Dr. Jeffrey Beecher wears silver angel wings on his jacket close to his heart —a daily reminder of one patient's gratitude and the reasons he became a neurosurgeon.

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Beecher performed two brain surgeries that saved the life of Susan Reilly of Wilmington. She, in turn, made a donation in his honor to the Novant Health Foundation, which then invited her to present Beecher with a Guardian Angel pin. The recognition allows patients and their loved ones to salute the providers who have been a special part of their care.

"I don't think there's any more gratifying thing in this world than having that kind of effect on someone else's life — that's why I do it and that's why my team does it," Beecher said. "We all love the success stories."

After some unexpected twists, Reilly's story couldn't have had a happier ending. The 70-year-old considers Beecher a miracle worker.

"You restored the fullness of my life," she told him during his pinning ceremony at Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington.

"How extraordinary to cut into someone's brain to restore a person's capacity to think, to feel, to remember, to move and to have consciousness of self, who we are," she marveled.

Reilly was struggling in all those areas when she met Beecher for the first time.

The retired civil rights lawyer was preparing to walk her Carolina dog, Miribel, one late December day when he suddenly bolted in pursuit of another pooch, wrapping his leash around her and knocking her to the ground. The back of Reilly's head slammed the concrete with a thud as horrified neighbors who saw it happen summoned an ambulance.

"I remember my neighbor saying, 'My God, it sounded like the crack of a bat,' " Reilly recalled.

At the emergency room, doctors told her she'd suffered a concussion and how to manage it at home. But weeks later, Reilly was back at the hospital with what she describes as "weird symptoms."

"I just remember being kaput," she said. "Not being able to think clearly, not being able to move properly, not being able to talk properly."

CT scans would eventually reveal the cause: A buildup of blood in the space between Reilly's brain and the protective covering that surrounds it. Called a subdural hematoma, it most often happens because of a head injury.

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For older people, even a minor head injury can be dangerous because veins surrounding their brains are more apt to tear, and the brain, itself, shrinks with age. Blood and fluid can fill the space, putting pressure on the brain that can do permanent damage and even kill.

To correct the problem, Beecher, who practices at Atlantic Brain and Spine PA in Wilmington, performed an operation called a craniotomy. He made an incision to expose Reilly's skull and then removed a portion of the bone so he could clear out the accumulated blood. In just about an hour, she was on the way to her old self.

But during the weeks that followed, Reilly continued to struggle. She had a bad reaction to medication. Her memory was faltering. She was grasping for words. Her gait was wobbly. A fresh round of scans showed a new hematoma pressing on the opposite side of her brain.

So Beecher took her back to the operating room and performed another craniotomy that soon had Reilly good as new. Now healed, she's at no greater risk for another hematoma than anyone her age, Beecher said, offering one caveat: "She can't just start doing any daredevil stuff."

That gives her ample leeway to do all the activities that filled her days before the fall — tending to her flower garden, taking communion to parishioners who are unable to attend services at her church, Basilica Shrine of St. Mary, and serving on the board of Bread for Life Senior Pantry. It's a nonprofit that distributes food and toiletries to needy seniors. She also makes time to practice yoga and attend exercise classes.

"Dr. Beecher gave me my whole life back," Reilly said, adding that one thing did change in the wake of her ordeal: She hired someone to walk the dog.

Beecher said he admires Reilly's resilience and is glad he and his team were able to help.

"If you're seeing me, it's probably your worst day, but fortunately, more often than not I get to rejoice with my patients on their best day when they are better," he concluded. "That's why we do it."

Head injury: You need to know…

Even a minor bump to the head can be dangerous, especially if you're older or on blood thinners — and problems might not be apparent right away.

As a precaution, it's always best to avoid sleeping after hitting your head. But having someone wake you every couple of hours to see how you're doing is the next best thing, neurosurgeon Dr. Jeffrey Beecher suggested.

Go to the ER or urgent care, he advised, if you develop a sudden, severe headache, black out or have trouble thinking, speaking or moving. "You know when something just isn't right and that's the time to get evaluated," Beecher said.

These are the danger signs, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke:

  • A worsening headache that won't go away.
  • Weakness, numbness, decreased coordination, convulsions or seizures.
  • Repeated vomiting.
  • Slurred speech or unusual behavior.
  • One pupil larger than the other.
  • Inability to recognize people or places, confusion, restlessness or agitation.
  • Loss of consciousness or can't wake up.
  • It's also a danger sign if a child who has received a bump, blow or jolt to the head or body won't nurse or eat; or won't stop crying and cannot be consoled.