Editor’s note: Last week, we began an emphasis on American Stroke Month with the story of a woman whose life was saved by her son because he knew how to spot a stroke F.A.S.T. We continue with the cautionary tale of a woman who suffered a different type of stroke, and her husband’s promise to ensure that other families avoid the devastating loss he and his boys face each day.
In March 2015, Lisa Colagrossi began suffering the most intense and frequent headaches she’d ever felt. They intensified in bright light.
One afternoon, she arrived home from work, clutched her head and told her husband, Todd Crawford, “I have the worst headache of my life.”
If only he’d known what it all meant.
After you read this, Todd hopes you’ll never forget.
Lisa Colagrossi joined WABC, the ABC network’s flagship station in New York City, soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Once she and Todd had children – Davis and Evan – Lisa took an early morning shift. This let her pick up her kids from school and be with them through bedtime.
The afternoon she complained of the violent headache, Todd encouraged her to see a doctor. She opted to power through it. After all, she rarely suffered anything more than a cold. Maybe this was just all those nights of five hours of sleep finally catching up.
The following Wednesday night, Lisa, Todd and the boys huddled around the kitchen table filling out their NCAA tournament brackets. When Todd took Davis to hockey practice, Lisa and Evan mounted the brackets on colored paper and displayed it all on a door in the kitchen.
She wanted everything ready for their Super Bowl-esque tournament-watching party that was to begin right after school Thursday.
Early Thursday, Lisa reported live from a four-alarm fire engulfing several homes in Queens. At the usual time – 7:15 a.m. – she called home to make sure the boys had their lunches and homework ready to go.
“I love you,” she said. “See you this afternoon.”
After enjoying a laugh with the driver of the news truck, she clutched her head with both hands and said, “Marvin, something is happening to me.” A cameraman flagged down an ambulance.
Around 9:30 a.m., a doctor at Presbyterian Hospital called Todd. Lisa’s heart had stopped and been revived.
“You need to check her head,” Todd said. “She’s been complaining of massive headaches the last few weeks.”
Lisa had a subarachnoid hemorrhage. She was bleeding in the space between her brain and skull.
The bleeding came from a blood vessel that tore open – a ruptured brain aneurysm.
An aneurysm is a weakness in a vessel wall that causes it to bubble out. That “worst headache of her life” was the aneurysm emerging.
Had she taken it more seriously, doctors could have discovered and probably repaired it.
“As soon as I saw her, I knew she was not going to make it,” Todd said.
Doctors discussed end-of-life options with Todd. During his hour-long drive home, he searched for the words he knew would forever shatter their sons’ lives.
Davis and Evan were watching basketball when he arrived.
Everyone said goodbye to Lisa at the hospital Friday morning. Todd went first.
He held her hand and kissed her forehead. He leaned to her ear and whispered:
“I love you. Please go be with God. I will raise the boys the way you want me to. And I promise to do everything I can to prevent this from happening to other people.”
The vow wasn’t planned. The words tumbled from his lips in that moment.
Weeks later, the promise became his purpose. Todd would support a credible organization promoting awareness and education about brain aneurysms. He just needed to find it.
Googling “brain aneurysm foundation,” he came across organizations that funded research and treatment. As for awareness and education …
“A big, big void,” he said.
And, from his perspective, a big opportunity.
The Lisa Colagrossi Foundation launched in September 2015.
The organization’s tagline is, “Shedding light on brain aneurysms.” It all starts with teaching the warning signs and symptoms, the most common being:
- Sudden WHOL – “Worst headache of life.”
- Sudden sensitivity to light.
- Sudden stiffness of neck.
Many of the other brain aneurysm signals are the same as the F.A.S.T. warning signs for a stroke: face drooping, arm weakness and speech difficulty. That’s because brain aneurysms trigger a type of stroke. It’s also why the response should be the same: Call 911.
Between Lisa’s friends and fans, and Todd’s connections over 30 years as an executive in sports and entertainment, he began spreading the word on “Good Morning America,” “Fox & Friends,” “The Dr. Oz Show” and more.
He built a crew of ambassadors including Whoopi Goldberg, chef Mario Batali, actress Maryam D'abo, NASCAR driver Joey Gase and several current and former NFL players. All either survived a brain aneurysm or lost a loved one to a brain aneurysm. (Goldberg’s connection is especially chilling: The day after Lisa died, Goldberg paid her respects on “The View,” adding, “Please love your families. Moments happen like that,” she said, snapping her fingers. A month later, her brother died of a ruptured brain aneurysm.)
Last September, the foundation held its first gala, dubbed “A Cerebral Affair.” A featured guest: Kris Sorensen, the first person to credit the foundation for saving her life.
Kris’ sister heard Todd discussing the warning signs on Glenn Beck’s radio show. When Kris called her sister complaining about “the worst headache of my life,” her sister insisted that Kris get to a hospital. She eventually had an operation to repair two aneurysms.
Todd has heard from many others around the world who credit the foundation’s work for lifesaving awareness. They’ve reached him directly or left messages on the foundation’s Facebook page.
“Our approach has been validated,” he said.
Anecdotally, Todd knew most people know little about aneurysms. He quantified it through a survey last September, which is National Brain Aneurysm Awareness Month.
Among the findings: 90 percent of American adults don’t know what a brain aneurysm is. Not a single responder knew all the warning signs, leading to this headline for the foundation’s news release:
100% OF AMERICANS FAILED TO IDENTIFY ALL WARNING SIGNS OF A BRAIN ANEURYSM, YET RUPTURES OCCUR EVERY 18 MINUTES
Awareness and public education will remain the foundation’s top priority. Todd is considering targeting medical professionals, too, such as those in emergency rooms (because of the need for immediate diagnosis) and obstetricians-gynecologists (because women face a 50 percent higher risk than men). He also notes that the first support group recently began in Florida.
And, just in time for what would’ve been Lisa’s 52nd birthday Tuesday and Mother’s Day on Sunday, the foundation released its first public service announcement.
Davis turned 17 last week and is a junior in high school. Evan is 13 and in seventh grade. Both have a gaping hole in their lives.
They also understand how sudden and random catastrophic events can be.
“If I’m even 30 seconds late for school pickup, my son automatically begins to panic,” he said. “He calls me and the first words out of his mouth are, `Are you OK?’”
They’re working through their grief together. They also take solace in the lives saved by The Lisa Colagrossi Foundation.
“Even though it’ll never bring back their mom, they know we are making a positive difference in the world,” Todd said.
Another challenge is the annual arrival of the NCAA tournament. Its connection to both their final happy time with Lisa and to her death make it tough to navigate. To the boys, the eve and opening day of the tournament are the anniversary more than the actual dates.
Then there’s Todd. As the founder, executive director and lead spokesman of The Lisa Colagrossi Foundation, and as a widower/single parent, his life revolves Lisa’s absence.
Some people might find that more difficult. To him, it’s empowering.
“Love does not die in death,” he said. “I still talk to Lisa every day. I believe she is guiding this organization from above.”
He’s also driven by this thought:
“If somebody had been doing the work that the Lisa Colagrossi Foundation is doing today, Lisa might still be with us.”