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A 20-year-old with a fainting disorder that caused her to pass out every day is cured by a cutting-edge surgery

dizziness fainting headache
Not pictured: Abby McGillvray.
PixelsEffect/Getty Images

  • Abby McGillvray, 20, used to pass out on a weekly or even daily basis.
  • She had vasovagal syncope, a condition that causes moments of reduced blood flow to the brain.
  • Doctors successfully corrected a miscommunication between McGillvray's brain and heart in surgery.

Abby McGillvray, a 20-year-old college student from Boston, used to avoid flying, crowds, and other stressful environments. Her reasoning had nothing to do with COVID-19 — she just wanted to avoid passing out.

McGillvray had neurocardiogenic vasovagal syncope, a condition that caused her to faint, preempted by dizziness, sweating, and tunnel vision, she told the TODAY show. 

Several triggers, like getting blood drawn or standing for a long time, can cause someone with vasovagal syncope to faint. Other times, it seemingly comes on out of nowhere. While the condition is technically harmless, according to Mayo Clinic, it can be dangerous if people pass out unattended.

The last time McGillvray fainted in the bathroom, she was out for 15 minutes and woke up with a concussion and a black eye. The aftermath was more severe, too: she developed post-concussion syndrome, and started passing out more frequently, sometimes on a daily basis.

There's no clear cure or treatment to keep people with vasovagal syncope from passing out. But one doctor decided to take a chance on McGillvray's nervous system and attempted a surgery that could change her life. The procedure was successful, her doctor told TODAY.

"It gave me my future back," McGillvray said of the procedure. "It gave me the ability to go back to school — who's jumping up and down to wake up at 6am and walk to school every day? I am, and I'm so excited. I'm so thankful."

A doctor corrected McGillvray's misfiring nerves

When her fainting became more frequent, McGillvray sought treatment from doctors at Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) in Boston.

Dr. Sunil Kapur, a cardiac electrophysiologist at BWH, explained to TODAY that McGillvray's heart and brain were not communicating as they should. 

"For whatever reason, her brain was telling her heart incorrectly, inappropriately to just slow down and then pause," Kapur told the outlet. 

The miscommunication caused a drop in heart rate and reduced blood flow to the brain, which made McGillvray lose consciousness. 

Kapur said there have been some medicines studied to treat this issue in the past, but they've had mixed results. McGillvray's mother got a pacemaker placed to resolve her own case of vasovagal syncope, but doctors try to avoid implanting them in young people.

Instead, Kapur and colleagues located McGillvray's misfiring nerves and cauterized them to stop the miscommunication. A heart monitor placed under the skin showed that the surgery — which had only been attempted on a few other occasions — worked.

"It was very, very clear that we had changed how her heart was functioning and how the brain was controlling it," Kapur said.

Now McGillvray is studying to become a nurse

After a follow-up appointment, McGillvray is cleared to live like any other college student.

Before, any stressful environment increased the likelihood that her nerves would misfire and cause her to pass out. Driving a car was out of the question, as she could get into an accident. She even changed her diet to reduce her risk of fainting.

Today, after returning to "tune up" a few more nerves last week, McGillvray is at home and resting. She's also back in school full-time and studying for a nursing degree.

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