Aspen cyclist forges ahead after aneurysm
The Aspen Times
The name is familiar.
You’ve seen it in the race results for the Aspen Cycling Club — first place in the Smuggler Hill Climb.
Or you’ve seen his name among the elite skiers in the Power of Four and the Grand Traverse.
Perhaps you’ve seen his name in Forbes Magazine, where he writes a column on tax policy.
But Anthony Nitti of Aspen is much more than a respected tax expert, husband, father, bicycle racer and backcountry skier.
Anthony Nitti is a survivor.
He’s a survivor, who has flourished in his comeback against the long odds of a brain aneurysm.
Eight years ago this week, Nitti underwent emergency life-saving brain surgery, not knowing if he would ever return to the active lifestyle of Aspen that had seduced the prominent tax man and elite athlete.
“Now, I’ve got a tiny 9-millimeter clip holding a major artery in my brain together,” Nitti said in an interview with The Aspen Times. “I was one of the fortunate few to come out the other side of this kind of brain surgery, able to return to physical activity.”
Complete and total physical activity.
“I was determined to get back my life at the highest level,” the 41-year-old Nitti said. “You can … use this one moment of bad luck to dictate the rest of your life. Or you can go the other way and look at a guy like Chris Klug.”
Klug, the Aspen snowboard racer, won an Olympic bronze medal in 2002 after coming back from a liver transplant in 2000.
“He had a liver transplant but he never let it stop him,” Nitti said, adding that given a second chance he was not going to waste it by giving up his passion for life in the mountains.
Klug’s inspiration empowered him, Nitti said.
Likewise, Nitti said that he and his wife vowed to spread the word that an aneurysm doesn’t have to be a death sentence or a lifestyle changer.
“What I can try to do is give some people hope that they can get from where I was to where I am today,” said Nitti, who just last weekend won his age division in the annual bicycling Guanella Pass Hill Climb.
His medical journey started in between endurance ski races in Aspen in February of 2008.
Nitti had just completed the arduous 24 Hours of Sunlight race.
“Four days later, skinning up Tiehack with my dog, I get a ‘worst-and-first’ headache,” he said. “A crippling headache from my eye to the back of my head.”
He presumed the headache came from the 24-hour endurance effort and an imbalance of electrolytes.
Three weeks later, Nitti started up Aspen Mountain in America’s Uphill, heavy-metal division.
A second “worst-and-first” headache debilitated Nitti on the spot, and he was rushed to the emergency room.
A CAT scan did not reveal any issues, he said. But the headaches returned over the next two weeks as he combed the internet for information.
He eventually found an examination called an MRA, which reveals vessels of the brain in detail.
He charged back to the hospital and requested the MRA.
“They told me I had a 5-millimeter aneurysm in my brain, and I needed a neurosurgeon right away,” Nitti said, recalling the emotionally devastating news.
He and his wife Lauren returned to his native Philadelphia and located a premier brain surgeon for the operation.
Nitti went in for a preliminary consultation.
“But he didn’t let me leave the hospital,” Nitti said as the surgeon located the aneurysm, which had weakened and formed a secondary aneurysm — like a bubble within a bubble in bubble gum.
Emergency surgery was scheduled.
And the words of his doctor, just prior to surgery, will forever resonate in his memory.
“He said that with a brain aneurysm, 70 percent of those with a bleeding aneurysm are dead within 24 hours,” Nitti said, quoting the doctor. “Of the remaining 30 percent, half of those wish they were dead.”
He feared the worst, and kissed his wife goodbye as he leaned back on the cold stainless steel operating table.
“They sliced me from ear to ear and clipped that thing closed with a spring-loaded titanium clip,” Nitti said, still fearing his “athletic” life would be over.
That life, after all, was why he moved to Aspen in the first place.
“All we cared about was whether I would return to walk and talk. We were very fortunate I got those sentinel or warning headaches,” he said.
Still, based on the location of the aneurysm, Nitti said memory loss and speech problems were likely in his case.
But within two days of the operation, he said he knew his cognitive brain operation was back to normal.
Then, he said, the most difficult phase of recovery began.
“The five years after the surgery were dominated by fear and anxiety,” Nitti said. “My mind would wage this internal war.”
Back and forth
He asked himself if he should work out.
He told himself he had to work out.
He told himself he should not work out.
He struggled with the fear that he might die.
Two factors, however, convinced Nitti to get his active live back completely.
“First, this stuff here (in Aspen) in non-negotiable,” he said of the skiing, hiking and biking. “These are the things that make me feel most alive.”
Secondly, he said his wife Lauren as his personal inspiration.
“When I first met her … I didn’t know she would be the strongest person I would ever meet,” Nitti said of the longtime Aspen Elementary School teacher. “She had to live through my fear and anxiety without having an semblance of control over it.”
She had to listen to him second-guess his skiing or his cycling.
She had to watch as he paced and paced and paced and tortured himself.
“But she always encouraged me to get back out there,” Nitti said, adding that he didn’t want to explain to their two children that skiing and biking “are things daddy used to do.”
He said they wanted to teach their children that “daddy didn’t give up.”
Daddy obviously didn’t give up.
Just a month ago he won the Smuggler Hill Climb in the Aspen Cycling Club series and posted one of the five fastest times ever recorded on the iconic climb.
“What is significant, I think, is that I was able to return to that level of racing with a tiny clip holding my brain together,” said Nitti, who will be in the field today when the Aspen Cycling Club hosts the annual criterium races at Woody Creek Raceway.
Racing will begin at 6 p.m.
Registration information is available online at aspencyclingclub.org.
“Eight years later, it is safe to say my story has a happy ending,” Nitti said. “I have returned to a full life that most aneurysm survivors assume is beyond their reach.”
While the black bears of Aspen are hunting for berries, garbage and even piles of corn in local neighborhoods, the brown bears of Katmai National Park in King Salmon, Alaska, are stuffing themselves with salmon to prepare for the annual Fat Bear Week Contest.