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The Battle For Alison Bird

After a seemingly ordinary fall left her with a rare, life-threatening condition, Syosset native opts for risky surgery not covered by insurance

Despite grappling with a very difficult situation, Alison Bird hasn’t come close to losing her sense of humor. The Syosset native can describe the fall in October of 2011 that left her with a life-threatening condition as though it were something that happened to Wile E. Coyote.

“I took the stupidest fall you could ever take,” she said. “I was getting my neighbor’s newspaper, then I just took like a banana peel, like you’d see in a cartoon, sort of fall.”

Being Alison Bird however, at first she shrugged it off and went to work. A trained Iron Woman, active in the triathlon committee, she was hardly one to let a little doorstep mishap keep her from her job as assistant principal at North Massapequa’s Plainedge High School. However, throughout the school day, the pain and dizziness made it clear that something was seriously wrong. Bird had already been seeing a chiropractor, who immediately scheduled her for an MRI. She made a follow-up appointment for a week after the test, but there ended up being no waiting involved; her doctor wanted her back in the office immediately.

“He had called me because what he had seen on the MRI was that I actually had a bone in my brain,” said Bird. She had broken three bones in her neck, and her second vertebrae was dislodged, piercing her brain stem: a rare condition called basilar invagination. The pain was due to the broken bones putting pressure on both her brain and spinal cord.

The immediate concern was that if she fell again, the bone would pierce further into her brain, killing her. In January, Bird underwent an orthopedic fusion surgery at Johns Hopkins in the hopes of moving the bones away from her neck: the hope was that the bone in her brain would either come out, or at the very least, not move in any further.

Unfortunately, though the surgery left Bird with a large plate on the back of her head for several months, her symptoms continued to progress. In addition to pain, she recently started to experience trouble breathing and swallowing. Doctors at Johns Hopkins have determined that the fusion surgery didn’t take, and now one of the bones is restricting Bird’s airway. After the surgery, her condition had become even more life-threatening.

The good news is, there was another operation available that could save Bird’s life; the bad news is that it costs $83,000, and Dr. Ziya Gokaslan, one of the few doctors in the country that is qualified to perform it, does not accept insurance. Bird was obviously concerned by the price.

“It seems outrageous, and I thought twice about it, then I said ‘Jesus Christ, I’m going to be dead,’” she said. “It’s kind of a life or death situation for me.”

Of course, Bird could attempt to find another doctor to perform the procedure; one who might accept insurance, for one thing. However, Gokaslan is not only a highly-rated doctor at Johns Hopkins; he created the procedure, and has done it 40 times. When dealing with surgery that involves both the spine and the brain, and all the risk that entails, no one wants to settle for second best.

In order to cover the cost of Gokaslan’s procedure, as well as other medical costs, Bird’s family and friends have started “The Battle For Bird,” a fundraiser through the website giveforward.com. Those who wish to help out this 1987 Syosset High School graduate can donate through the site, and there will also be a benefit for her in January at Mulcahy’s in Wantagh.

As a certified special education teacher and administrator, Bird says she misses her job and her students, though many students have kept in touch with her. In fact, she’s so eager to get back to school she hasn’t entertained any thoughts of new things to try after the surgery. There are no skydiving plans for this survivor.

“I can’t wait to return to the exact same life I left behind,” she said. “I had the most incredible life, and was the kind of person who was able to really appreciate it.” The only difference going forward, she told the Syosset-Jericho Tribune shortly before her surgery, is that if the surgery proved successful, she planned to appreciate everything she had just that much more.

Bird spoke to the paper the week before her surgery; according to the information posted on the Battle for Bird fundraising page, she has come through the surgery well and doctors are pleased with her progress, but there is a long way to go. Anton Newspapers wishes her the speediest possible recovery. To donate any denomination to help cover her medical costs, visit www.giveforward.com/battle forbird. 

Mulcahy’s is located at 3232 Railroad Ave. in Wantagh; the benefit, including raffles and a DJ, will take place from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 20.