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Caring for arteriovenous malformation (AVM) patient

Laurie Sell never gives up hope as she helps her husband work toward recovery

caregiver heart blogLaurie Sell credits faith and a sense of humor with keeping her and her husband pushing forward after Tom, in the prime of life, suffered an arteriovenous malformation or AVM — a burst blood vessel that caused massive bleeding in his cerebellum, robbing it of oxygen. An AVM is also referred to as a hemorrhagic stroke.

The active 51-year-old husband and father of two was quickly airlifted from his local hospital to the University of Michigan where doctors performed surgery. Tom spent the next 2½ months at U-M, unable to eat or swallow and breathing with the help of a ventilator.

When an AVM occurs, vessels typically burst at a weak area in their walls, often at a bulging spot called an aneurysm or a tangled web of abnormal vessels. AVMs can occur in different organs of the body, but brain AVMs are the most problematic, often causing stroke-like results.

Embracing the role of caregiver

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The Sell family celebrates at the wedding of eldest son, Jay.

“Tom was mentally fine, but the AVM affected all core muscles, including his breathing and body temperature. He was in no position to come home,” Laurie remembers.

But eventually, he did come home, where Laurie quickly took on the role of caregiver, beginning a journey that has spanned many years of joy, disappointment, celebration and fear — but never hopelessness or the thought of giving up.

Even when doctors suggested that Tom might not get any better, the Sell family didn’t accepted it. And they set out to find their own solutions when there were no resources available. Together, they invented methods to help Tom in his ongoing recovery, Laurie coming up with the ideas and Tom executing them.

“Not all were successful,” Laurie laughs, noting the “cane with casters” invention that didn’t quite work out. They also diligently practiced the two-step in preparation for dancing at their son Jay’s wedding. “We really tried that too soon into Tom’s recovery,” Laurie jokes.

Small successes add up

But there are also success stories that point to definite improvement, including Tom’s recent bowling night when he was able to walk up to bowl without a cane. “He’s still making progress,” Laurie says proudly.

In hindsight, the only change Laurie says she would make throughout this entire journey involves her oldest son, Jay, whom she tried to keep shielded while he attended school at the University of Michigan. “I would not have tried to protect my college student from what was going on at home because it was such a valuable life experience,” she says. “My younger son, Kenny, had to deal with all of it, and learned so much from it.”

Looking forward, Laurie says Tom’s goal is to walk without a cane this year. Tom says he’s motivated to succeed, but admits he tries harder when Laurie is there to nudge him further, a responsibility this caregiver happily accepts. “We are not giving up,” she says.


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The University of Michigan Samuel and Jean Frankel Cardiovascular Center is a top-ranked heart and heart surgery program among Michigan hospitals. To learn more, visit our website at umcvc.org.