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Debbie Milmine

Debbie Milmine is especially grateful this Thanksgiving.

It's Thanksgiving and Debbie Milmine doesn't have to think hard about what she's grateful for.

The 53-year-old Billings woman is thankful she's alive.

Exactly five weeks ago a brain aneurysm nearly took Milmine's life. But quick medical attention helped her survive.

Milmine lives in southwest Billings with Don, her husband of 30 years. The couple has two sons, Dan, 29, who is serving in the Army, and Darick, 26, a welder who lives in Butte.

Milmine teaches water aerobics twice a week at the Laurel Locomotive Fitness Center in Laurel. And she teaches Sunday school to first-graders at Faith Chapel in Billings and cares for 4- and 5-year-olds on Thursday mornings at the church.

It's something she loves to do.

But on the morning of Oct. 21, Milmine was focused on her aching back. A bulging disc in her lower back required physical therapy and she had gone to the Billings Clinic PT office at Lamplighter Square, in the west part of town.

“I walked in and I wasn't walking very well at all,” Milmine remembers.

With her disc problem apparently growing worse, the physical therapist sent Milmine upstairs to Same Day Care. Dr. Ryan Schwanke, a family physician, decided Milmine needed an MRI to decide what to do about the disc.

With an MRI appointment slip in hand for that night, Milmine left Schwanke's examining room, headed toward the Same Day Care waiting room and the clinic exit.

“I had a very sharp pain in my left eyebrow, in the bone,” she said. “Then the pain went up and over my head. So I went to the waiting room and sat down because I didn't know what was going on.”

Milmine, who has rheumatoid arthritis, lives with constant pain. She figured she'd sit long enough for the pain to subside and then drive home.

“As I tried to stand up, a pain shot across my shoulders and up my neck into my head,” she said, demonstrating the path of the excruciating pain.

Milmine grabbed her head and started to cry. Then she got the attention of one of the receptionists.

“Could you help me?” she asked the woman.

The receptionist quickly found a nurse who took Milmine back to Schwanke's office. The physician performed a basic neurological checkup, to make sure Milmine wasn't experiencing a stroke.

“He asked me, 'Do you usually have headaches?' and I said, 'No, I don't,' ” Milmine said. “That's when he said, 'Well, you're going to the hospital, and you're going by ambulance.' ”

At Billings Clinic, further tests and exams revealed Milmine had a life-threatening brain aneurysm, a balloon-like bulge in an artery caused by the weakening of the artery wall. Her blood pressure also ballooned, and as her head pain continued to swell, the light also hurt her eyes.

Doctors decided to send her by air ambulance to the Mayo Clinic for a procedure called endovascular coiling, performed at only three centers in the U.S. Her husband Don accompanied her on the plane.

Amazingly, after her initial panic, Milmine said a prayer helped her cope.

“I prayed about things and asked God to take control and help me,” she said. “After that, I didn't worry, I wasn't upset, I didn't cry.”

A tense moment came when the plane lost cabin pressure. But it landed in Rapid City, S.D., and a second plane finished the flight to Rochester, Minn.

That night Milmine stayed in the neurological ICU at Mayo Clinic, and the next morning, surgeons took 90 minutes to do the minimally invasive coiling. It involves threading a catheter into the femoral artery in the leg and threading the small plastic tube up to the aneurysm.

Then doctors thread three platinum coils through the catheter into the ballooned artery, to keep blood from entering inside the aneurysm and to prevent it from bursting.

Milmine remained at the Mayo Clinic for a week. She continued to have head pain, caused by the irritation to the lining to the brain, similar to meningitis.

The pain gradually dissipated. Milmine still has a few after-affects: noises seem louder, her eyes are still sensitive to light, sleeping is sometimes difficult and she sometimes feels nervous.

But it could have been so much worse. She could have died, or been saddled with serious side-effects.

“One of the doctors said, 'You have no idea how lucky you are to go through what you've gone through and have no side-effects,' ” Milmine said. “It just doesn't happen.”

On Oct. 28 she and Don flew home to Billings. Life is back to normal, and even though Milmine has no visible scars, she knows what could have happened.

If the pain had struck while she was at home, Milmine figures she would have taken some pain and medicine and rested until it went away. And most likely she would have died.

“All through this I could see God was involved in it,” she said. “I was in the right place at the right time and all the doctors did exactly what they should.”

And so, on Thanksgiving, Milmine knows more than ever how glad she is to be alive, and how good it is to have friends and family to share it with. She will enjoy the day with family, and liberally distribute hugs and words of love and gratitude.

“Life is precious,” she said. “Too many people take it for granted, and you really shouldn't.”

Contact Susan Olp at solp@billingsgazette.com or 657-1281.

Contact Susan Olp at solp@billingsgazette.com or 657-1281.

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General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.