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Brain aneurysm survivors raise awareness during Jones Beach walk

From left: Diana and Michel Payan with their

From left: Diana and Michel Payan with their daughter-in-law and brain aneurysm survivor Holly Hillgardner and her husband, Greg Payan, in the Brain Aneurysm Awareness Walk at Jones Beach on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. Credit: Barry Sloan

Holly Hillgardner believes she is alive today because her sister knew the symptoms of a ruptured brain aneurysm.

In April 2014, emergency medical technicians examining Hillgardner said she likely had a severe migraine, but after her sister — also an EMT — said the extreme pain in her head could be a sign of a hemorrhaged aneurysm, her husband asked for an emergency-room CT scan.

The discovery of the ruptured aneurysm was just in time. Hillgardner’s heart failed and she stopped breathing, but she survived and recovered.

Hillgardner, 43, who splits her time between Manhattan and West Virginia, was one of about 1,000 people walking Saturday in the ninth annual Brain Aneurysm Awareness Walk and Fun Run at Jones Beach.

“This is to help other people be like my sister, so they know that these headaches might signal something as virulent as a brain aneurysm,” Hillgardner said, her husband, Greg Payan, beside her.

An aneurysm is a ballooning in an artery. A rupture causes immediate death in about 30 percent of patients, said David Chalif, co-director of Northwell Health’s Brain Aneurysm Center and the doctor who performed surgery on Hillgardner.

Some of those who later die first believe — like the EMTs — that the rupture is a bad migraine, but Chalif said the difference is that a rupture “is a catastrophic, sudden — and everyone says this — [the] ‘worst headache of my life.’ ”

Anyone with that symptom should immediately get help, he said.

Payan recalled how during the rupture, his wife “could barely speak and couldn’t move,” and at one point had a seizure, during which her eyes rolled and she made a low, guttural sound.

Terry Bongiorno’s headaches seven years ago were bad, but not as severe as Hillgardner’s, and they’d come and go.

But her mother had died of a brain aneurysm when Bongiorno, 53, of New Hyde Park, was 3, and “I knew one of the things that was talked about was that she had a very bad headache” before she died, so she got tested and was found to have a small aneurysm.

Bongiorno said she likely never would have known about the aneurysm if she hadn’t been tested.

“It could have been ready to rupture,” she said. “Who knows if I’d be here today if it ruptured?”

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