Medical Miracles of the Upper West Side
By Beth Mellow
During the 2012 Summer Olympics, we rooted as our hometown heroes overcame the odds to win gold. The spectacular displays of athleticism and stories of incredible dedication and hard work made it difficult to turn away from our televisions.
While athletes of this caliber are inspirational, their feats almost miraculous, there are those among us whose names you will never know, who have summoned their will to fight for something bigger than glory, more important than fame, and more amazing than a medal. Some of them fought to come back from injuries and conditions that would have irrevocably changed their lives. Others fought diseases that would have ultimately killed them.
Below, you will find stories of individuals, and their families, who gave their all to fight the good fight. They ended up winning something bigger than gold. They got a second chance at life.
Three years ago, 22-year-old ballet dancer Joy Animashaun arrived in New York City with the goal of making her dance dreams come true. The Nigerian-born, London- raised Animashaun first studied at the renowned Ailey School of Dance before joining the professional training program at the Dance Theater of Harlem in 2010. Performing as part of the corps de ballet in several productions, and having access to some of the best ballet instructors in the world, Animashaun dared to hope she was on her way to a successful career. Yet, her hopes were dashed during one terrifying moment in dance class.
“I was practicing a routine and literally couldn’t get up en pointe. My body wouldn’t let me,” she said. She immediately made a doctor’s appointment, where she was diagnosed with a tibial fracture and faced the possibility she would never dance again.
“Without proper intervention and management, this type of injury has a poor rate of resolution,” explained Dr. Donald Rose, the orthopedic surgeon who treated Animaushaun and director of the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at NYU Langone Medical Center.
Animaushaun, who had begun training as a dancer with the Royal Ballet of London at the tender age of 9, was no stranger to injury. In 2008, while still living in England, she had surgery on both her ankles followed by scar tissue removal from one of the surgery sites in 2010. Plagued with yet another complicated injury that would require extensive rehabilitation, Animaushaun began to wonder if she should continue dancing.
Passion for her chosen vocation ultimately led Animaushaun to proceed with the surgery. In October 2011, Dr. Rose surgically repaired the fracture. Following the procedure, Animaushaun remained in a shin cast for two months and then an air boot cast for several more months.
While Animaushaun admits that the limits on physical activity were “pretty frustrating,” she also tried to view the situation optimistically. “I took the opportunity to learn all types of jobs. I worked as a stage manager here at the Dance Theater of Harlem and at the front desk. I felt like I was learning new skills.”
By January, Animaushaun began physical therapy and in February she started some ballet training. Now, 10 months post-
surgery, she is back to dancing full-time, but still attends physical therapy once a week. She anticipates that she will also begin performing again with the Dance Theater of Harlem in the fall. “After every surgery I have come back stronger because I am learning the type of body I have and how to condition it,” she said.
However, Animaushaun, who is also interested in becoming an instructor once her dance career ends, said, “I have to keep my options open. If something else happens, I may not be able to do ballet again.”
Adam and Charlie Bruzzese
Earlier this summer Adam Bruzzese celebrated the first birthday of his twin boys, James and Charlie. It was a fun-filled celebration including cake, doting family members and lots of presents. For Bruzzese and his wife, it was more than just a birthday party, though. It was a celebration of the limitless future that lay ahead for the little boys.
Things had not always been as rosy. In the womb, the twins were mono/mono, meaning there was no membrane separating them, increasing the odds that their umbilical cords could dangerously tangle. Ten weeks prior to delivery, Bruzzese’s wife was admitted to the hospital for monitoring and gave birth to the twins via C-section. Fortunately the delivery was complication-free, and the Bruzzeses believed they were blessed with two healthy sons.
Within a few days, the doctors and the couple noticed that while James was thriving, Charlie was not. Charlie was diagnosed with biliary atresia, which meant his liver was producing bile, but it would not clear his body and was causing the liver to scar. While the news was heartbreaking for Adam Bruzzese, he made it a point to remain positive and focused. “I was thinking, ‘How do you fix the situation?’ There’s no other choice,” he said.
In late 2011 the Kasai procedure was performed on Charlie at Long Island Jewish Medical Center. The surgery, which is generally the preferred treatment for biliary atresia, rearranges the child’s inner workings so that non-functioning bile ducts are bypassed. Following the surgery, Charlie seemed to be doing well, but right after Christmas his health deteriorated again.
It was unavoidable. Charlie would need a liver transplant.
Since there is a limited pool for infant and toddler organ donation, Charlie’s life would depend on a matching live donor. The Bruzzeses sought the help of Dr. Benjamin Samstein at New York Presbyterian, who specializes in pediatric transplant surgeries. He is also one of the only doctors to perform laparoscopic liver donation surgery.
