The Story Gets Personal

Investigative reporter Jayne Miller, recovering from brain surgery, becomes the news instead of covering it, as WBAL-TV airs her cautionary tale

April 24, 2008|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun reporter

Listen to your body.

Get a doctor you really like and trust.

Stop smoking.

Jayne Miller smiles and laughs at her newfound mantras, truisms she's learned the hard way during the past two months. Hers is a good, hearty laugh, one that betrays not a hint of anything wrong - she neither looks nor sounds like a woman still recovering from brain surgery. Sitting on a picnic bench outside WBAL's TV Hill studios on a warm April afternoon, she seems as energetic and straightforward as ever, every inch the hard-driving investigative reporter who has been chasing after lying pols and corrupt businessmen for nearly three decades.

Now, she can smile about all that has happened. She can marvel at her good fortune and point blithely at the small patch of shaved skin, hidden beneath her otherwise untouched head of hair, that is pretty much the only outward sign that anything was ever wrong. And she can present her story, which will be part of WBAL's 11 p.m. newscast today, as less of a life-threatening experience than as a cautionary tale.

"The real moral of this story is just to listen to your body," says Miller, who turns 54 Saturday. "My body was clearly telling me something at the beginning of February, that this wasn't just another cold, this wasn't just a headache that was going to pass. There was something more seriously wrong here.

"I feel very lucky," she says, "that I listened to myself, I acted on it, and then I listened to my doctors."

Things were very different two months ago. Headaches, vomiting, listlessness. Miller, a newswoman at WBAL for all but two of the past 29 years, an investigative reporter and probably the most respected journalist on Baltimore television, and a woman who insists she's "never sick," was in terrible shape. More terrible than she knew.

"It started with a headache," she says. "I'm not a big call-the-doctor person. You shrug it off, you take something, an Advil here and there or whatever, and you kind of soldier through it. But this time, I picked up the phone and called the doctor. I told her I had this headache, kind of a tension headache, and that my ears felt clogged.

"She wasn't comfortable," Miller says, "that I had a headache that wasn't going away."

Nor was Miller's internist, Dr. Redonda Miller (no relation), comfortable that her patient, who had rarely complained about anything before, felt bad enough to raise an alarm.

"She's a very stoic person," says Redonda Miller. "You know your body, and you know when something's not right."

Miller underwent her first CT scan Feb. 11, and everything looked fine. "It showed like I had sinusitis," she remembers. But the symptoms only got worse; two days later, Miller checked herself into a hospital emergency room. A second CT scan revealed nothing out of the ordinary. About eight days passed.

"I started feeling a little better," Miller recalls, "and then I just really went bad."

Redonda Miller had seen enough to put her patient under the care of a neurologist. Recognizing symptoms that suggested a leak of spinal fluid, doctors tried a blood patch, where blood is taken from one part of the body and injected into another, in hopes of plugging any leaks.

By this time, CT scans had revealed a subdural hematoma, essentially a blood clot sitting outside the brain. In some cases, they heal themselves, but Miller's only got bigger - tripling in size in a matter of days.

"I had a checkup on the 20th of March, and by that time, it had gotten worse," Miller says. "They showed me the CT scan, said `Here's what it looks like. We're going to have to go drain it.'

"I was in surgery the next day."

On March 21, Miller, spent an hour on an operating table at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Neurosurgeon Michael Lim drilled two small holes in her skull and drained blood that had accumulated in the area surrounding her brain. Untreated, the hematoma could have severely damaged Miller's brain and brain stem. And, as Lim puts it, struggling to sound neither too clinical nor too alarmist, "when the brain stem is damaged, or it's severely damaged, it can be incompatible with life."

The hematoma was likely caused by what doctors call intracranial hypotension, says Lim, in which fluid leaks outside of the brain and spinal cord. Doctors suspect Miller may have contracted a mild case of viral meningitis, and that the accompanying violent coughs and vomiting may have caused the tear.

Over time, such leakage reduces pressure inside the skull, causing the brain to sag. That increases tension on what are called bridging veins, which carry blood from outside the brain to the sinuses.

In Miller's case, doctors say they believe one or more of the veins ruptured, leaking blood into the area surrounding the brain. That added mass put pressure on the brain, essentially moving it off-center and contributing to the debilitating headaches Miller had.

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