One of the first things you notice when meeting Dr. Deanna Sasaki-Adams is that she cares deeply about her patients. Her face lights up when she talks about aneurysm patients like Kaylan King, the young patient for whom she secured a Make-A-Wish to meet One Direction’s Harry Styles. She is one of five doctors running the New York Marathon on behalf of the Brain Aneurysm Foundation and hopes to write each of her patients’ names on her shirt, running in their honor.
Dr. Sasaki-Adams, Associate Professor and Section Chief of Cerebrovascular and Skull Base neurosurgery in the Department of Neurosurgery, specializes in treating brain aneurysms as well as other neurovascular conditions. A brain aneurysm is a bulge or ballooning blood vessel in the brain. When this bulge ruptures or hemorrhages, the results can be fatal — between 30 and 40 percent of people who experience a ruptured aneurysm do not live. “Aneurysmal hemorrhage affects women 1.5 times more often than men and often will strike women who are in their 40’s and 50’s. As a woman, a mother, and a surgeon, I feel particularly strongly about this disease,” shares Dr. Sasaki-Adams.
This personal connection and deep commitment to her patients is what drives Dr. Sasaki-Adams to spearhead brain aneurysm research. Aneurysms are more common among women, smokers, those with a family history of the condition, untreated high blood pressure, and kidney disease. In about 20 percent of cases, those with one aneurysm will most likely have an additional aneurysm. Each of these data points is a piece of a larger puzzle; however, because the condition is acute and rare, physicians have limited opportunities to research how these puzzle pieces fit together. Dr. Sasaki-Adams believes that as neurosurgeons working to treat aneurysms, “we are so focused on doing” that there is little time and space to develop a deeper understanding of the condition. She would like to change that.
Dr. Sasaki-Adams is currently a team of one, but she is in the process of building a team of neurosurgeons and neurologists who will work to ensure her patients receive state-of-the-art treatment for aneurysms. She hopes this will provide more time to focus on much-needed research, for instance, developing an animal model to understand the root causes of aneurysms and leading longitudinal studies of patients to see if blood vessel walls get thinner over time. The to-do list is long, and she is hopeful that she can soon add a permanent fellow position to her team, enabling an ongoing focus on research as well as a pipeline of future aneurysm specialists.
Dr. Sasaki-Adams’ commitment to the field does not stop with aneurysm treatment and research. She is a member of the UNC Stroke Team and has an interest in global neurosurgery. Her work recently took her to Uganda with Duke’s neurosurgery team, which has spent 10 years working in the African country. The trip to Uganda was an opportunity to learn from the Duke team and apply this knowledge when growing UNC’s neurosurgery work in Malawi.
As is clear from the passion in her work, being a physician is more than just a job for Dr. Sasaki-Adams — being a physician is about serving her patients, from the piedmont of North Carolina to the dusty streets of Kampala.