Patient Update: 16 Years of Gratitude from Dr. Lavine’s Patient Nicole

In 2002, when Nicole Ricci was in her mid-20s, she got the worst headache of her life—a headache that caused her to vomit, lose her vision and black out. The source of the problem was a tangle of blood vessels in Nicole’s brain, known as an arteriovenous malformation (AVM). The AVM had started bleeding—a life-threatening emergency. Quick stabilization and surgery by Co-Director of Neuroendovascular Services Dr. Sean Lavine and Vice-Chairman of Neurosurgery Dr. E. Sander Connolly at Columbia University Irving Medical Center/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital saved Nicole’s life.

Nicole Ricci and Dr. Sean Lavine

We last spoke to Nicole Ricci in 2010, eight years after her AVM surgery. Today, it’s been 16 eventful years since the surgery, and we had a chance to catch up with her again. Now a mom, a wife and a teacher’s assistant at an elementary school, Nicole is doing great. And, she says, she has two neurosurgeons to thank for it. “If it wasn’t for Dr. Lavine and Dr. Connolly, I wouldn’t be here.”

That’s something she still thinks a lot about. “Every day, what happened to me pops into my mind. But I just push along with my day.” The bleeding from the AVM left her with a tremor in her right hand and some short-term memory loss. But, she says, that “doesn’t hold me back. It doesn’t stop me from living my life. I look at it like: I’m so grateful to wake up every day, put my two feet on the ground and live a normal life. I’m definitely more grateful for life now.”

On a recent Friday afternoon, Nicole and her daughter Victoria had a chance to stop by and say hello to Dr. Lavine. Nicole has kept in touch with her surgeons over the years, but this was the first time she had seen Dr. Lavine in a decade and a half, and Nicole’s 13-year-old daughter had never met either of her mom’s neurosurgeons.

“Victoria finally getting to meet Dr. Lavine was great, because she’s heard so much about him for so long. That was really special to me.”

“Afterward, I sent him an email thanking him for his time and saying how special it was for Victoria to meet him. He sent back a nice email that said, basically, you don’t always realize how much of an impact you have on somebody’s life. And he said, ‘Thank you for reminding me of that.’ There will never be enough thank-you’s for that man.”

Nicole is hoping one day to bring her daughter into Manhattan to visit her other surgeon, Dr. Connolly. “We’re hoping to go up to Columbia around Christmas time to see him, because the city is so beautiful then,” says Nicole. She hasn’t been to the Columbia campus since her last follow-up appointment, before Victoria was even born.

Nicole hopes her story will be helpful to other people and families going through what can be a difficult and frightening time. She’d like them to know that there is hope after an emergency like hers—that, in fact, wonderful years full of gratitude are possible.

“If there’s somebody who is going through what I went through, I hope they or their family happen to go on the Columbia website and read my story. I mean, if I can give somebody and their family hope, that’s all I want to do.”