HOPE VALLEY — Julia DeGiovanni and her family are preparing for the University of Rhode Island’s commencement ceremonies on May 19, when Julia will walk across the stage to accept her bachelor of arts degree in communication studies with a minor in sustainability.
Julia’s graduation is an event that her parents, Kelly and Michael, and sister, Alyzza, feared might never happen after she collapsed in her URI residence hall on Dec. 9, 2011, the victim of a ruptured brain aneurysm.
“I remember the day it happened,” Julia said. “I thought it was a dream. I was on campus. I was living with my three best friends from high school. We went to school at Chariho high school and we were all best friends. I collapsed, and they rushed to get health services because they didn’t know what was going on.”
Kelly explained that Julia had an undiagnosed congenital arterial malformation.
“We didn’t know she had it,” she said. “She developed an aneurysm which ruptured.”
Julia underwent surgery shortly after arriving at Rhode Island Hospital. Doctors removed part of her skull to reduce the pressure on her brain.
Now 26, Julia doesn’t remember her five-week stay in Rhode Island Hospital. Family members, on the other hand, can’t forget all the nights they slept in the waiting room and the Christmas they tried to celebrate there.
“We decorated that waiting room with Christmas trees and opened gifts,” Kelly said. “New Year’s was there. Some people came up and we had cookies and stuff.”
In mid-January, Julia was transferred to Spaulding Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., to begin her long rehabilitation.
“I was in an induced coma for two weeks, and the other three weeks, I don’t remember anything,” she said. “My first memory is going in the ambulance from Rhode Island Hospital to Spaulding Cambridge.”
Hope Valley Ambulance transported Julia to Cambridge free of charge. It was the first of many acts of kindness the family was to receive from the community.
“This is when I started becoming awake, but I was kind of out of it still because of all the medication I was on,” Julia said.
And so began the years of recovery. Kelly stayed with Julia in her room at Spaulding on weeknights and Michael took over on weekends.
Julia was unable to talk, unable to speak and had lost much of her sight in one eye. She also developed a bone growth known as a heterotopic ossification at the site of an IV. The surgery would not take place for another year and the growth prevented her from straightening her leg.
“The most painful aspect of the recovery was my leg surgery from this bone,” Julia said.
Then doctors found another arterial malformation, so there was another surgery at Rhode Island Hospital and time in the Intensive Care Unit.
In March, Julia was transferred to Spaulding Hospital in Boston, but shortly after being admitted, she began complaining of an intense headache. Suddenly, during a physical therapy session, she began bleeding from her head and was rushed to Massachusetts General Hospital for still more surgery.
She returned to Spaulding Boston for two months of rehabilitation and on May 9, 2012, she went home.
Kelly said Julia received a hero’s welcome from her community.
“When she came home, the town of Hope Valley, all the people at the Washington Trust were outside holding signs, all the local businesses that had signage had ‘welcome home Julia.’ The Hope Valley Fire Department had all their fire trucks out, beeping their horns,” she said.
Coming home presented another set of challenges. Still in a wheelchair, Julia had to learn to get into a car, and the family installed a ramp so she could get into the house.
She continued physical, occupational and speech therapy in Warwick, but the rehabilitation paused as she had her final surgery, to remove the ossification.
Back at home, Julia had daily therapy at Rhode Island Hospital. Kelly, a nurse, took eight months off to care for Julia and drive her to her appointments.
Willis, a Yorkshire terrier, came to live with the DeGiovanni family shortly after Julia returned home. Kelly hoped that he would be Julia’s therapy dog and that she would strengthen the weaker side of her body by stroking him.
In 2015, determined to complete her degree, Julia returned to URI. Reading was still difficult, so she turned to Chariho English teacher Vincent Levcowich, who referred her to Tammy Lyons, a reading specialist at Charlestown Elementary School. Lyons, who was working at the high school at the time, volunteered to work with Julia.
“She could look at a paragraph, look at each word, say the word and keep going, but she would lose her comprehension,” Lyons said. “I went back to the basics with her. I told her that we were going to re-train her brain in a different manner so she could make the connections to the written word so that she could become more fluent.”
Lyons referred Julia to URI’s Communicative Disorders Department, where she received additional therapy from a speech and language pathologist, but her sessions with Julia continue to this day.
“She has taught me more than I have probably taught her,” Lyons said. “She has made an enormous impact on my entire family. I have five children and they have also worked with her and have gained inspiration through her perseverance and never giving up.”
Julia now uses a cane, but when she first returned to URI, she was still using a walker. She decided to take just one class.
“This was the year that I was supposed to have graduated, so the fact that I’m back at school was great, but at the same time I was kind of upset because all my friends who went to school with me are graduating and I’m still a freshman, taking one class, to see if I can do it,” she said.
Lyons accompanied Julia to her first class and helped her settle in.
Joanne Mundorf, a senior lecturer in communication studies, later taught Julia in several classes.
“Julia is open to new experiences and ways of thinking,” she said. “During the few years that I have known her, she has made a remarkable journey overcoming incredible obstacles. In face-to-face classes, Julia livened up the classroom with her effervescence. Even in the online environment, Julia sparked animated class discussions and often took the conversations into unexpected and interesting directions.”
Now that she is graduating, Julia is looking for a job.
“I have to finish my internship over the summer with the Brain Injury Association of Rhode Island,” she said. “My dream job would be to be a reporter.”
The next big thing will be driving a car.
“It looks promising,” she said. “I still have a lot of things I have to do before I can drive. I go to visual therapy because I have vision loss.”
Julia said she did not feel that the years of pain and immobility and surgeries changed her in a fundamental way, but she has had to make many adjustments.
“I still have the same values, the same core beliefs,” she said. “My approach to things is going to be different now because I still can’t do a lot of stuff. I can go to the beach, but it’s harder for me to go to the beach. I feel as though I’m just Julia — doing what I can do.”