College Student’s Recovery From Ruptured Aneurysm Is ‘Nothing Short of a Miracle’
Three years ago, then 19-year-old Anthony Veglia left each of his parents a voicemail in the middle of the night to let them know he was on his way to Phoenix to have brain surgery.
The Northern Arizona University student had just finished a Jiu Jitsu workout when he felt a searing pain in his head.
“It was the worst pain I had ever felt or even imagined,” he said.
Veglia declined a ride home from his friends and decided to lie down at the gym for a while. But the pain only worsened, and sudden balance problems made it difficult for him to stand up. He eventually forced himself to walk around but then began violently vomiting. Suspecting he just had a case of food poisoning, he slowly walked his bicycle the mile back to his dorm.
“I had to give myself this mantra of, ‘Just keep walking,’ ” he recalled. “When I finally got to my dorm, I realized I didn’t know where the elevator was because I had never had to take it.”
Instead of taking the stairs to his third-floor dorm room, Veglia went to his friend’s room where he then collapsed. He never lost consciousness, but he continued to vomit when his friends tried to give him food and water.
They called an ambulance, which took Veglia to Flagstaff Medical Center. A computed tomography (CT) scan of his brain revealed that he had an aneurysm, a weak spot on a blood vessel in the brain that balloons out and fills with blood. The aneurysm had ruptured, causing bleeding into his brain.
Although small at only 5 millimeters, the aneurysm was on the anterior communicating artery – a common yet dangerous location for an aneurysm. Veglia was fortunate to be alive but needed surgery right away.
He left his mom a long voicemail message, explaining that he needed brain surgery and would see her at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix.
“I went through the same thing with my dad and my oldest brother, and then my other brother Nick answered the phone around 1 AM,” Veglia said. “He’s probably the person I am closest to in this world. He knows exactly what to say.”
Veglia could not be transported by helicopter due to a monsoon storm, so he was taken to Barrow – approximately 140 miles away – by ground ambulance. His parents, who live in the Phoenix area, received the messages and met Veglia before he went into surgery.
“It was an interesting experience being in that ICU because everyone else was probably over 70 years old,” he said. “They don’t know why I had an aneurysm so young. Even if I was twice my age, that still would have been incredibly rare to have that aneurysm rupture. I have no family history, and I’m the picture of perfect health. It was probably a congenital defect.”
Cerebral aneurysms can result from an abnormality in an artery wall that is present from birth. They have also been linked to certain risk factors such as head trauma, high blood pressure, tumors, atherosclerosis and other vascular diseases, cigarette smoking, and drug abuse.
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, ruptured aneurysms occur in about 30,000 Americans each year.
Neurosurgeon Dr. Joseph Zabramski opened Veglia’s skull and placed a clip at the base of the aneurysm to prevent further bleeding.
“The day after, Dr. Zabramski was really impressed because I was up and walking around,” Veglia said. “The nurses were cheering me on when I would do laps around the nurses’ station.”
He was still in a lot of pain and became nauseated whenever he took painkillers. But after a week and a half in the hospital, the swelling had subsided and he was able to go home.
After about another week and a half of resting at home, Veglia told his mom he was ready to go back to school because he didn’t want to get a semester behind.
“It was kind of a bad decision at the time, but I’m glad I did it,” he said. “Every single day I would be in incredible pain, but I’d just barely manage. I almost got straight As that semester, and by then I was able to manage the pain.”
Veglia graduated on time with a bachelor’s degree in biology and landed a spot in NAU’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program – a competitive program that accepted only about 6 percent of applicants for the most recent term.
“Anthony Veglia’s remarkable recovery from rupture of a brain aneurysm is nothing short of a miracle,” Dr. Zabramski said. “His story is even more impressive when you realize that approximately 40 percent of patients die after rupture of an aneurysm and that less than half of the survivors are able to resume all of their normal activities. Anthony’s graduation from college with honors and subsequent acceptance to graduate school are impressive accomplishments for any student, much less a survivor of an aneurysm rupture.”
Veglia is in the first semester of the doctorate program, which goes year round for 2 and 1/2 years.
“I’ve always been fascinated by physical therapy because of my interest in biology and anatomy,” Veglia said. “After what I went through, I definitely have an interest in neurological physical therapy.”
The son of a longtime neonatal nurse, Veglia is also considering neonatal physical therapy.
“It’s amazing what physical therapy can do,” he said. “I’m already feeling that I’m going to be very fulfilled in this role, being able to help people heal and bring them back to where they were.”
Veglia said he has difficulty concentrating since his aneurysm ruptured, and his neuropsychological test showed deficits in his short-term working memory. He also struggles with headaches, although they have become less frequent.
“But if that’s all I have to deal with, I do feel pretty blessed because the aneurysm could have done a lot more damage than that,” he said.
Veglia also explained that while the headaches can be frustrating, they serve as a reminder of what he endured and how fortunate he has been in his recovery.
“I am a far more humble person than I have ever been,” he said. “I find it more difficult to complain about things.”
And as for the scar on his head, Veglia said he doesn’t try to hide it and hopes other people aren’t ashamed of their surgical scars either.
“It’s an interesting opportunity to give people a new perspective because a lot of times people who are just getting to know me will ask about the scar, and I can tell them what happened,” he said. “My mom got me a magnet for my fridge that says, ‘Scars are tattoos with better stories.’ ”