If You Survive Brain Surgery, Any Day is a Good Day

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | May 25, 2009      
Blue Peak trip report.

Blue Peak

About a year ago, backcountry skier Tony Nitti told me he’d been getting these awful headaches. They hurt was so bad he saw a doctor. The old sawbones told Tony that the headaches were just something like altitude induced migraines, and to keep on charging. So he did 24 Hours of Sunlight, and later joined us for a big day on Hayden Peak.

Thing was, Tony’s headaches were devastating — way beyond what even a migraine should be. So he’d gotten a brain scan a few days before we skied Hayden last year. As it turned out, while Tony was up there getting 6,000 vert on a big Colorado mountain, the scan interpreter noticed a blood vessel in his brain was ballooned out in a large and potentially deadly aneurysm. It the thing had ruptured, even in civilization his chances of surviving would have been rare. Up on a mountain? Zero percent. In a word, it is miraculous Tony didn’t stroke out (as in permanently) during our Hayden ski, what with the dehydration and raised blood pressure of hard endurance athletics.

After our ski last year, Tony of course found out what was going on. His alternatives were bleak: Let the ticking time bomb in your head remain as is, gobble meds like a 90-year-old, and probably die sooner than later anyway. Or get major brain surgery with a good chance of checking out or waking up a vegetable. Tony put his affairs in order and opted for surgery. His family and friends prayed. The neurosurgeon removed the side of his skull, dug through his cortex to the defect, clipped the budging vein off with a permanent device, and closed him up. “You think you need to worry about the skill of your orthopeadic surgeon?” says Tony, “think again, those guys are day labor compared to what brain surgeons do for a living.”

Yes, tony lived. In fact, he is thriving as a married man with a baby on the way, a good job, fit body, and positive outlook. Side effects from the ordeal? None except a small dent in the side of his head. A reminder that things can get bad when you least expect it, and turn out fine in the end.

As proof, just a few days ago Tony and I headed up to Independence Pass where we climbed and skied Blue Peak. The weather was terrible; total whiteout that had me sitting down with vertigo. The slushy unconsolidated snow was difficult to ski. My jacket got wet. We skipped a second lap. As I watched Tony climb and ski, I thought “you know?, this day is one of the best ever.” Check out Tony’s story here.

Backcountry Skiing Independence Pass

Tony Nitti on Blue Peak this past Friday.

This from Tony after we skied Blue:
“Lou, if you decide to blog about today, please mention that I am a brain aneurysm survivor. The scariest part of what I went through last spring was the unknown. I was sure my life as I knew it was over, and try as I might, I couldn’t find a story on the internet that gave me confidence that I would be back skiing again. My hope is that if someday, some stranger who shares our love for the mountains gets diagnosed with an aneurysm, he’ll google “aneurysm and skiing” and find your blogpost. And he’ll see that I was out there doing it again even after the brain surgery. If I can save even one person from the overwhelming fear I had last spring, it would be a wonderful thing.”

(Note: Blue Peak is officially named Twining Peak, and is a short distance NW from Independence Pass. See map below.)

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9 Responses to “If You Survive Brain Surgery, Any Day is a Good Day”

  1. ScottN May 25th, 2009 12:25 pm

    Thanks for sharing this story Lou. Tony’s experience helps to put things in a right perspective. It is always inspiring to hear of someone who went up against the odds and battled through. Not everyone wins, but glad Tony did. It also tells me that doctors aren’t always right (as in how they didn’t catch the aneurysm right off the bat), you’ve gotta be really proactive in figuring out what’s wrong with you.

  2. Scott May 25th, 2009 2:46 pm


    Were you on Blue peak on Friday? I saw your vehicle at the trailhead. We skied a NW facing couloir on Blue Peak that day on slushy, difficult to ski mush on top of the dirty snow layer. Still fun, but not quite like last year.

  3. Lou May 25th, 2009 4:00 pm

    Yeah, we did the regular route in the morning whiteout, looked like the vis got better later?

  4. Francisco May 25th, 2009 4:12 pm

    Great story about Tony. We really have no right to complain. Every good (and not so good) day is a gift.
    I ski without a thyroid. I got really sick with Grave’s disease when I was seventeen. Treeatment took two years with drugs and radiation. Imagine a 17-19 year old told not to do any physical activity whatsoever! Since my recovery, every day on the snow means a lot. I just pop a pill everyday and everything is alright.
    I am very grateful to scientists and doctors. If this happened 50 years ago, I would have died due to lack of the necessary technology.


  5. Scott May 25th, 2009 5:34 pm

    @ Lou

    Yeah, the visibility got better, at least intermittently. We got a late start and the top snow layer got a little soft. We kicked most of the new snow off on our descent. It wasn’t bad on the steeper terrain, but I could barely stay upright on the lower angle stuff due to the unpredictable edge hold. Weird how the low angle terrain was harder.

  6. Mark Worley May 25th, 2009 5:47 pm

    Toni, you never meant to be inspiring or a story of hope, but you really are both. Glad you came through the aneurism ordeal so well.

  7. Brain July 31st, 2009 4:48 am

    It’s really a fascinating story and at the same it serves as a source of inspiration for those who are diagnosed with an aneurysm.

  8. tracy howell March 25th, 2011 11:01 am

    HI Tony i am also a brain aneurysm survivor,although unlike you i dont climb mountains or anything ,i know the fear of thinking your life will change forever ,my uncle had died at 32 from a bleed so little hope was given for me,but 3 years later im fine no side effects and i put it all down to my wonderful father ,who had terminal cancer at the time of my collapse,his fight and determination gave me the will to survive, he as passed away now sadly but i still carry his strength inside,im so glad that you was ok and wish you all the best for the future ….like mine long and happy without any bloody headaches .love Tracy

  9. Nancy Tugano July 16th, 2013 5:51 pm

    What a wonderful story Tony – thanks for sharing!! I had my share of brain aneurysm surgery 3 months ago. I had all the fear not of dying but for the negativity of what IF effect….and guess what, I reinstated my season ski pass from Perisher and I’m skiing for 3 days this week.

    After my surgery I made a decision to go back to Africa to hike Mt Meru & Mt Kilimanjaro a long time plan that been pushed aside for quite sometime – still have few months to wait but airfare now purchased.

    Until now, I still live with other 2 aneurysms and my Neurosurgeon advised to check once a year for growth….apart from that, life continues on with me.

    I wish you all the best.


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