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Eight Years Ago I Got the Worst Headache of my Life

Nicole Ricci, her husband Dan & their daughter Victoria

One evening, eight years ago, Dan Ricci came home to find ice cream melting on the counter and his wife, soon-to-be patient of Drs. Connolly and Lavine,  passed out on the floor of their bathroom.  His wife Nicole says, that afternoon, “out of the clear blue sky, I got the worst headache of my life.” What she didn’t know then was that she was very close to losing her life.

At just twenty five years old, Nicole Ricci had a rupture in her brain and her head was quickly filling with blood. This had caused her to black out.  When she came-to she started vomiting and losing her vision.

Local doctors sent her to Columbia Presbyterian where she was taken into the care of Dr. E. Sander Connolly and Dr. Sean Lavine.  She says, once she got there, “I  knew I was going to be OK.  They were just take-charge doctors.  Very compassionate and down-to-earth. They made me very comfortable.”

They immediately set about finding what was causing the bleed in Nicole’s head.  Dr. Lavine performed an angiogram. During an angiogram, a catheter is threaded through blood vessels in the groin all the way up  to the brain.  There, dye is injected that is picked up by X-Ray to create a map of the current state of the vessels in the area.

In Nicole’s case, the map revealed a 3 cm tangled mass of blood vessels called an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) on the right side of her brain.  An AVM is a rare abnormality that Nicole had probably had since she was born.  Normally asymptomatic, AVM’s often go undetected until they burst, like Nicole’s had, and can be fatal.

Once they are discovered, they can be surgically removed or treated with Gamma Knife Radiosurgery. Nicole was a good candidate for surgical removal of the AVM, but before they could do that she had to be stabilized medically.  The bleeding was causing a dangerous build up of pressure in her skull, so a shunt was placed in her spine to drain off the fluid.

When she was stable enough, Dr. Lavine repeated the angiogram and this time, like a spelunker in a maze of caves, he mapped out the vessels that fed the AVM and walled them off by a process called endovascular embolization.  This reduced the risk that she would start hemorrhaging again when the AVM was removed.

Finally, Dr. Connolly performed the surgery to remove the AVM. “I was told it was the size of a ping-pong ball,” says Nicole.  Three days later, Nicole went home.   Her vision back and her headache gone.

About four months after surgery, Nicole went back to work. She says, “I wanted to get back to life.” A life, she says, she doesn’t for a minute take for granted. “I should have died and I didn’t. I got a second chance at life – I got to have my daughter.” Five years ago, Nicole gave birth to a baby girl, Victoria. “She’s like a gift,” says Nicole.

“I owe it to Dr. Lavine and Dr. Connolly, ” she says, ” They saved my life. That place [Columbia] is such an important part of my life.  They saved my life there.  From the nurses to the people at the front desk; everyone was just very accommodating.  Dr. Lavine and Dr. Connolly – they’re the best. I couldn’t have asked for better doctors.”

While she was recovering, Nicole says she came across an on-line AVM and aneurysm support group.   She says it really helped to read the stories and talk with people who went through the same thing. She posted her own story on the site and says she still updates her profile.

She hopes telling her story will help others; that they’ll see how great she is doing and think, “maybe I’ll be all right too.”

Related Blogs: New Study Finds Little Risk And Much Benefit In “Gluing” Blood Vessels Before Surgery, A Protein In The Blood May Be A Clue To Arteriovenous Malformations In The Brain, Endovascular Neuroradiology; The New Frontier, How Does A Neurosurgeon Know What To Say When An AVM Patient Asks, “What Are My Chances Doc?”, One Picture Speaks A Thousand Words, These Radiosurgeons Use Two

patient journey

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