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Quaker Valley alum, aspiring painter uses rare condition to help others

| Monday, March 20, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
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Members of UPMC Department of Neurosurgery's brain aneurysm and arteriovenous malformation (AVM) support group paint tulips during a meeting Wednesday, March 15, 2017. Alessandra Crivelli, 22, of Bell Acres and a student at Robert Morris University held the painting session as part of her senior thesis. Crivelli has suffered aneuryms, blood clots and three strokes from AVM.

Alessandra Crivelli was 17 when she had her first brain bleed.

Now 22, the Bell Acres resident and alumnae of Quaker Valley High School has undergone numerous surgeries, been treated for aneurysms and blood clots, and suffered three strokes due to a rare condition called arteriovenous malformation (AVM).

“When I was 17, I didn't think anything like this would ever happen to me,” Crivelli said. “But by the time I was 21, I was wondering whether I would ever get back to being myself.”

As a result of the first stroke she suffered, Crivelli, an aspiring painter who was right-handed, had to learn to paint using her left hand. This is not an uncommon situation for AVM patients, who can take years to recover from the physical, emotional and cognitive consequences of the condition, said physician assistant Emily Guerrero.

But Crivelli, now a student at Robert Morris University, decided she wanted to turn her passion for painting into a positive outlet not just for herself, but for the other members of the AVM and aneurysms support group she has attended for the past several years at UPMC Presbyterian. Guerrero is the group facilitator. Crivelli began teaching her fellow patients how to paint, which proved to be a huge hit.

“She suggested it as her senior thesis, and everyone in the group was really supportive,” Guerrero said. “That was a huge boost for her confidence, because she was feeling a little nervous and anxious. It was overwhelming, the response that she got.”

It also was therapeutic for the other patients, Guerrero said.

“It was so calming for them, even for those who had not really ever done anything artistic.”

The group is organizing a show of the work the patients produced, to be held at Presby sometime next month. Crivelli is excited to see it come to fruition.

“Everyone's painting is different, but the same, a tulip,” she explained. “It's just like the story of our illness, we are all fighting the same fight but we all have different stories and experiences which makes every flower special.”

AVM is a mass caused by an abnormal connection between arteries and veins that affects fewer than 1 percent of the population. When an AVM ruptures, as was the case for Crivelli, it can cause brain bleeding and leaking of spinal fluid.

Guerrero says unfortunately in younger AVM patients like Crivelli, there's a higher likelihood that symptoms will recur. Crivelli will find out next month the outcome of her latest surgery, in which her surgeon “glued” the re-ruptured AVM instead of doing a full craniotomy.

Until then, she's focused on her painting and on preparing for the support group's show. Oh, and she took a full slate of classes at RMU at her doctor's encouragement and made the dean's list, even though she still struggles with the effects of her condition.

“It's hard, because it is tempting to just go easy and be lazy,” she said. “I have to push myself every day.”

She looks forward to the show, so other patients can see that recovery from AVM is possible, even if it's difficult.

”Every story in this support group is different,” she said. “But everyone is trying to figure out the same thing: How to live with this illness and how to get to know your new self.”

Kim Lyons is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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