Cover Story

Darla's Comeback

by Leslie Turk

Nearly two months after suffering a brain aneurysm that changed her life, Lafayette’s media darling battles her anxiety over returning to the airwaves.

photo by Terri Fensel

The Wednesday routine was the same — up at about 5:45 a.m., making pancakes and sausage for her 17-year-old daughter, Alexis, and out the door at 2 p.m. to prepare for the 5 p.m. newscast on KLFY-TV10, one of three Darla Montgomery did each weekday.

Seconds before the 10 p.m. newscast was set to air that night, Montgomery didn’t feel well. The same agonizing headache she’d experienced exactly a week earlier — one the longtime headache sufferer wrote off as another bad migraine — returned. But this one was different; the pain wouldn’t go away and was intensifying. She told her co-anchor Chuck Huebner she wasn’t feeling well, and Huebner asked her if she could make it until a commercial break. She didn’t think so, and when she tried to get up, she fell to the floor.

Huebner grabbed her hand to break her fall and lowered her to floor, calling to the crew members to come over and elevate her feet. He turned back to Montgomery and asked her if she could hear him. She told him she had an “excruciating pain in her head.”

In the ensuing seconds, Huebner saw her breathing become irregular as she faded in and out of consciousness. He kept talking to her, rubbing his knuckles against her chest to keep her breathing. When she told Huebner he sounded like he was far away, the scared Huebner became more determined than ever to keep her awake.

While Montgomery was fading in and out, Acadian Ambulance paramedic Greg LeBlanc was sitting at the Johnston Street substation wondering why the 10 p.m. newscast was running so late. Then the call came. “The dispatcher said we need you to Priority 1 [lights, sirens] to TV10 on Eraste Landry Road. It’s Darla Montgomery.”

When LeBlanc and his partner arrived, Montgomery was semi-conscious and having trouble with verbal responses. Huebner kept reassuring her she’d be OK.

“She was very reliable once we got her on oxygen,” LeBlanc recalls.

Montgomery had already told the medics about her massive headache but LeBlanc pressed on, questioning her for more clues. When she said her neck hurt “really bad,” the seven-year employee immediately remembered what he’d recently learned from one of Acadian’s medical directors, Dr. Rosemary St. Clergy, in a critical care course. The immediate onset of the severe headache followed by the stiff and aching neck were all the clues he needed. “You can bet your last dollar it’s an intracranial bleed,” LeBlanc says.

Montgomery was in the hospital for 12 days, her official diagnosis subarachnoid hemorrhage from a ruptured aneurysm. A ruptured aneurysm is a type of stroke.

Often life-threatening, a brain aneurysm is an area where a blood vessel in the brain weakens, resulting in a blood-filled dilation (a balloon-like bulging) of the vessel wall. It usually develops at the point where a blood vessel branches or forks, because this area is structurally more vulnerable.

The hemorrhage in Montgomery’s brain was confirmed by a CT scan taken immediately after her arrival at Lafayette General Medical Center’s emergency room, and a subsequent angiogram revealed the source of the bleeding. Montgomery’s neurosurgeon, Dr. Alan Appley, says her aneurysm was the most common type, called saccular or “berry” because of its shape. It had formed at a major blood vessel, the anterior cerebral artery, in the area known as the circle of Willis — the interconnection of main blood vessels (located a few centimeters behind the eye) that supply blood to the brain. “The vast majority occur at this circle of Willis,” says Appley, explaining that the aneurysm bled the week before Montgomery collapsed but then sealed up, leaving the blood to travel through her spinal fluid. Montgomery says her headache the previous week was piercing but went away quickly.

“It had to be such a minor bleed for her to not even have a headache the next day,” says Appley, a California native who earned his medical degree from Tulane Medical School and completed his neurosurgery residency at the University of Southern California School of Medicine in Los Angeles. He was the founding medical director of the Florida Hospital Neuroscience Institute in Orlando before relocating to Lafayette seven years ago. Appley was instrumental in bringing CyberKnife technology to LGMC and is one of a few experts in the country with expertise in both neurosurgery and radiosurgery.

Brain aneurysms can occur in anyone, at any age, with some resulting from an inborn abnormality in an artery wall or certain genetic diseases. Family history is an important indicator, and other risk factors medical experts and researchers believe contribute to the formation of brain aneurysms include smoking, hypertension, drug use (particularly cocaine), infection, tumors and traumatic head injury.

“Up to 6 percent of the population can have an unruptured aneurysm,” Appley says. “You can live just fine until it ruptures.”

The danger depends on the size and location in the brain, whether it leaks or ruptures and the person’s overall health. There are tell-tale signs that a rupture has occurred. “You feel like hell,” Appley says, and unlike a migraine or headache that comes on gradually, it strikes like a bolt of lightning. “It’s easily the worst headache of your life,” the surgeon continues. “It is always different from any other headache you’ve experienced and is often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, stiff neck and sensitivity to light.”