Once it was determined that Adam was a match for Charlie, surgery was scheduled in which Adam would donate a part of his own liver to his son. It was a success, and since March, Charlie has been doing well. “Mentally he is at the place he should be. Physically he is a bit behind because he couldn’t get on his belly when he was sick. He’s just about crawling, and James is just about walking,” Bruzzese explained.
Additionally, Charlie has had to overcome other obstacles. He is currently on anti-rejection drugs which lower immunity and make him more susceptible to catching infections.
Still, Adam Bruzzese believes Charlie’s health will continue to improve.
“We’ve been told that he’ll be a normal kid. That’s the future that I’ve been going on,” he said.
Lawrence Redding’s tour of duty in the Air Force during the Korean War took him to a radar site in Alaska. Safely tucked away in what Redding refers to as “the middle of nowhere,” he was lucky not to have to endure the true atrocities of war.
Little did he know that he would fight the biggest battles of his life long after the war ended.
Redding, a 78-year-old retired marketing executive, had already survived cancer twice when he was diagnosed with lung cancer earlier this year. The relatively early discovery of the small cell carcinoma that had not metastasized (or spread) beyond his lungs was fortuitous. Redding said, “I went to the VA hospital because I had a pain in my chest. They X-rayed me to check if I had a cracked rib and then noticed a tumor in my lung on the opposite side.”
Not one to ponder bad news for long, Redding got to work researching the best treatment plan. He found his way to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital, where in March of this year, Dr. Faiz Bhora removed the tumor and part of his lung using a robotic machine called the Da Vinci. Minimally invasive and precise, the Da Vinci is used to treat various conditions, in addition to lung cancer, such as cancers of the throat and endometriosis. Now, Redding is expected to fully recover.
It’s remarkable that Redding overcame a disease that, according to Dr. Bhora, could have killed him had he not received immediate treatment. However, what makes it more remarkable is it’s the third battle with cancer he has survived. Redding also endured prostate cancer, and in his forties he was diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma.
Now that he has survived his latest battle with cancer, the wary veteran is looking forward to a relaxing visit with old friends in Hawaii. Although he has faced some tough turns in life, Redding shrugs it off.
“I just don’t think about those things. I’m not deeply introspective. As long as I’m not in pain, I’m OK,” he said. “Or maybe it’s just that I’m an old curmudgeon now.”
Watching her gracefully tumble during competitions, you wouldn’t think 16-year-old Delaney Donnellan differed in any way from other members of her high school gym team. However, Donnellan, a stellar athlete who also enjoys playing baseball and soccer, was diagnosed at age 7 with scoliosis.
Scoliosis, which is a curvature of the spine that can progress to a point where it not only causes severe pain, but also damage to internal organs, has afflicted several members of the Donnellan clan. Delaney’s maternal grandmother suffered from it. Her siblings were also diagnosed with the disease, but it ceased progression so neither required treatment. However, by the time Delaney reached seventh grade, her scoliosis took a turn for the worse. Curvature of the spine that is 10 degrees or less is considered to be within normal range; Delaney’s curve was already more than 30 degrees. Delaney’s mother Darla became alarmed for her daughter.
“My mother had a hard time with scoliosis. She had breathing problems and one hip higher than the other. She was always in a lot of pain,” Delaney said. “My mom finally had it fixed [with surgery] in her fifties, and it made a huge difference in her life. Things are much better.”
Traditional surgery, which fuses the spine and limits flexibility, would have impacted Delaney’s participation in the kinds of athletic activities she loves, including gymnastics. So when Darla stumbled upon an interview with Dr. Michael Vitale of New York Presbyterian Hospital while flipping through TV channels, she paused to watch. He described a new procedure, Vertebral Body Stapling (VBS), which would enable Delaney to keep the flexibility in her spine. Darla immediately made an appointment for Delaney to see him.
Vitale, who ended up doing the surgery on Delaney, explained that VBS is generally performed on patients who have not yet finished growing and have a curve under 35 degrees.
“The technique takes advantage of growth to potentially reverse the scoliosis. It is the only technique which has the potential to reverse the curve without fusing the spine,” he said.
While VBS seemed like a promising way to treat Delaney, Darla was still frightened. “It’s always a tough experience when your daughter has surgery and I didn’t know anyone else who had a child that went through this procedure. It would have been more comforting if I did,” the New Jersey mother said.
The summer before eighth grade, Delaney endured a six-hour surgery followed by a four-day stay in the hospital. Although Delaney made a full recovery, she admits it wasn’t easy after the VBS was done.
“I had strict activity restrictions for a couple of weeks right after the surgery, and it was a bit difficult to walk and move. Probably the hardest thing, though, was not being able to hang out with any of my friends,” she said.
Three years later, Delaney’s curve has settled at 22 degrees, which is considered very slight by her doctor. Delaney leads an active and normal life, spending 10 to 15 hours a week practicing with her gymnastics team. When asked about her future plans both athletically and academically, she said, “I like doing gymnastics right now, but I don’t really know if I want to continue beyond high school. I’m just not sure yet about what I want to do in the future.”
