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Highlights | Helping patients with aneurysms move forward

  • The new UW Medicine Brain Aneurysm Center seeks to streamline the patient experience. 
  • This involves improved access and a callback within 24 hours for new patients. 
  • It also involves regular communication with patients to answer questions and reassure them. 
  • The care team treats hundreds of patients a year and is experienced in treating complex cases. 
  • Each aneurysm is unique, and while they are serious, they are also curable. 

The UW Medicine Brain Aneurysm Center may be new, but the care it offers isn’t. Treating patients with brain aneurysms is what the Center’s team does every day.  

“Aneurysms are most common vascular disease that we treat at UW Medicine; we do hundreds of procedures a year,” explains Louis Kim, MD, chief of neurological surgery at Harborview Medical Center and director of the new Brain Aneurysm Center. 

Unruptured brain aneurysms (unlike ruptured ones) are usually not an emergency. But sometimes they may need to be operated on if they are too large or located in an area of the brain where they could disrupt its function. The main goal of the team is to find out if patients need any procedures or if it’s safe to wait and monitor the aneurysm over time.  

Kim and his fellow neurosurgeons Michael Levitt, MD, and Laligam Sekhar, MD, are the primary surgeons providing care for the Center’s patients, along with a highly skilled team of nurses and other providers. 

“Our team is hyper-focused on treating aneurysms and we have seen a lot of complicated cases. That is our strength,” Levitt says.  

Improving the patient experience

The main goal of the new Center is to streamline the appointment-making and other crucial processes for patients. This involves a single point of contact when patients first enter the system, regular communications during diagnosis and treatment, and easy scheduling for surgeries and other procedures. 

It also means providing education and information for patients who were just diagnosed with a brain aneurysm. Often this diagnosis happens incidentally by a doctor who isn’t a neurologist, during a scan for some other issue. 

“Our goal is to help patients know what to expect, which makes a difference for their experience and anxiety levels. With the Brain Aneurysm Center, we’re using technology to make a positive impact in terms of access to care. We want to make the entire patient experience better,” Kim says. 

When patients first contact the Center, they can expect a callback within 24 hours. The person making that call will be Shelby Goettle or Kristy Monson, patient care coordinators for neurological surgery. They take their jobs seriously and know that they’re talking with patients during one of the most challenging experiences of that person’s life. 

“When they first come in, you can see the stress and concern, but it’s amazing how after surgery, when they’re cleared to work and drive again, you can see the difference in their eyes and voices,” Goettle says. 

Goettle helps patients navigate the entire experience, from answering all their questions to scheduling appointments to working with insurance companies. 

“I’ve had my fair share of doctor’s appointments and health issues, so I know how important it is to have that one person you can rely on, who will answer your questions and get you where you need to go. I want to be that for people,” she says. 

Educating about brain aneurysms 

When most people hear the word aneurysm they think of a ruptured aneurysm that is bleeding into the brain, causing a medical emergency. In fact, an aneurysm is actually a weak spot in a blood vessel that has begun to bulge outward. Some aneurysms rupture, but many do not.  

One thing the team wants patients to understand is that being diagnosed with a brain aneurysm is not a death sentence.  

“This is a fixable problem. As horrible as aneurysms can be, they can be cured,” Kim says.

Aneurysms are also more common than most people realize. According to Kim, 3% to 4% of people will develop an aneurysm over the course of their life. 

“There are few diseases that are so common and yet so unknown to the general population. There’s a lot of mythology and misunderstanding,” Kim says. 

Many aneurysms don’t need to be operated on, and those that do usually don’t require opening the skull. Kim estimates that around 80% of his patients who need a procedure to fix their aneurysm can be treated with endovascular coiling, a minimally invasive technique that involves threading a catheter from a blood vessel in the groin up into the brain. The other 20% of patients require brain surgery called a craniotomy for the procedure to be successful.  

Still, the team knows that even after educating patients, there will still be fear. The team’s goal is to reassure patients that these worst fears are unlikely to come true.

“A brain aneurysm is not like a broken bone — the brain is this thing that’s so fundamental to selfhood. It’s understandable when people are anxious about losing part of their mind,” Levitt says. “But we as neurosurgeons aren’t scared of aneurysms; we treat them all the time.” 

A hopeful future for aneurysm patients

Brain aneurysms are obviously serious, and they can be scary for patients finding out they have one. But the team knows that aneurysms are treatable and that people can recover from them, and they work every day to instill this confidence in their patients and provide them with the best possible care with the fewest risks. 

Part of creating successful outcomes for patients involves truly individualizing the care patients receive. Levitt likens brain aneurysms to snowflakes: They look similar but no two are exactly alike.  

“We tailor treatment to the patient’s specific problem; there is no one-size-fits-all approach. We have a lot of tools to treat aneurysms, and we all have experience to know which tools work better for which aneurysms,” Kim explains. 

Along with their expertise, the team brings heart and dedication to their work. They have dedicated their lives to helping their patients heal and succeed.  

For Goettle, receiving letters or cards in the mail from grateful patients is a huge reward. Levitt thinks it’s “the best” when patients forget about him — a sign they have recovered and moved on to another phase of their life. For Kim, too, the lasting impact of his care for others makes a lasting impact on his life.  

“What makes me satisfied the most is when we go through the process and the surgery and follow ups are done, that unbelievable sense of relief and gratitude for the patient and their family. I can’t express how powerful that is,” Kim says. 

Photo Caption: The doctors practicing at the Brain Aneurysm Center, from left to right: Louis Kim, MD; Laligam Sekhar, MD; and Michael Levitt, MD.