Her friends describe her as the “life of the party,” and even while wearing a neck brace and fighting severe pain and migraines, Alison E. Bird does not disappoint.
Though Bird, 43, of Nesconset, has been in and out of intensive surgeries to correct a rare condition in which parts of her spine are protruding into her brain, her friends and family say she has kept her spirits high.
“She’s probably one of the funniest people I know,” said Tina Fisher, who lives in Manhattan and has been a friend of Bird’s for more than 20 years. “Even through this whole thing she’s been making me laugh. I’m still not quite sure how that happens when you can barely move.”
Bird, affectionately known as “Al-E-Bird” to her friends, took a strange fall in front of her house in October 2011 while tossing a newspaper onto her neighbor’s stoop. That morning, she brushed it off, got dressed and went to work at Plainedge High School, where she is assistant principal.
Barbara Punturo, Bird’s sister, said Bird complained that her head “didn’t feel attached to her neck.” Punturo said Bird is a trained Iron-woman and active triathlete, so it was unusual that she would experience extreme symptoms from a small fall. It prompted her to see her chiropractor.
After being X-rayed, Bird was quickly contacted by a radiologist who told her she had broken three bones in her neck. One was pressing against her spinal cord and the other two were piercing her brain, said Punturo, 49, of Garden City.
It’s a rare condition called Basilar Invagination, Punturo said, which she may have been born with.
“It’s such a rare condition,” Punturo said, and usually it’s discovered because the patient died from the fall that dislodged the vertebrae.
Bird did her research and discovered Dr. Ziya Gokaslan, a neurosurgeon at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore who specializes in spinal surgeries.
In January 2012, Bird took Gokaslan’s suggestion and underwent two orthopedic fusion surgeries at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan that were aimed at keeping the bones in her neck from moving farther into her brain.
Those surgeries were unsuccessful. Throughout 2012, Bird’s condition worsened, her sister said, leaving with her with unbearable migraines, intense pain and complete loss of mobility on her right side. She has also suffered trouble breathing and swallowing because one of the bones was blocking her airway.
She had not been back to work since shortly after the fall, and plans to return in November 2012 were stunted because of her symptoms. She returned to Johns Hopkins to consult with Gokaslan, who recommended a rare surgery he had developed himself to treat Basilar Invagination. It involved entering through the front of her neck to fuse the bones in her spine.
Punturo said the doctor was requesting more than $80,000 up front and Bird continued to be rejected by her insurance company for visits and procedures undertaken throughout the ordeal.
“She’s been out of work and incurring medical debt for over a year,” Punturo said. “This was such a rare and unusual procedure, the insurance companies don’t have enough information on it to want to cover it.”
Family and friends finally convinced Bird to let them help her, and shortly after they formed a committee and organized the fundraiser “Battle for Bird,” which will take place on Sunday from 4 to 8 p.m. at Mulcahey’s in Wantagh.
Dierdre Bowers, 43, of North Merrick, who has been friends with Bird since they both attended Syosset High School nearly 30 years ago, helped organized the fundraiser.
She said the entry will cost $50, which will include unlimited food and drink. There will also be a 50/50 raffle, raffle auction and other prizes. All proceeds will go directly toward Bird’s medical bills.
There is also an online fundraising page at giveforward.com/battleforbird, which has details about the event at Mulcahey’s and the option to donate online. So far, more than $27,000 has been raised through the site of a lofty $125,000 goal.
“I don’t even know if that’s a realistic number,” Bowers said, adding that Bird’s bills exceed the goal. “We’re just hoping we can make any dent in it for her.”
In December, Bird underwent two surgeries, performed by Gokaslan, to fuse the bones. But Punturo said once again her sister experienced complications.
On Wednesday, she was rushed back to Johns Hopkins for emergency surgery to address a spinal leak caused by the last surgery. On Thursday, doctors found the procedure did not take and she went under the knife again.
Punturo said Thursday night that the doctors believe they closed the spinal leak and her sister would be free from undergoing any additional surgeries.
“She’s always the life of the party,” Punturo said. “She’s just a warm, caring person. It’s very painful to see her in such agony.”
Fisher, who met Bird after college through mutual friends, said her friend is not the kind to ask for help.
“Allie definitely did not want to do this,” she said. “But we needed to help her and we knew the only way was to get people involved.”