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Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Signing a New Lease on Life After a Severe Brain Injury

Posted By: Advancing Care

In December 2017, Abigail Dopico suffered a brain injury so severe, it was uncertain if she would live. But after a week of expert care, she was wishing her care team a Happy New Year.

By Melissa F. Pheterson
As seen in the July/August 2019 issue of Advancing Care

It began as a seemingly quiet evening shortly after Christmas 2017.
Felicia Dopico had just settled into her sofa to watch TV when she heard the faint whir of a helicopter outside her Newburgh home. She thought nothing of it until her phone chimed with a text message asking her to call the police. Felicia’s daughter, Abigail, then an 18-year-old college freshman, had recently left the house.

“As soon as the dispatcher said, ‘Are you Abigail Dopico’s mom?’ I sat down, and the room started spinning,” Felicia recalls. “I knew it was not good news.” That helicopter was transporting her daughter to Westchester Medical Center, the flagship of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth).

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Learning of the car accident that had left Abigail comatose, Felicia raced to meet her daughter. Her doctors said that CT scans revealed an acute subdural hematoma, a massive bleed that ruptured the delicate veins between her brain’s surface and its covering. The resulting blood clot, or hematoma, was placing increased pressure on her brain. Abigail was already in emergency surgery when Felicia arrived.

Because she had an area of bruising on her temporal lobe that the doctors were concerned could swell, the medical team had to get the clot out quickly and temporarily remove almost half of her skull. This procedure has been well-demonstrated to decrease elevated intracranial hypertension.

Waiting and Hoping

After the surgery, the waiting began.

The care team continued to monitor Abigail’s progress with CT scans. They were concerned that there could be a delayed increase in intracranial pressure as swelling peaked, which could prove dangerous, even fatal.

“The doctors wanted Abigail to stay in an induced coma for three days, but she started trying to wake herself up,” says Felicia. Her sedation was reduced once the worst swelling was over.

In the final hours of 2017, Abigail emerged from her coma. She remembers squinting at the white board in her hospital room, noticing the date.

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“She looked at us with incredulity and said, ‘Can you believe it’s a new year? Happy New Year!’” Felicia recalls.

Although she had temporary paralysis on her left side, Abigail was able to talk right away. “She wished every nurse a happy new year,” says Felicia. “The nurses warned us the injury would affect her musical ability, but we said, ‘Don’t worry, music is not her strength!’”

Abigail with mom Felicia enjoying a hike at Cronomer Hill Park in their hometown of Newburgh.

To show her grasp at melody, though, Abigail entertained the nursing staff with rap songs — flinging off the covers and belting out lyrics from under her protective helmet.

Never Giving Up

At first, Abigail struggled with rehabilitation. “I kept getting frustrated with myself because everything, even the most basic tasks, seemed difficult. But I saw improvement very quickly because I just kept trying,” she says.

After taking one semester off, Abigail returned to the University of Albany in fall 2018, majoring in psychology to prepare for a career in mental health counseling and specializing in patients who have suffered a traumatic injury. She maintains a high GPA while performing with the campus dance team, working as a lab research assistant and volunteering with a group called Project Sunshine, which visits hospitals to bring cheer to children with terminal illness.

“I feel like I’ve changed a lot,” Abigail reflects. “I think back to my old self and I can’t relate to her at all on any level, which is kind of scary and weird, but I’m OK with it. Worrying about little things that don’t matter, keeping people in my life who aren’t good for me, I refuse to do that anymore.”

Felicia agrees that the experience has given her new perspective and renewed hope. “Before this happened, I would spend too much time trying to control the outcome of things,” she says. “While she was in the coma, I often had a sense of peace, a higher power telling me everything would be OK. Combined with the excellent care she received, it carried me through those days.”

Westchester Medical Center, the region’s only Level 1 trauma center, cares for the most severely injured patients — like Abigail — with the goal of allowing them to go on to enjoy normal, happy lives.

Visit us at Westchester Medical Center, a member of Westchester Medical Center Health Network, to learn more. Advancing Care. Here.

Photos by Rachel Crittenden