Greece native defends thesis in cognitive neuroscience 12 years after aneurysm

July 31, 2017 08:12 PM

It's an incredible medical story coming out of the University of Rochester Medical Center: How a near-tragedy inspired a stroke victim to become a research scientist.

Frank Garcea of Greece just defended his doctoral thesis in cognitive neuroscience last week, almost 12 years to the day when an aneurysm burst in his brain. At that time, Garcea was just 17 years old and a senior at Aquinas Institute. He was at a pre-season soccer practice when he experienced incredible pain in his head. "All of a sudden it was the worst head ache of my life," said Garcea.


He could have easily died on the soccer field because he was having aneurysm which is bleeding in the brain. In 25 to 50 percent of cases, aneurysm ruptures result in death.

"My hands and feet were tingly. I was losing control of my ability to walk. I was just in a lot of pain and was confused."

Dr. Edward Vates, URMC Professor of Neurosurgery describes what was happening inside Garcea's brain. "It’s an intercranial catastrophe. Literally a bomb has gone off."

Dr. Vates diagnosed the subarachnoid hemorrhage in Garcea's brain and knew it was imperative that he have brain surgery. He would cut a hole in Garcea's skull and insert a clip, smaller than a paper clip, to stop the bleeding. He could have used an endovascular procedure to guide a catheter to the site of the rupture. But he made the choice to do a craniotomy.

The New England Journal of Medicine just published an article by Dr. Vates detailing how the choices made by neurosurgeons can make a difference with the outcomes of those patients experiencing an aneurysm.

Dr. Vates knew that telling Garcea's story would help guide readers who might recognize the same symptoms in future stroke episodes.

"He was young. He was healthy still. We intervened quickly to get rid of the aneurysm and nurse him back to health in 10 to 14 days.  He made a fantastic recovery."

Garcea's soccer career was over but he started focusing on brain research while at St. John Fisher College and stayed connected with Dr. Vates as he developed a future career in cognitive neuroscience.

"He allowed me to do research with graduate students and learn. He gave me motivation, to soak up as a sponge, as much information as possible."

Fast forward ten years and lots of collaborative research later, Garcea officially became a neuroscientist last week.

Dr. Vates has watched the whole transformation.

"From where he started in the ICU and where he was standing at the pinnacle of his career, it's amazing to see. When he presented his thesis, I was filled with indescribable pride."

Frank Garcea has accepted a position at a rehabilitation research institute in Philadelphia.  His colleagues here are hoping, that with his roots in Rochester and family still living in Greece, that he will come back some day to continue collaborating with the world-class neurosurgeons at URMC.


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