DURHAM, NC — In the two years since he survived a ruptured brain aneurysm on Feb. 12, 2018, Livingston native Justin Gelman has gained new perspectives through his interactions with countless fellow survivors as founder of the Duke Brain Aneurysm Fund, which recently hosted its first research symposium. 

As a sophomore at Duke University, Gelman was alone in his apartment when his brain aneurysm suddenly ruptured, and the road to full recovery was a long, complicated and ultimately lucky journey that spurred his family to create the Duke Brain Aneurysm Fund. 

The college student’s proximity to the experts at Duke Neurosurgery, who specialized in Gelman’s particular situation, saved his life; but others are not as fortunate. The immediate goal of the Duke Brain Aneurysm Fund was to raise enough to be able to bring doctors from all over the world together for training on the best techniques and practices for situations like Gelman’s.

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Now 21 years old and a senior at Duke University, Gelman recently spoke at the first Duke Brain Aneurysm Symposium, which was made possible through his organization’s efforts to save and improve lives by helping to ensure the best brain-aneurysm care.

The event, held at Washington Duke Inn in Durham, NC, was packed with survivors and their families in addition to the targeted audience of physicians, advanced practice providers, nurses and specialists in neurosurgery, neurology, emergency medicine, ICU and rehabilitation. 

“Looking back, I can’t believe that this whole thing started only two years ago; it feels like this experience has been a part of me for my entire life,” said Gelman. “It was really meaningful to be able to share my story in front of such a supportive group. I’ve never really publicly spoken about my experience in an environment like that, and the process of developing your experience, your story, and breaking down how you really felt along every step of the way was a really meaningful exercise for me.”

Gelman’s full speech can be heard in the video below:

“Fundraising and organizing the event really took all hands on deck,” said Gelman. “We had a tremendous amount of support from friends and family, many of whom made generous donations that helped drive this event forward.”

In addition to seeing funds donated from many people his team had never met before but who resonated with his story, Gelman said he was also inspired by local fundraisers that were held in honor of the cause—including ones spearheaded by his sister, Aliza, in partnership with her teammates on the Livingston High School (LHS) girls basketball team as well as a mitzvah project conducted by students at Temple Beth Shalom and more.

Even more challenging than fundraising for the event was organizing it, according to Gelman—especially considering the difficulty of making decisions with half of the team located in New Jersey and the other half in North Carolina.

“Many times, I wouldn’t be able to get on conference calls because only a specific time worked for Dr. Zomorodi and my parents to chat with Holli Gall and the fine folk from Duke Neurosurgery, which was during class or my time in the laboratory,” Gelman said as an example. “Ultimately, we were able to make it work, and all the work that went into the event felt like nothing compared to the feeling I got from hearing the stories of other survivors at the event.”

Having the opportunity to speak with and hear the stories of fellow survivors was the highlight of the event for Gelman, who said that prior to the symposium, he could “count the number of people [he] met who also had aneurysms on one hand."

“To finally be able to meet with people who can really understand my experience just gave me a sense of comfort I haven’t had before,” he said.

Moving forward, Gelman hopes that the event will continue to grow so that more survivors can share their stories and have more opportunities to interact.

“I was really excited to see the whole weekend come together the way it did,” said Gelman. “I think that everyone there had a great and meaningful experience—myself especially—with the key takeaway being that survivors really appreciated having an open space to share their feelings.”

Now in his final semester at Duke, Gelman is currently enrolled as a part-time student while also studying for the MCAT, which he plans to take in the next few weeks. Despite the setback caused by the ruptured aneurysm, Gelman was proud to announce that he is still on track to graduate in May 2020, at which point he plans to begin applying to medical school.

“In the meantime, while I’m applying and interviewing next year, I’m still not quite sure what I want to do yet,” he said. “I know that I want to be involved in education one way or another. I see myself working either as a teacher or counselor depending on the opportunities I’m looking at right now.”

Although he’s still deliberating his future, Gelman is currently grateful just to have one, as Duke Neurosurgery has determined that four in 10 brain-aneurysm ruptures are fatal and about two-thirds of survivors suffer permanent neurological damage.

“I’m so grateful to have relatively few twists to my recovery,” said Gelman. “At this point, most of the restrictions I had [in 2018] are gone. I can work out (although I should probably do that more often) and I drink coffee (although I should probably do that less often).

“I’d say that the greatest change to my daily life is probably just the pressure I put on myself to succeed now that I’ve been given this second opportunity. I have this new purpose of helping people who went through a similar thing as I did, and so the pressure of not messing that up is definitely something that will affect me long term and I need to mitigate on a daily basis.”

Following the success of the first Duke Brain Aneurysm Symposium, Gelman expressed gratitude to all those who have been by his side “every step of the way.”

“I would not be standing here today without their love and support,” he said. “There are so many people who generously check up on me and it really makes me feel loved.”

CLICK HERE to read more about Gelman's experience and how it led to the founding of the Duke Brain Aneurysm Fund.