Boston Mother to Celebrate Special Thanksgiving After AVM Surgeries

A young Boston mother will celebrate a special Thanksgiving this year just months after undergoing four complex brain surgeries at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix to treat what she calls a “ticking time bomb in her head.”

“Thanksgiving now has a renewed meaning for my family and me,” says Vanessa Garza McAllister. “Not only are we grateful for the little things in life, but this year, we are thankful that I am alive, feeling physically and mentally stronger than ever, and I will be able to watch my children grow and thrive for years to come.”

After being diagnosed in 2015 with an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) in her brain and told by a handful of doctors on the East Coast that treating the AVM would be very risky and therefore inadvisable, Garza McAllister, 37, who is a mother of two young children, underwent four successful brain surgeries at Barrow in July. The AVM, an abnormal tangle of arteries and veins in the brain with high blood flow through it, was the size of a tennis ball. Without surgery, it could rupture at any time and cause paralysis or death.

Barrow AVM patient Vanessa Garza McAllister with her family
Vanessa Garza McAllister with her family

Because AVMs are very difficult to treat, Garza McAllister was told by doctors to simply watch her AVM and live with the risk of rupture because removing it would be too difficult. Alternatively, she was told to seek the opinions of two world-renowned neurosurgeons elsewhere in the United States. One neurosurgeon was located at Barrow in Phoenix, but was soon retiring. The other neurosurgeon was in California but was soon moving to Phoenix to replace the retiring surgeon as the new leader at Barrow. Garza McAllister decided to wait for Dr. Michael Lawton to start as President and CEO of Barrow Neurological Institute, and she became one of his first AVM patients at Barrow. Dr. Lawton is considered one of the world’s top brain surgeons and is known for treating the riskiest and most complex of neurological diseases. Barrow, known throughout the world for providing cutting-edge treatment for people with brain and spine disorders, performs more brain surgeries than any other hospital in the United States.

“The brain condition Vanessa had is rare and occurs in less than 1 percent of the population,” says Dr. Lawton. “AVMs are known to be very difficult to treat and can cause debilitating damage if left untreated and a rupture occurs.”

Garza McAllister underwent two AVM brain embolizations and two open brain surgeries at Barrow in July to completely remove the AVM. She suffered very limited side effects and was released from the hospital just days after her surgeries. Before her diagnosis, Garza McAllister had no warning signs of the AVM. The malformation was found incidentally on a MRI that had had been ordered to diagnose an unrelated hearing problem.

“I was concerned about doing such a difficult AVM case as my first one upon my arrival to Barrow, but Vanessa was so determined to defeat this malformation and she did beautifully,” Lawton said.

“I’m thankful that I took the advice of the Boston doctors to seek treatment by the specialists at Barrow,” says Garza McAllister. “I had a large and complicated ticking time bomb in my brain and removing it was risky and difficult. I was lucky, however, to be able to choose my surgeon—the best in the world—and undergo the surgeries with Dr. Lawton on my own timeline and on my own terms. Dr. Lawton safely and successfully removed my AVM and saved my life.”

For Garza McAllister, her husband, and young son and daughter, every day is Thanksgiving.

“We were living each day with anxiety and uncertainty related to my AVM,” says Garza McAllister. “We can now celebrate the most important things in life—our health and each other.”

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