Save Patients like Melissa: Give to Aneurysm & AVM Research
An exceptional young woman, a catastrophic event, a Facebook post, a mother refusing to lose hope and a renowned neurosurgeon from Barrow Neurological Institute prove a formidable combination.
Melissa Izzio is the exceptional young woman. The summer before her senior year in high school, Melissa began experiencing a headache and a stiff neck. She is an athlete recruited to play soccer in college so she powered through the pain. The day after the pain began, Melissa ran a soccer practice and went to work. She came home early vomiting violently. Her hand was also curled in an odd position and Melissa was shaking.
Tricia Izzio knew something was horribly wrong so she rushed her daughter to the local emergency room near their home in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. Physicians believed the pain was muscular and sent Melissa home to rest. She continued experiencing excruciating headaches and a stiff neck. When Tricia took Melissa to the chiropractor, she was unsteady and could not use her right arm. Then Melissa blacked out when she turned her head. The chiropractor wanted Melissa to see her primary care physician right away. Whatever was happening was more sinister than a pulled muscle.
“Her primary care doctor told us to go to the emergency room at UMass Memorial Medical Center near our home,” says Tricia. ”Neurologists speculated it could be Lyme disease or a stroke or meningitis then an MRI showed a mass on her spinal cord.”
It had been nine days since Melissa began feeling so horribly. Now she knew why. Melissa had an arteriovenous fistula (AVF), an abnormal connection of vessels in the tissue near the base of Melissa’s skull. To complicate matters, in addition to the AVF, Melissa had a ruptured aneurysm in the same space.
A Post for Help
Surgeons did not see AVFs very often in someone so young so they sent Melissa to Boston Children’s Hospital. Three surgeries over the next six months yielded no success.
“Before each procedure, we were sure it would work. After each procedure I had to be the one to tell her it didn’t,” says Tricia.
It is now the beginning of January and Tricia is despondent.
“Melissa had already been through so much. When the aneurysm ruptured, she had neurological deficits. She had to relearn how to walk, climb stairs, dress herself, shower and cut her food.”
She also was a ticking time bomb. Every movement risked loss of the neurological function Melissa worked so hard to regain.
Tricia took to Facebook for one final attempt at finding a solution.
“Dr. Christina Kwasnica, a Facebook friend and sorority sister from University of Arizona, saw the post. She works at Barrow,” says Tricia. “She suggested we bring Melissa to Phoenix.”
Tricia sent Melissa’s MRI to Dr. Kwasnica, medical director of neuro-rehabilitation at Barrow, for a once over by Barrow experts.
“I believe strongly in what we do,” says Dr. Kwasnica. “I also knew this surgery was high risk, high reward. But who better to do it than Dr. Lawton?”
Michael Lawton, MD, is the president and CEO of Barrow. Dr. Lawton has done approximately 900 operations for AVMs in the brain and over 100 operations for AVFs in the spinal cord. That kind of experience is invaluable in the operating room.
“We had so much to consider as a family,” says Tricia, who along with husband Brian, and sons Jason and Kevin, took a month to stare down every scenario including the possibility of Melissa becoming a quadriplegic.
Melissa did some research of her own. While perusing Barrow’s website, she came across the story of another young woman, Ivy Goldson, who was paralyzed when an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) ruptured on her spine. Dr. Lawton performed Ivy’s surgery after others called it too risky.
“If her result was positive, why not me?” Melissa asked.
That’s when the family decided to come to Barrow and put Melissa’s future in Dr. Lawton’s hands. The procedure was March 21. Dr. Lawton meticulously closed off the abnormal tangle of arteries on the spinal cord and restored the normal circulation of the spinal arteries and veins. Postoperative angiography ensured the surgery was successful – at last.
“A day after the procedure, she was walking,” says Tricia.
Homecoming to Senior Prom
The Izzios returned to Massachusetts April 1. Five days later, Melissa attended an event for students accepted to Endicott College where she’s going in the fall. She walked a 5K in honor of a teammate with cystic fibrosis May 5. Her senior prom was May 10. Even after missing nearly four months of her senior year, Melissa graduated June 2. Three months after the risky surgery performed by Dr. Lawton, Melissa completed the 5K Color Run in Boston. She ran half and walked the other half.
“As an athlete, she learned to push through injuries and pain,” says Tricia. “Many of her care providers call her a miracle.”
Tricia planned a family vacation, a cruise to the Caribbean. She wasn’t sure they’d be able to go but there were family milestones approaching; Melissa’s graduation, Jason’s graduation from University of Rhode Island and Kevin’s acceptance into the doctoral program at Western New England University’s College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.
“We were advised to cancel the trip because there were so many things that could go wrong,” says Tricia. “Now it’s a second chance for my family.”
Tricia is thankful for many things. She’s thankful Melissa is recovering. She’s thankful that Dr. Kwasnica guided her family through the harrowing journey. She’s thankful Dr. Lawton and Barrow helped her daughter heal. Sharing Melissa’s story is a way to pay it forward.
“If we can help one family get to Dr. Lawton,” says Tricia. “It was all worth it.”