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Fit and only 50, Maria Alessandri couldn’t understand what caused the severe dizzy spells that would, literally, knock her off her feet four to five times a year. Worse, neither could her doctors.
“The vertigo was so sudden and so bad that I couldn’t remain upright; I’d fall to the ground,” the mother of five says. “I was terrified I’d get an attack while driving.”
That fear—combined with a few isolated but frightening episodes when Maria momentarily couldn’t form words—sent her to a number of specialists. Suspicions ranged from inner ear disorders to hormones to complications from migraines, which Maria had endured for years.
But it wasn’t until a routine physical revealed a noncancerous mass on her lung that Maria got her first clue as to what was wrong. That surprising finding led Maria to MedStar Georgetown University Hospital—and the road to recovery.
“Maria had a rare pulmonary arteriovenous malformation (AVM), an abnormal connection between an artery and a vein in her lung,” explains Theresa Caridi, MD, an interventional radiologist at MedStar Georgetown who specializes in AVM, a physical abnormality. “In effect, AVMs create a wide-open gap where there’s usually a filter or trap. In its absence, all sorts of things—bacteria, blood clots—can freely cross normal biological borders and travel where they should not, like the brain.”
As a result, pulmonary AVMs can cause dangerous medical issues such as strokes and brain or spinal infections. Accurate diagnosis followed by prompt intervention to close the connection is essential to remove future threats.
Pulmonary AVMs occur in only one out of every 5,000 to 10,000 patients. Up to 90 percent of incidences arise from a rare genetic condition called hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia (HHT). The remainder form in the aftermath of certain cancers, cardiac surgery or, most often, trauma—the likely source of Maria’s condition.
Two weeks after meeting Dr. Caridi, Maria underwent a minimally invasive pulmonary AVM embolization to treat her condition. During the two-hour procedure, Dr. Caridi threaded a catheter through the femoral vein in Maria’s groin up to her lungs and blocked the AVM with coils. Maria was free to go home after a two-hour recovery period.
Since then, Maria has not experienced vertigo, had trouble speaking or suffered from the extreme fatigue that plagued her before. In their place, she has a newfound appreciation for MedStar Georgetown and Dr. Caridi.
“Dr. Caridi was very reassuring to me throughout the whole process,” she says. “In fact, everyone I met at the hospital was great, from admitting to nurses to administrative staff. MedStar Georgetown is now my number one choice if I, or any family member, ever need serious care.”