In early April, Eric and Lee Broadway were enjoying coffee and each other's company on their porch. They had some rare alone time because their four children were out of town. But, that calm was disrupted for Eric when he needed to work for a few hours; Lee remained home and relaxed. When Broadway was on his way back, he called and his wife shared some worrisome news.
“She said ‘I have the worst headache of my life,” Broadway, 43, told TODAY. “She lost feeling in her left leg and she fell.”
Broadway encouraged Lee, 41, to stay on the phone while he drove home. When he arrived, they headed to the emergency room at the local hospital. After a CT scan, the doctors knew she needed specialized neurological care and they flew her to Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.
In the chaos, Broadway never learned what caused Lee’s symptoms until he asked a passing nurse who informed him that Lee had a broken blood vessel in her brain.
Still feeling uncertain, Broadway Googled “broken blood vessel” and learned that Lee likely suffered from an aneurysm. An aneurysm is a weakening of the blood vessels in the brain, which balloon out and sometimes look like berries. They sound scary, but doctors agree that with monitoring and lifestyle changes they can be managed.
While the transfer to the hospital went well, Lee’s condition didn’t improve.
“Lee is in serious pain. All she is doing is begging for them to take away her pain. It is hard to hear her screaming for help,” Broadway said.
But a nurse practitioner reassured Broadway. Lee's aneurysm only ranked two out of five, which was good news. He felt confident enough about his wife’s health that he went home to sleep while his in-laws stayed at the hospital.
The next day, April 2, doctors used a catheter to examine Lee's brain. After the procedure, a doctor gave Broadway and his in-laws a thumbs-up and explained they inserted a coil into Lee’s brain. Neurosurgeons often use coils to treat aneurysms said Dr. Vineeta Singh, a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology, who did not treat Lee.
But hours passed and Lee had not come out of recovery. The family started worrying when the doctors invited them to the conference room. The doctors told them that there were complications and “there is nothing we can do for Lee.”
“I lost it. I ran out of the room,” said Broadway.
The coil popped out of place and Lee experienced complications. She was brain dead and died on April 3.
“It was a huge surprise,” said Broadway. “For some reason for her to bleed out, it is unexplainable.”
While experiencing crippling headaches can be a sign of an aneurysm, doctors say ruptured aneurysms are exceedingly rare.
“There is a less than one percent chance of an aneurysm rupturing,” said Dr. Mark Bain, a neurosurgeon at Cleveland Clinic, who did not treat Lee.
But when they rupture, people certainly can tell.
“If your aneurysm is rupturing you will know. It is usually the worst headache and a sudden pop. Most people fall to the ground and vomit,” he said. “It is different than any other headache that you have had.”
People who smoke, use cocaine or have high blood pressure are at higher risk of aneurysms, but doctors remain uncertain why they occur. Lee had high blood pressure, said Broadway, but she took medication for it and was healthy enough that her family doctor felt shocked by her passing.
He's not the only one. Broadway still grapples with Lee’s loss, but he's trying to be strong.
“I don’t have time to be down, I have to be there for my kids,” he said.
Broadway had known Lee since middle school. They were best friends and he fixed her up with his friends. But when she was a senior in high school, he realized that his feelings for Lee were more than friendship.
“I remember writing her this letter and just spilling my guts to her,” Broadway said. “I thought ‘How is she going to respond to this?’”
Lee responded by sharing his feelings and they started dating. A year later, she had their first child, Adair, when Lee was 18, and Broadway, 19. Six years later, she had their second daughter Averi, and Broadway felt content.
“I thought we were done. Lee wanted a son because the first two were girls,” Broadway said.
Then they had Alex, now 10, and finally a boy Adrien, now 8 years old.
Lee devoted her life to her children.
“She just appreciated everything about being a mom from doing homework to field trips with them and (being) in the classroom,” Broadway said. "She based her life around it."
The family has received support from people around the world and that helps Broadway and his children feel comforted.
“It’s just mind-blowing to see,” he said.
Broadway said he’ll miss having adventures, and even down times, with Lee, and hopes that others who hear her story remember to love their friends and family.
“I hope people just learn to love your love(d) ones every minute of every day and not to take it for granted. Lee and I both took things for granted and it is me just wishing I could say one last thing to her and do one last thing for her,” he said.
Friends and family of the Broadway family have set up a GoFundMe page to help support the family during this difficult time.