When an aneurysm ruptures, about half of the people die suddenly from a massive hemorrhage. Of the half that make it to the hospital, a third are treated successfully, another third recover but are unable to return to work, and a third die or suffer substantial brain damage. When blood leaks out, it can reach the brain cells and cause damage, usually paralysis or trouble with mental skills. In addition, the blood irritates the vessels and causes vasospasm that typically develops about a week after the hemorrhage. The vasospasm narrows the blood vessels and can “choke” the brain of needed oxygen, sometimes leading to another type of stroke or lack of blood flow.

Montgomery’s aneurysm had to be secured for two reasons — to prevent any further bleeding and to allow treatment of her vasospasm. Because of the shape and size of her aneurysm, Montgomery had to undergo an invasive type of surgery that uses a permanent clip to stop the bleeding. Still considered the gold standard in treating both ruptured and unruptured aneurysms, the procedure is nonetheless challenging and requires a highly capable neurosurgeon. The brain and blood vessels are accessed through an opening in the skull, and once the aneurysm is identified, it is carefully separated from the surrounding brain tissue by applying a small metal clip to its base. The clip allows the blades to close around either side of the aneurysm, separating it from the parent blood vessel.

Many surgeons still perform the clipping procedure through a large incision that goes behind the patient’s hairline, but for the past six years Appley’s been doing what’s called “keyhole surgery,” in which a small, approximately 1-inch incision is cut right above the brow — creating less trauma and shorter surgical time. (It can also be used for certain types of tumor surgeries.) The location of the aneurysm helps determine whether the patient is a candidate for the keyhole incision. Appley, who has performed more than 100 clipping procedures over the past two decades, was confident the procedure would be successful but admits to having concerns about the scar it would leave because of Montgomery’s highly visible profession.

The procedure was a success, and once the aneurysm was secured, Montgomery’s vasospasm was treated with medications that elevated her blood pressure, increasing the blood flow to the brain. “I am so grateful he decided, 20 years ago or however long it was, to be a neurosurgeon,” Montgomery says.

An Opelousas native, Darla Montgomery is one of five children born to Alvarez and Patricia Hertzock. Her parents and siblings, along with her husband and two daughters (19-year-old Brianne flew in from Middle Tennessee State), were constantly by her side during the hospital stay. Devout Catholics, the Hertzocks and Montgomerys have leaned heavily on their faith twice in the past few months. Just two months before her aneurysm, Montgomery’s father began exhibiting signs of confusion and disorientation. A brain scan revealed a “film” or slight spot on his brain. After a combination of chemotherapy and steroids, the spot disappeared — his diagnosis Alzheimer’s plaque.

Throughout her hospital stay, Montgomery wore a large St. Benedict cross around her neck and both a Miraculous Medal and St. Anne medal pinned to her gown — all brought to her by her mother. She credits the power of prayer with helping her recovery.

There are stacks of get-well letters and cards on her kitchen table and manila envelopes filled with printed e-mail messages from friends and, mostly, viewers. She’s been answering each one of them personally, a sign of Montgomery’s continued devotion to her profession and affection for the audience that has followed her career in the broadcast field, one that has seen her go from TV10 to the state’s technical college system for six months, then to competitor KATC-TV 3 in 2003. Three years later, lured back by a six-figure salary, she returned to TV10. Much of her viewership switched over with her, and the musical chair-like career never negatively impacted her relationship with Huebner. The two became fast friends back in 1992 when she joined TV10 as an inexperienced reporter.

“I had never reported a day in my life, and I had to work with people with a lot of experience,” she says. Montgomery recalls Huebner being among the most willing to mentor young reporters eager to learn the ropes.

“We’ve always been close,” Huebner says. “And now we’re closer.”

The experience hit close to home for Huebner, whose wife has also been struggling with health problems for the past seven years. The normally confident — some would say coarse — broadcaster was visibly shaken when he returned to the air about 25 minutes after 10 p.m. the night of the incident. He explained to the audience what had happened and used the format to get word out to her family members that she had been taken to LGMC. “It was tough,” says the news veteran. “But you just try to flip a switch.”

When he arrived on the scene, LeBlanc saw a calm, collected co-worker who was as focused as a first responder. “Chuck was automatically a part of the team, like he was wearing one of our shirts,” LeBlanc says. “Chuck was by her side the whole time.”

It’s unclear whether Huebner’s quick action played a role in Montgomery’s outcome, but the emotional support can’t be overstated. “The outpouring of care from the whole [KLFY staff] was just phenomenal,” LeBlanc says. “We always want to believe that any kind of emotional support certainly helps.” Huebner’s aid and encouragement in her time of need is the one part of the ordeal Montgomery can most clearly recall.

She still gets choked up when his name comes up. “I remember several times just not wanting to be alive, the pain was so great,” she says. “I told him to tell my family that I loved them, and he said, ‘You’re not going anywhere, and if you wanted a day off this is not the way to do it.’ He just wouldn’t let go of me.”

Recalling the incident is like a dream, Montgomery says, and the hospital stay — in part because of her constant pain and the medications used to manage it — is all a blur.

