Frank Garcea was 17 years old and excited to soon begin his senior year of high school in Rochester, New York, where he played on the soccer team. One hot July day, he and some fellow teammates were playing soccer for fun when Frank experienced a pounding headache and pain radiating up the back of his neck. Within minutes, the pain intensified. Noting Frank’s distress, concerned parents called 911. “It came out of the blue,” says Frank, now 29. “I knew something wasn’t right.”
Frank was rushed to the University of Rochester-affiliated Strong Memorial Hospital where he underwent tests that revealed a ruptured brain aneurysm. Early the next morning, Frank underwent surgical treatment — a craniotomy and clipping — performed by neurosurgeon G. Edward Vates, MD, PhD, professor of neurosurgery, endocrinology, and otolaryngology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine. Clipping, which is considered more long-lasting than coiling, was the treatment of choice because of Frank’s young age.
Like most teenagers, Frank felt invincible so he wasn’t really worried about dying. “At the time,” he says, “I was more unhappy about my shaved head and concerned I wouldn’t be able to play on the soccer team.” Eleven days after being admitted to the hospital, Frank went home and shortly thereafter started his senior year.
Remarkably, other than some muscle weakness from being bedridden for days, Frank suffered no physical or cognitive deficits. But at a follow-up appointment about a month after surgery, Dr. Vates gave Frank some bad news: no more contact sports; it was just too risky. “Soccer was part of my identity. I was devastated,” says Frank.
Despite his physical and psychological pain at the time, Frank now looks back on his ruptured brain aneurysm and meeting Dr. Vates not in negative terms but rather as a positive tipping point in his life.
Before his ruptured aneurysm, Frank had thought about applying to colleges with good soccer programs. But with that option no longer viable, Frank applied and was accepted to a college (St. John Fisher College) not far from his hometown of Rochester. In his freshman year, Frank’s interest in biology and curiosity about the brain began to blossom. “I was curious to understand why I was OK and others aren’t. I started to think about a career in medicine or biomedical research,” he says.
Early in his sophomore year, Frank contacted Dr. Vates, with whom he’d maintained a friendly relationship since his treatment, and expressed interest in getting some experience working in a lab conducting brain aneurysm research. Frank was becoming particularly interested in cognition and how the brain works. Frank’s interest came as no surprise to Dr. Vates, whose research has been funded by the Brain Aneurysm Foundation in the past. “I knew shortly after surgery that Frank was special because the first thing he wanted to see was video from his surgery,” he recalls.
Before long, Frank was working part-time in Dr. Vates’s lab while attending school, learning hands-on research techniques and pouring over scientific journal articles. During his junior year, Frank had his own project studying memory in mouse models of stroke. “Dr. Vates is a fantastic surgeon and has been a wonderful mentor,” says Frank.
By his senior year, Frank began working with Brad Mahon, PhD, in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester. Using noninvasive imaging (fMRI) and other tools, Dr. Mahon studies the cognitive and neural processes that make the very simple things we do on a daily basis possible, like drinking a glass of water. Following Frank’s college graduation in 2010, he joined Dr. Mahon’s lab as a full-time research assistant. “I was really excited about the opportunity to work with Dr. Mahon,” says Frank.
Two years later, in 2012, certain that he wanted to make neuroscience research his career, Frank started working toward his doctoral degree in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Rochester. The focus of his research was how the brain controls abilities that enable us to understand and use objects.
“When we look at a toothbrush, our brains have to understand what it is, what it is for, and how to use it, and then translate all that information into the coordinated action of brushing our teeth,” says Frank. For some patients who have suffered a brain injury this ability is lost, either temporarily or permanently, a condition known as limb apraxia.
This summer, after five years of research, Frank received his PhD. He is now in Philadelphia at the Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute (MRRI), doing postdoctoral research with Laurel Buxbaum, PsyD, an expert in limb apraxia and action representation in the human brain. The MRRI is devoted to improving the lives of individuals with neurological disabilities through research.
Frank is thrilled to be working with Dr. Buxbaum and looks forward to eventually establishing his own research lab to continue his quest to better understand the brain and human cognition. “My long-term goal is to use the knowledge derived from my scientific studies of the human brain to improve therapeutic techniques for patients as they recover from brain injury,” says Frank.
In July, Dr. Vates and a colleague Michael Lawton, MD, published an article on subarachnoid hemorrhage in the New England Journal of Medicine. Their introduction told the story of a 17-year-old who suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage on the soccer field. That teenager was Frank Garcea, who now looks back on that day as one of the luckiest of his life.