In May, 11-year-old Austin Rizzo led the pack in a two-mile road race of his own creation. But the race, named the Banana Split 2-Miler after his favorite fruit, was more than just a fun way to pass time — it was aimed at raising money to support research into pediatric stroke.
It’s a topic that’s close to Austin’s heart — and for good reason. Earlier this year, he experienced two major strokes himself. “We didn’t know then that kids could even have strokes,” says his mother, Kim. “We want to help raise awareness and increase research to help prevent it from happening to other kids.”
Austin has always been a happy, active kid. Earlier this year, he had an episode of double vision and facial weakness and was being treated with aspirin to prevent another stroke. But just a couple weeks later, his parents found him getting sick in the bathroom. When they tried to clean him up in the shower, he couldn’t stand without help. “He was really out of it and didn’t seem to understand what was happening. Then he started stuttering and had trouble speaking,” remembers Kim. “That’s when we called 911.”
When clinicians at the family’s local hospital in central Massachusetts suspected Austin was having another stroke, he was med-flighted to Boston Children’s Hospital. There, they met with Dr. Alfred Pokmeng See, a neurosurgeon and neurointerventionist who works with the Cerebrovascular Surgery and Interventions Center. He explained that Austin had a blood clot in his basilar artery, the main blood vessel that provides circulation to the back of the brain. This type of stroke can be life threatening because it can lead to complete loss of the brain centers that control consciousness.
“I just signed the papers and asked Dr. See to save him,” says Kim.
Dr. See and his colleagues performed an emergency thrombectomy to remove the clot through Austin’s groin — what his dad, Tony, calls a “miraculous surgery.” Austin soon began to bounce back and was up and walking around within 72 hours.
The surgery also revealed the cause of his strokes: He had an injury to the vertebral artery supplying the brain. Following surgery, Austin started taking “blood-thinning” medications to prevent another stroke while the vessel healed. However, these medications were not enough and he returned with another vessel blockage.
Staying positive and moving on
Fortunately, Dr. See removed that clot as well and blocked the injured segment of the vessel to prevent additional clots. Austin has been healthy since then. “Dr. See was there to check in on Austin twice a day when he was in the hospital the first time,” says Tony. “He’s incredible, and we were very glad that he was the surgeon who treated his second clot, too.”
Today, Austin and his family are cautiously optimistic that the worst is behind him. He sees Dr. Laura Lehman, outpatient medical director of the Stroke and Cerebrovascular Center for ongoing care. He’s excited to back in school full time, where he has an aide to help him navigate some lingering cognitive issues from the strokes. When he isn’t in the classroom, he loves being outside, riding his bike, swimming, or hanging out with his twin brother, Logan. “He just wants to put this behind him, move on, and stay positive.”
Searching for answers
But that doesn’t mean that Austin and his parents can forget what he’s been through. Austin’s strokes were the result of a vertebral artery dissection, a tear in the lining of one of the arteries that supply blood to his brainstem. Although some arterial dissections occur after head or neck trauma, others — like Austin’s — have no clear cause.
That’s one reason why he and his parents want to educate other families about pediatric strokes, and to help researchers learn more about how to catch them earlier. So far, they’re succeeding: Austin’s Banana Split 2-Miler raised more than $14,000 for the cause.
Learn more about the Cerebrovascular Surgery and Interventions Center.
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