A Young Woman’s Fight for “Life”

By Deana M. Newman, M.A., C.C.P.

LANSING, MI –Summers are generally celebrated as a time of outdoor fun, gatherings and basking in the sun.  However, the summer of 2008 was an eventful season which changed the normal course for one Lansing, Michigan family leading to a tragic end. 
On a beautiful day in June, a healthy and vibrant twenty year old Shavell “Malaka” McClain, a Sexton High School graduate, attended an outdoor family gala.  After a day of enjoying good food and fellowship, she complained of having a headache and was advised by loved ones to go home and rest – the common self-treatment of many to sooth a headache.  Little did she know her ailment was a warning sign of something greater than an average headache.   The next day, Malaka awakened to left-sided numbness and temporary blindness and while being rushed to a local hospital, via ambulance, suffered multiple seizures.
After numerous lab and imaging tests, the source of Malaka’s cluster of life-altering complications were contributed to an Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM).    
An AVM is an abnormal structure of blood vessels and is generally congenital or developed at birth.  A normal circulatory system is comprised of oxygenated blood being pumped by the heart into vasculature known as arteries and diffused into capillaries where oxygenated blood is delivered to nourish tissues.  After tissues receive their supply of oxygen, the deoxygenated blood is carried away by veins.  
In patients with AVM, the capillary structure is missing thus creating a high-pressure shunt where oxygenated blood is never delivered to the tissue and continues its flow directly into low-pressure veins.  Because veins are not used to high pressures, they may weaken and rupture/hemorrhage overtime or form aneurysms.  AVMs can occur anywhere in the body, but in young Malaka’s case, her AVM developed in the brain. 
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), “AVMs of the brain or spinal cord (neurological AVMs) are believed to affect approximately 300,000 Americans. They occur in males and females of all racial or ethnic backgrounds at roughly equal rates.”  About twelve percent of those diagnosed will present symptoms severe enough to cause disability or be labeled as “life-threatening”, while only one percent of the AVM population will die directly from the disorder.  
Though AVMs are congenital disorders, meaning developed at birth, a person with an AVM may not know they have the condition because symptoms do not develop until later in life.  “An AVM is typically discovered through Computerized Tomography Scanning (CT Scan) or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) generally prescribed for other reasons.  Individuals with AVMs are “walking time bombs” and the point of bleeding or rupture occurs when the bomb goes off”, said Dr. Ronald Bishop, Emergency Medical Physician at Memorial Healthcare Center in Owosso, Michigan.  “Headaches are an occasional annoyance, however an Emergency Room visit is warranted if the headache is coupled with a fever, visual disturbance, neck pain, persistent nausea and vomiting or lasting greater than twenty four hours.  The severity of AVM complications is due to the location of the anomaly, though once an AVM rupture occurs in the brain its course of recover is difficult.”  
Such difficulty was clearly demonstrated in Malaka’s fight for life.  Her emergent Cerebral AVM discovery was quickly followed by multiple surgeries to relieve hemorrhaging and pressure building episodes in the brain.  Malaka miraculously survived an initial prognosis of two days, however, the remaining months of her life involved round-the-clock nursing home care, additional surgical interventions, permanent blindness, relying on alternative ways to communicate, paralysis, sepsis and a coma.
While in a coma, Malaka received two letters of acceptance to attend college – a dream permanently deferred as a result of her death on July 5, 2009.     
Zakkiya Young, Malaka’s mother and co-fighter for her daughter’s life, lives by the statement “…from God we come, to God we return, but not without a story to tell” and is hopeful Malaka’s story is used as an educational tool for the community.