'I felt like something broke in my head': Winnipeg singer recovering after brain aneurysm bursts on stage

A Winnipeg singer is recovering after an aneurysm burst in her brain as she was performing on stage on Jan. 6. Lisa Lester was at Jekyll and Hyde's in Osborne Village as part of a birthday party show for a musician friend.

'Something's terribly wrong. I have to get off this stage,' Lisa Lester recalls saying during Jan. 6 show

Lisa Lester, centre, seen at a 2011 show. It was on stage during a January show that she suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm. 'By the end of the [first] song I just felt something burst inside my head,' she says. (Submitted by Lisa Lester)

Winnipeg singer Lisa Lester recalls that something didn't feel right leading up to her Jan. 6 performance at a local bar.

"I just felt really off," she said. She hadn't been feeling well all day, and the back of her head hurt.

She's now recovering after an aneurysm burst in her brain while she was performing during that show.

Lester was singing at the Osborne Village bar Jekyll and Hyde's as part of a birthday party show for a musician friend of hers.

The 54-year-old, who works in sales for Style Manitoba Magazine, often volunteers her energy and voice at community events.

She considered cancelling the gig, but flu was making the rounds in Winnipeg. A few other performers had already dropped out and the organizer was already scrambling. 

So Lester took the stage. That decision may have saved her life.

"By the end of the [first] song I just felt something burst inside my head, and the whole room just kind of felt like it was on a slant and on an angle," she recalls.

Lisa Lester, right, suffered a ruptured aneurysm in January. Two months later she was able to celebrate a city championship title with her son, Presley. (Submitted by Lisa Lester)

"It's like being on a teeter-totter and, you know, someone gets off and it slams to the top — but I was at the top as opposed to the bottom. I turned around to the bass player and said, 'Something's terribly wrong, I have to get off this stage,' and he was like, 'Are you sure?' They had no idea. The poor musicians were scared themselves," she said.

"He said, 'Grab my jacket.' He played me off stage, and I just kind of fell into a booth and I remember grabbing my head. Something was terribly wrong. I felt like something broke in my head."

People in the crowd of about 300 rushed to help.

"There was one particular lady that was a nurse. And she was quite concerned. She instantly asked for ice and packed the back of my head and the front of my head, and I'm sure it had something to do with saving my life, because my head was already bleeding [internally]."

7-hour surgery

The nurse took Lester's vital signs, stayed with her and prayed with her until an ambulance brought her to St. Boniface Hospital.

"It was actually coming to my mind that I might actually die because I was cold, cold, cold," she remembers."They did a CT scan … and when they came to bring me back in again, I said, 'You saw something, didn't you,' and [the doctor] said, 'We're going back to take another look.' And past that, I don't really remember."

She later found out that an aneurysm had burst in the back of her brain.

Lester was transferred to the Health Sciences Centre where she had a seven-hour surgery to repair the aneurysm.

Lisa and her son, Presley Lester, enjoy a visit to Ice Castles at The Forks on Jan. 4. She suffered her aneurysm just two days later. (Submitted by Lisa Lester)

When she woke up, her 15-year-old son, Presley, was at her bedside, with what she describes as "balloon-sized" tears in his eyes.

"I'm a single mom and I'm all he has, and he was just hugging me and crying for an hour."

Tired, but recovering

Two weeks after her brain bleed, she returned to the North Kildonan home she shares with Presley and their little white dog, Sugar.

At first, she couldn't look at a TV screen or computer. Her brain needed to rest. She was sleeping about 20 hours a day. Things have improved, but she's still tired.

"I almost associate it with being a little baby. You know how they're alert when they wake up and they're all happy.… But then they get cranky because they need a nap, because their brain can only take so much. And then the noises. Loud noises are still hard on me."

Lisa Lester cuddles with her dog, Sugar, on her couch at home. She says she often feels tired, but her doctor says she's recovering well. (Presley Lester/Submitted by Lisa Lester)

Her doctor says she's recovering well. So far, she doesn't appear to have any major lasting effects. She attributes that, in part, to the breathing exercises she does as a singer and a positive attitude — something she says she's always had.

"It's kind of funny. When I was young I was just so happy to be alive. It's hard to explain. But I've always thought this was such a wonderful life," she said, recalling she actually won a Winnipeg "smile-a-thon" when she was 12.

"Life will give you all kinds of upset … but you can only be positive about it and dust yourself off."

'Joy is a choice'

In fact, Lester's singing career was actually born out of some of that "upset." In 2003, her family's construction business burned down. Not that long after, she was at a party and a bunch of friends and family started singing as a way to kind of console themselves about the difficult turn of events.

Lisa Lester with brother Curtis, left, mother Alice and brother Dan. Lisa called her mom hours before her brain bleed because she wasn't feeling well. (Presley Lester/Submitted by Lisa Lester)

"I decided to kind of jump in and sing. And when I did, they kind of stopped. And I thought, 'Oh, I'm that bad?' But it was the complete opposite. One of the party guests said, 'Oh, are you a singer?'" When Lester laughed and said no, he said, "Well, you should be."

He put her in touch with an opera singer who told her she had a three-octave range and a gift — and volunteered to train her. She has since recorded two CDs, including the 2011 release I Have Arrived, which was recorded in Nashville.

The title tune has become a kind of anthem for people pushing through hard times, and she has performed it at the Ovarian Cancer Canada Walk of Hope.

Despite successes there have been setbacks — such as a missing demo reel and a change of leadership at a major recording company. She takes them in stride.

"Joy is a choice," she says.

Because Lester has had to take a break from her work at Style Manitoba Magazine, her friends are holding a benefit concert April 26 at the Park Theatre. Swing Soniq, Mark Reeves and Cold Hard Cash are among the performers. It's sold out, but there may be standing room tickets.

For the woman who is known for volunteering her energy and talent, it is hard to accept the help.

"I like to help people and go to all these things … so for these musicians to do this for me was a little hard at first. And they said, 'Oh we didn't ask you. We're telling you.'"

'Joy is a choice,' says Lisa Lester, seen here with Marcy Markusa, host of CBC Manitoba's Information Radio. (Janice Grant/CBC )

When she reflects on the gravity of what has happened to her, all she can feel is gratitude.

"When you have an aneurysm, and it ruptures, well … I didn't think you survived that," she says.

She's also grateful she didn't call in sick for that January gig when she felt a "little off."

"I was around people, I got to the hospital, I got the right doctor. I think everything happens for a reason, and that's why I'm here today," she said with a smile.