Darla Montgomery sees Chuck Huebner for the frist time since suffering an aneurysm.

photo by Terri Fensel

Although Huebner went to see Montgomery at the hospital, she cannot recall seeing him or any of her other friends who visited her at LGMC. Last week Independent Weekly photographer Terri Fensel was at the station when the nightly news anchors were reunited for the first time since the incident. Huebner gave her a big bear hug, and Montgomery cried.

“People still pull me aside and say, ‘What’s that Chuck Huebner really like?’” Montgomery says, laughing at what she thinks is a gross misconception of her co-worker.

Montgomery believes part of her story is an opportunity for people to see the Chuck Huebner she’s known for the past 16 years. “Everybody thinks he’s a macho man,” she says. “Chuck is a hell of a journalist, a hell of an investigative reporter. He’s often aggressive, which is why he’s so misunderstood,” she continues. “At the end of the day, Chuck is one of the most decent human beings I know.”

Huebner is excited to have Montgomery back at his side but equally anxious and supportive of a gradual return to the airwaves. “It’s going to be great,” he says. “[But] she needs to take it at her own speed. Your priorities change when you see your co-anchor lying there.”

Montgomery’s aneurysm ruptured on Wednesday, April 2. Last week, the petite 45-year-old was home, looking and sounding a lot like her old self and preparing for her return to work this week. The only visible sign of her experience is a small scar above her left brow, and she’s having some trouble with word selection (saying “nacho” instead of “macho,” for instance). She can’t smell or taste. She’s hoping that returns.

The scariest aspect of this health condition is that it is a silent killer, says Montgomery. She hopes her experience leads those who are at risk to consider being tested, as advancements in imaging technology have made it possible to detect unruptured aneurysms. The tests, however, can be expensive (see "Early Detection" sidebar). A surgeon would then consider a number of factors, including the risk of hemorrhage and age and health of the patient, before intervening.

Montgomery is constantly researching the subject to ensure that she does everything in her power to prevent this from happening again (she’s been told she has a 20 percent chance of developing another aneurysm). “If someone has a family history of aneurysms, they are in a major risk category, period,” Montgomery says. “We are all ‘at risk’ for some health issue based on our family histories and our lifestyles. Stress is a big factor, as are any toxins, smoking, alcohol. Everything in moderation is the way one doctor explained it to me.” She was a light smoker in the past but has since dropped the bad habit. A former semi-professional dancer, she’s always been conscientious about her health and at the time she suffered the ruptured aneurysm was in top physical condition. About six months before, she’d taken up jogging, two miles a day followed by another mile of walking.

The health scare has forced the broadcast veteran to take a hard look at her life. When she did KLFY’s morning show in the mid-1990s, she got up at 3 a.m. and arrived at the station about an hour later. “It was very common to still find me there at 3 or 4 in the afternoon,” she says. The evening schedule — she’s the only local anchor on at 5, 6 and 10 p.m., the latter the most coveted spot in local news — is much better, but the news business is inherently stressful. “I am type A personality, always thinking, moving 100 mph seven days a week,” she says, “[I] can’t relax even while trying.”

That’s slowly changing. “During my recovery, I spent a lot of time in prayer and reflection sorting through a range of emotions including fear, anger, doubt and gratitude,” she says. Thumbing through an old calendar planner that has just about every day’s square filled — many community events related to her position at the station — she recalls how she spent most of her days. “I once thought multitasking was a great word, but now I believe it’s just another buzz word created by society to boost the egos of overachievers and generate ‘superworkers,’” Montgomery says. “I still possess a great work ethic, only now I am practicing what I’ve always preached: to work so much smarter, and not harder.”

She continues, “I am learning for the first time ever to truly take life one day at a time. Before my aneurysm, I thought that’s what I was doing. Now I limit myself to fewer tasks in a day, week or month.”

Montgomery is understandably apprehensive about returning to work, saying she plans to start out with one newscast a day. “I have a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear, afraid to raise my blood pressure, afraid there was another spot they missed,” she says. “Being on deadline all the time, there is anxiety about that.”

Early Detection

Types of aneurysms include cerebral, aortic and peripheral. Those that occur in arteries outside of the brain and heart area are called peripheral aneurysms.

Imaging technology has advanced to the point where aneurysms can usually be detected before they rupture. Computed tomography angiography or magnetic resonance angiography, both of which use a contrast material or dye, are commonly performed to test for a cerebral aneurysm. According to LGMC, a CTA costs about $1,500 plus supplies, with an MRA running from $1,700 to $2,600 plus supplies. Insurance companies may pay for a test if a person has two primary relationships (such as a mother and sibling) to a family member who has been diagnosed with an aneurysm.

A portable rolling ultrasound unit can be used to check for both aortic and peripheral aneurysms, making this diagnostic test much less expensive and requiring fewer resources for a group screening. Free screenings are currently being offered across the state for abdominal aortic aneurysms, which typically occur in older people, most of whom die after a rupture. At press time Prairieville-based Aneurysm Outreach Inc. was trying to secure sponsorship funding for a screening in Lafayette. For more information, call (225) 622-1577 or visit its Web site at