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Dr. Shail Lal

Local Physician's Encounter

Local Physician’s Encounter with Pickup Family Hoag Neurosciences Institute and Her Mission to Spread the Word

Dr. Shail Lal’s day began like any other last summer. As a staff pathologist and lab director for West Anaheim Medical Center, she spent the morning presenting at the hospital’s regular tumor board meeting, where physicians get together to discuss current cancer patients. The only thing different, she recalls, was the slight headache that had been bothering her during the meeting.

But on that day in August, it wasn’t just any other headache. As she leaned over to gather her projector and other belongings at the end of the meeting, her mild headache turned into an explosive one. “The pain,” she said, “was like getting slammed over the head with a hammer. It was like nothing I’d ever felt before.” In that moment, Dr. Lal says she knew that something was terribly wrong.

“I somehow managed to make my way to the house phone to call my lab assistant, Leslie, and told her to call the ER and get me some help.” She remembers saying to Leslie, “Help me, something really bad has happened.” They found Dr. Lal semi-conscious with the phone dangling off the hook beside her.

She vaguely recalls being rushed to her hospital’s emergency room and learning that a CT scan revealed a subarachnoid hemorrhage in her brain and the consensus at that time was that she probably had a ruptured brain aneurysm. In the emergency room, she continued to drift in and out of consciousness while the staff discussed which hospital was properly equipped to treat the severe bleed that had been identified in her brain. At one point she remembers telling the ER doctors, “I want to go to Hoag.”

Despite talk of having her transferred to UCI or UCLA, Shail and her husband, Rajesh Lal, a vascular surgeon affiliated with Hoag, knew that Hoag’s neurological team would provide the best care. While most hospitals continue to rely on open brain surgery to repair an aneurysm, at Hoag, state-of-the-art facilities enable doctors to perform a delicate procedure that eliminates the need for invasive and potentially debilitating brain surgery. In fact, Hoag is one of only a handful of hospitals in the region with this capability.

At Hoag, further radiological tests confirmed the diagnosis of a ruptured brain aneurysm. Her treatment called for an expert team of physicians, nurses and technologists - including Neurosurgeon William Dobkin, M.D., Interventional Radiologist and Pickup Family Neuroscience Institute Director Michael Brant-Zawadzki, M.D., F.A.C.R. - performing a cutting-edge technique called coil embolization. A catheter was gently guided through an artery in Dr. Lal’s groin and all the way up to her brain. When the catheter reached the weakened vessel, a fine filament was released to pack up the rupture from the inside.

After her procedure, Dr. Lal spent the next six days in the neuro intensive care unit and another two in the stroke unit, allowing plenty of time to experience the unsurpassed medical care that Hoag offers.

“From my team of Hoag physicians and ICU nurses to the aides and radiology technicians, every person who cared for me was responsive, gentle and quick to reassure me that everything was going to be okay,” she said. “In their capable hands, I never once felt like I might die.” Her husband, Dr. Rajesh Lal added, “Until you are a patient, you don’t realize how important it is to have doctors, nurses and aides who treat you with compassion. Hoag has created a culture that is consistently patient-centered.”

During Dr. Lal’s hospital stay, concern over a lingering headache called for careful monitoring of her condition. When the treating radiologist, Dr. Brant-Zawadzki, known to many as Dr. BZ, let her know that everything was just fine and her tests did not reveal any complications, she said, “I think Dr. BZ was the face of God. He saved my life.”

Since then, she has made a miraculous physical recovery - though it took quite a few months for the exhaustion and head and back pain to subside - but things have changed emotionally. Dr. Lal has a revived enthusiasm for gardening and thinks often about even the littlest of things that she might have missed had she not benefited from the superlative care she received at Hoag.

Quite naturally, she said, “I have willingly changed the pace of my life and slowed down to appreciate all the things that I took for granted. I appreciate the people and relationships in my life more.” Particularly, when it comes to her daughters Neeta and Priya, both in their 20s, and for that matter, her daughters’ appreciation of her.

“I was never content staying at home,” she said. “In fact, whenever I saw a plane flying overhead, I always wished I was on it. I wanted to be traveling and on the go all of the time.” But now, Dr. Lal says she finds contentment and fulfillment much closer to home.

“I feel very lucky, but also have some survivor’s guilt that many others, including people I know, have not been so fortunate.” Through her medical training, Dr. Lal knows that timing is everything when it comes to treating an aneurysm. Unfortunately, not everyone recognizes the symptoms and she lost a friend to the very same thing a few years ago.

“My education helped me recognize the symptoms and seek immediate help, but most people don’t know that a sudden and extremely painful headache can possibly mean a ruptured brain aneurysm.” In fact, 10 to 15 percent of patients will die before they reach the hospital and more than 50 percent will die within the first 30 days after a rupture. Of those who survive, about half suffer some permanent neurological deficit.

Moreover, the experience has left Dr. Lal with a focused resolve to educate others on the signs and symptoms of brain aneurysms and other medical emergencies, and the imperative to get help quickly, as well as to spread the word that Hoag is unmatched in its team of specialists, nursing care and facilities.

Dr. Lal says she wants everyone in Orange County to know that, “People should not be going anywhere else.”

Today Dr. Lal is committed to helping ensure that her friends, family and neighbors will have world-class health care at hand when it’s needed most. As an advocate for Hoag neurosciences, Dr. Lal looks forward to the comprehensive and integrative care Pickup Family Neuroscience Institute will offer. Most important, however, is that today - one year from that frightening day last August - Dr. Lal sees a future that is filled with promise, with family and friends, and with many, many days in her garden.

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