January 8, 2020

Sasha, fully recovered from brain surgery, poses with her 'other mother,' a long-haired chihuahua named 'Lady.

THERESA JAVA/Free Press Sasha, fully recovered from brain surgery, poses with her 'other mother,' a long-haired chihuahua named 'Lady.

KEY LARGO — Trying new things and improving herself overall are among the dozen resolutions Sasha Gadea has set for herself in 2020. She picked that number as part of a Spanish tradition of eating 12 grapes at midnight to welcome the new year.

Those goals will be a small feat now that the Key Largo teen has been medically cleared after undergoing a life-saving brain surgery to treat the rare condition known as anteriovenous malformation, or AVM.

Vascular neurosurgeon and neuroradiologist Dr. Robert Starke and Dr. Heather McCrea, a pediatric neurosurgeon, surgically removed an AVM, or tangled blood vessels about the size of a credit card, from Sasha Gadea’s brain.

She’s also looking forward to reading again, a seemingly innocuous activity that initially was thought to be the cause of Sasha’s debilitating headaches.

“I used to read, like a lot,” the 13-year-old said Monday. “I would read under the covers with a flashlight and mommy used to say it wasn’t enough light.”

Her medical condition was unknown at the time.

Last March at Key Largo School, Sasha lost vision in her left eye.

“It just went black,” she said. “It started with a headache, then I started to feel dizzy and then I got nauseous because I was so panicked.”

After Sasha was discharged from the emergency room, her mother, Yudith, took her to Bascom Palmer Eye Institute at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center.

“She was so sick by the time we got up there,” Yudith said.

Because Sasha was so sick, she was referred to the emergency department at Holtz Children’s Hospital across the street. After hours of diagnostic testing and review by a team of 14 doctors, Sasha was diagnosed with AVM, which is a tangle of abnormal and poorly formed arteries and veins. Hers was about the size of a credit card and was further complicated by three aneurysms.

“We took four ambulance rides back and forth between the hospitals,” Sasha said. “They thought I had a seizure, and the whole time, mommy wouldn’t go to bed.”

Sasha was at risk of life-threatening bleeding or suffering major disabilities as a result of a rupture.

“Sasha’s case was very challenging because she had a very large AVM extending deep into the brain,” said Dr. Heather McCrea, UHealth pediatric neurosurgeon and director of pediatric neurosurgery at Holtz Children’s Hospital. “Since she is so young, she had a lifetime risk of having major complications from the AVM.”

Yudith said she did not grasp the severity of her daughter’s situation until vascular neurosurgeon and neuroradiologist Dr. Robert Starke explained that Sasha’s brain function and ultimately her life were at risk. Sasha risked dying during an operation or dying without one.

“There are no words to describe how hearing this made me feel,” Yudith said. “It was like putting a gun to my head.”

In May, Sasha first underwent a minimally invasive procedure to place a catheter through her leg artery to close the brain vessels and aneurysms. Hours later, Starke and McCrea successfully removed the entire AVM and aneurysms.

“Sasha’s case is so remarkable because most medical centers would have deemed her case inoperable given the large size of the AVM,” Starke said.

The two procedures spanned about 24 hours and Sasha left the hospital six days later. For Sasha, the scariest part of her diagnosis and surgery has been the needles.

As a middle child, Sasha said her siblings have been kinder to her since her health scare.

Doctors’ orders had been to rehabilitate for six months but her physicians were astounded to see Sasha’s progress two weeks after her surgery, according to Yudith.

After eight months of recovery, Sasha said she’s now considering playing tennis and is looking forward to reading again. She favors graphic novels and comedies.