Rebecca Winchell-Top Female Achiever

Aneurysm Survival Activist

MARYLOU UTTERMOHLEN

Becky Winchell of Mandeville, a full-time mother of seven, had finished one of her weekly tennis games on a spring day in 2009 when she was hit with the kind of bad headache she’d had on and off for months. After ibuprofen didn’t touch the pain, Winchell sought help at a Mandeville hospital, where she was misdiagnosed with a migraine headache. But when Winchell returned to the ER that night with worsened pain, blurry vision and vomiting, doctors ordered a spinal tap that confirmed a ruptured aneurysm in one of her brain’s blood vessels. She needed immediate surgery to stop the bleeding.

No doctors in her area were equipped for that operation, so Winchell was transferred by ambulance to West Jefferson Medical Center and the care of interventional neuroradiologist Dr. Robert Dawson and Dr. Frank Culicchia, a neurosurgeon. Dawson went to work, in a minimally invasive procedure that lasted four hours, to thread a thin titanium wire through an artery from Winchell’s groin up to her brain, where he coiled up the wire inside the aneurysm to stop the bleeding. The ordeal left Winchell with no sign of having had an aneurysm, but it sent her on a mission to spread the word about this condition. For one thing, she said, people need to know that vomiting, severe head and neck pain and blurred vision are common symptoms of aneurysm ruptures, which are often misdiagnosed as migraine headaches. Moreover, people whose close relatives have had ruptured aneurysms are genetically predisposed to the condition and should get tested. In 2009 Winchell started an annual tennis tournament, Aces Against Aneurysm, to raise funds for aneurysm research – more than $30,000 so far.

The $12,000 brought in by last year’s tournament went to the national Brain Aneurysm Foundation, which kicked in $3,000 more to create a research grant named in honor of Robert Simon, a Mandeville man who died from a brain aneurysm. Winchell also established the first support group in the metropolitan New Orleans area for aneurysm survivors and their families. An estimated 6 million people in the United States have an unruptured brain aneurysm. For more information, visit BrainSupportNola.com or contact Winchell at rebeccawinchell@gmail.com


Mentor: Barbara Fisher, director of tennis at Pelican Athletic Club, for her sage wisdom on and off the courts. West Bank neurosurgeon Dr. Frank Culicchia for his inspiration and support of aneurysm awareness charity. My mother, Amelia Lewis, for her strength and timely wisdom.

Defining Moment: I have two. The first was a trip to Israel with my brother, an experience that enlightened me in my Catholic faith. The second was surviving my aneurysm and realizing how fragile our precious lives are. I learned to not take anything for granted.

Advice to Young Women: Be true to yourself; you’re worthy!

Goals: To spread awareness throughout the Gulf South that aneurysms and strokes can be prevented. Hopefully to one day turn this endeavor into a foundation that would incorporate an array of doctors in the New Orleans area and beyond.

Favorite Things About What I Do: I took something that I was passionate about and incorporated it into my love of tennis, thereby bringing the community together to raise awareness through the Aces Against Aneurysms tennis tournament. Raising my seven children has taught me to cook for a crowd, handle riot management and deal with last-minute school projects, all while on autopilot.


 

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