Irreversible Brain Damage That Led to Burke's Death a Result of Heart Stopping: Doctors: Burke's Brain Damage Caused by Cardiac Arrest

By Ubelacker, Sheryl | The Canadian Press, January 2, 2012 | Go to article overview

Irreversible Brain Damage That Led to Burke's Death a Result of Heart Stopping: Doctors: Burke's Brain Damage Caused by Cardiac Arrest


Ubelacker, Sheryl, The Canadian Press


TORONTO - The artery that ruptured when freestyle skier Sarah Burke fell during a training run is one of the most critical blood vessels in the body, feeding oxygen-rich blood to the brain stem, neurosurgeons say.

Burke, 29, died Thursday of her injuries in the University of Utah Hospital, nine days after the accident at the Park City Mountain Resort.

It's the brain stem, located at the bottom of the brain and tucked inside the back of the skull, that controls breathing and heart function.

"Basically there are four major blood vessels that bring blood to the brain, and two are at the back of the head, come up from the back," explained Dr. Michael Cusimano, a neurosurgeon at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.

"They're called the vertebral arteries because they come through the bones of the neck and then get to the brain," he said. The two other major arteries, called the carotids, run up the front of the neck.

It was one of her vertebral arteries that Burke tore when she crashed at the training site, causing what's called a massive intercranial hemorrhage, in which blood poured into her brain.

Doctors say the severe brain injury caused Burke to go into cardiac arrest. In other words, her heart stopped beating and she was no longer breathing on her own, resulting in a lack of oxygen to the brain.

"So right on the scene of this mountain where she was on, where she was training, her heart stopped," said Cusimano. "And so it was probably that the artery was partly torn and that led to this bleeding that her heart stopped."

Paramedics at the scene gave Burke CPR and she was transferred to the Utah Hospital emergency department, where she was put on a ventilator, or breathing machine, and a procedure called therapeutic hypothermia was initiated to control swelling of the brain tissues. …

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