerebral brain aneurysm

A cerebral aneurysm is a bulging or ‘ballooning’ in the wall of a blood vessel in the brain. Some brain aneurysms are very small and do not cause any symptoms or problems; however, if an aneurysm grows, as it did in Leith, it can rupture and lead to bleeding in the brain called subarachnoid hemorrhage.

“In the case of a ruptured brain aneurysm, survival and the best possible outcome depend on how fast a person receives care,” said Roham Moftakhar, M.D., chief of Neurosurgery at Palmetto Health Richland and medical director of Palmetto Health-USC Medical Group Neurosurgery. “Mickey had a very catastrophic event, but we got to him very quickly, fixed his aneurysm and stabilized him.”

Moftakhar believes that others can be helped if they receive treatment quickly. Patients like Leith are one of the reasons Palmetto Health wants to bring awareness to September as National Brain Aneurysm Awareness Month. The neurosurgeons of Palmetto Health-USC Medical Group want the public to be aware of this dangerous condition, its signs and symptoms and where to get immediate medical attention.

According to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation, around 6 million people in the United States have an unruptured brain aneurysm. That is about one in 50 people. Conversely, about 30,000 people in the United States suffer a brain aneurysm rupture every year.

A burst aneurysm is an extremely dangerous condition and requires immediate medical attention. It can be fatal in about 40 percent of cases. Of those who survive, about 66 percent suffer some permanent neurological damage.

Palmetto Health Richland

Palmetto Health Richland has a team that provides 24/7 coverage for the intervention or surgical treatment of aneurysms from a dedicated team of neurosurgeons, neuroendovascular surgeons, stroke neurologists, technologists and nurses who specialize in these conditions. The team also have the facilities and technology needed to improve their ability to perform minimally invasive procedures on aneurysm patients like Santa, Mickey Leith.

“Years ago we had to open up the brain, and the patient was in the hospital recovering for weeks,” says Moftakhar. “Now, except for some extreme cases, we no longer have to open up the skull. After surgery, patients are left with only a small dressing in the groin area. Most can go home the next day, and they can get back to work in just a few days in cases when the aneurysm has not ruptured. It’s amazing that our technology and expertise have progressed so much that we can offer such advanced technology to improve our patients’ lives.”

In cases of a ruptured aneurysm, most patients stay in the hospital for about two weeks for close monitoring after the aneurysm is repaired.

There isn’t anything a person can do to prevent a brain aneurysm, but it’s important to know the signs. Some of the stroke-like symptoms include: 

  • A sudden, severe headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Face or eyelids drooping
  • Numbness in the arms, legs or one side of the body
  • Loss of consciousness

“If any of these happen,” said Moftakhar, “call 911 and have them take you to the nearest hospital.”

Thankfully, Santa received help in time and he’s back to doing what he loves most, serving as engineer of the kids’ train at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden. Come December, Santa will be back in the chair at Dutch Square Center, making his list and checking it twice.

“I love kids,” Leith said. “I have eight of my own and 11 grandkids.”

Reflecting on his frightening health experience, Mickey contemplated, “It’s made me stronger with the Lord.”

If you or someone you love has been affected by a brain aneurysm or arterioenous malformation (AVM), the Joe Niekro Foundation holds a support group 6-8 p.m., the third Thursday of every month, at Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital, Derrick room, 7 Richland Medical Park Dr., Columbia. For more information, contact Mary Pat Baldauf at

For more information about Palmetto Health-USC Medical Group Neurosurgery, call 803-434-8323 or visit

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