Delaney’s mom Darla is OK with that. She’s relieved that her daughter will be able to make these decisions pain-free.
These days 63-year-old Susan Kessler enjoys getting her groove on to doo-wop and trips with her husband to the Jersey Shore. She revels in pleasurable moments, like walking around the mall with a salty, hot pretzel in hand. Yet until recently, the retired Upper West Sider was mostly prevented from engaging in these activities by her damaged heart.
Kessler was diagnosed at age 16 with a heart murmur, which was more accurately defined as a prolapsed mitral valve when she was 30. Eventually, this condition would lead to severe heart damage because the faulty valve would cause the rest of her heart to “work harder” to compensate. Walking down the block to shop for groceries became an arduous task. However, Kessler, for most of her life only experienced mild discomfort. She kept busy traveling all over the world in her early twenties. She worked her way through school, eventually graduating with a Ph.D. in social psychology and embarking on a career in educational research.
The heart problems Kessler had been plagued with since early on almost seemed like a cruel twist of fate. Her father passed away at 47 because of heart issues that were surmised to be due to a childhood case of rheumatic fever. “He was too sick to work. He suffered mentally and physically,” Kessler sadly noted.
Dr. Didier Loument, the cardiac surgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center who would treat Kessler, said it is “possible, but impossible to affirm,” that her father suffered from the same condition as Kessler, and not rheumatic fever.
As she became sicker and even small tasks like cleaning and shopping became difficult, Kessler was worried that she would face early death like her dad.
“As the valve got leakier and leakier and my cardiologist told me that I would have to have surgery—or else—I became very upset. I was faced with a shortening of my life that I did not anticipate.”
The treatment plan for Mitral Valve Prolapse, or MVP, generally requires replacement of the faulty valve with an animal or artificial valve, both of which can come with a host of complications. Kessler found the idea of full replacement frightening and eventually made her way to Dr. Loumet, who was able to treat her using a procedure called Minimally Invasive Valve Repair. The robotic-assisted surgery not only enabled Kessler to keep her valve, but also shortened her recovery time.
Within a month of surgery, the enlarged chambers of Kessler’s heart had returned to near normal size. Kessler, who had the surgery earlier this year, now feels great.
“My stamina has improved. I even danced at a doo-wop show I attended in July. I’ve always enjoyed dancing and music.”
She also adds enduring and eventually overcoming illness has had a strong impact on the way she views things. “I really appreciated these simple but important pleasures that make up your life,” she said.
On a cold March morning, concerned that her daughter Hailey was sick with a stomach virus, Luz Capaldo decided to keep her home from school. The night before she had been vomiting and complained of a headache, but it didn’t seem like anything serious.
“I thought she had caught something at school,” Luz said. However, by mid-afternoon, things took a turn for the worse. “Hailey asked for ginger ale, and when I came back with it she was stiff and curled into a fetal position. Her eyes were open but she wasn’t responding.”
In a panic, Luz called 911 from her home in Massapequa, Long Island. Hailey, 8, was diagnosed with a cerebral arteriovenous malformation. An arteriovenous malformation, or AVM, is an abnormal connection between the arteries and veins. It usually forms before birth, but is generally not detected until adulthood. Individuals with AVM can experience a wide range of neurological symptoms, including seizures, and they can even cause stroke and death.
Luz, who had also endured the loss of her father in January, felt completely blindsided by her daughter’s diagnosis. She had always known Hailey to be a happy and active child who loved karate and playing with friends.
According to Dr. Alejandro Berenstein, who treated Hailey once she was transferred to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, the fact that she was manifesting symptoms at such a young age was also quite alarming. “The earlier in life the symptoms present the worse the long-term prognosis [generally] is,” he said.
Acting quickly, Dr. Berenstein employed a treatment program that involved two embolization procedures, one in March followed by one in May, to close off the feeders to the malformed blood vessels, followed by surgical removal of the malformation by Dr. Saadi Ghatan, Berenstein’s neurosurgery partner.
The four-and-a-half-hour surgery was a nerve-wracking prospect for Luz. Not only was she worried she would lose her daughter only months after losing her dad, but she was also left to wonder what Hailey would be like if she survived the surgery.
Although Luz felt overwhelmed, she did take comfort in family and friends who remained with at the hospital until Hailey was safely out of surgery.
Since her surgery in May, Hailey has progressed well and she is expected to make a 100 percent recovery. She has spent the summer hanging out with school pals and is excited about the special treat her mom has planned for her later this month. “I’m looking forward to going to Disney World,” she said.
Meanwhile, Luz expressed that after this trying year, she will never look at life in the same way. “This experienced has changed me. The little things are not getting me stressed. After what I have been through with my daughter I feel that life is such a gift, that it’s so beautiful.”
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