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The ‘Nova nexus

A story of faith, family and friends overcoming extraordinary circumstances  

For better or for worse. Coleen Byrnes '88 BSN is visited by husband Rich '87 LAS in the ICU. Her scarf covers 27 staples from her craniotomy in a German hospital.


It happened after Sunday Mass in Naples, Italy. Coleen Bradley Byrnes ’88 BSN dipped her fingers in holy water and put her hand to her head. “I had the worst headache of my life,” she recalls of June 3, 2012. She took a couple of steps and collapsed.

Villanovans would change the life of Coleen in ways she could not imagine as she graduated with her nursing degree and started her career in a pediatric burn center in Philadelphia. She had made a dear friend in classmate Sheila Kropp McLaughlin ’88 BSN and had already met her future husband Rich ’87 LAS, whom she married in 1989 and followed around the world while he served as a Naval Flight Officer. 

After Rich’s retirement from military service and four children later, they remain in Naples, both as civilian employees of the Department of Defense —he works on the operational 6th Fleet staff and since 2005 she has been an elementary school nurse on board the base called Naval Support Activities (NSA) Naples.

On that spring day nearly two years ago, Coleen was rushed to the NSA Naples Hospital where she was cared for in the emergency department by then-Lt. Maura Adams USN, NC, '07 BSN, now a civilian. As Coleen was quickly diagnosed with a brain aneurysm, neither alumna knew of the other’s affiliation and had no time to find out as Coleen was stabilized and transferred to the local Italian hospital for further care. Shortly thereafter, Sheila was on a plane from Philadelphia to Naples to care for the Byrnes children especially in light of Rich’s absence as he advocated and helped care for Coleen. Sheila was a vital player in the dramatic events because of her ability to support the children regardless of their mother’s ultimate fate.  

It was a tiny, but life-threatening, weakened bulging spot (or aneurysm) of a blood vessel wall--specifically in Coleen’s left middle cerebral artery behind her eye—that ruptured  and bled  for about 7 seconds, creating the convergence of these three Villanova nurses in Italy.

Coleen was awake during those first days in Italy and recalls the experience.  She does not have fond memories of the Italian hospital where she suffered with double vision and severe pain from vasospasms without any pain medication. 

Since locals doctors were not confident they could handle her case, on Friday evening she was to be transferred via a U.S. Air Force Lear jet to a hospital in Germany.  Still in pain from vasospasm, she saw a transport nurse from NSA Naples Hospital walk in her room—Maura again—whose first five words were a dream come true: “I have morphine with me.”   Arriving on the military flight line, they had to wait for the jet. That’s when the two women discovered their Villanova connection.  “At that point, they didn't think I was going to make it,” says Coleen, “Maura was in the ambulance when I talked to all four of my children, for what could have been for the last time.”  Their concern was valid. According to The Brain Aneurysm Foundation, ruptured brain aneurysms are fatal in about 40% of cases.  Rich recalls that moment as well, “I observed Maura in the ambulance with Coleen, constantly holding her hand and Maura had tears in her eyes.  It was an extremely touching scene and one in which is forever etched in my mind. Patient care - Maura gets it!”

Coleen visits with her children (L to R) Shannon, Katie, Meghan and Danny.

Germany’s Homburg University Hospital was Coleen’s next stop where her aneurysm was clipped by a neurosurgeon, a part of the surgery for which she was awake and talking. Post-operatively, she was “not a good patient” she notes, disconnecting her own IVs as she also dealt with aphasia, a disturbance affecting the ability to express or understand verbal or written language. There were periods where she could not say her name or birthday. It took weeks for her to identify a picture of a baseball.

After three weeks in the German ICU, Coleen moved to the U.S. military’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, then to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. for a week before beginning three months of speech, occupational and physical therapy while staying with her sister in Alexandria, Va.  “The aneurysm left me with severe aphasia and I had to learn to speak, read and write all over again,” Coleen explains, feeling she has 95% of her speech back.  She still finds typing difficult but has learned to live with or work around her challenges. The whole experience “made me a stronger and better person,” she says. Rich calls it nothing short of miraculous, noting it is a “tremendous story of love, prayer, faith, family, community, personal strength, perseverance and survival... All of these values are stressed highly at Villanova.” He sees the three nurses as “epitomizing what ‘Nova Nursing is all about.”

Today, Meghan (21) and Katie (19) Byrnes are college students in the U.S. while siblings Danny (16) and Shannon (14) attend Naples American High School. Maura is earning her MSN at Catholic University in advanced public/community health and is an emergency department nurse at a Virginia hospital. Sheila is a nurse in Student Health Services at the University of Pennsylvania and is mother of Molly ’16 VSB, while Coleen has returned as the nurse at Naples Elementary School.

What did Coleen learn as a patient? She describes her new perspective “You have to wait, for a nurse I have to realize how much waiting patients have had...I look at things differently, different ways of communicating.” She also stresses the importance of taking care of families. Many of Coleen’s friends from Villanova have been in touch since her aneurysm ruptured. She chuckles, noting “the ‘Nova Nation really is around the world.”


Just over a month after her cerebral aneurysm ruptured, Coleen Byrnes '88 BSN visited classmate Sheila McLaughlin in New Jersey, after Sheila cared for her children in Italy during her health scare and recovery.
While retraining her brain through various therapies, Coleen (left) took a break to enjoy a visit with Maura Adams '07 BSN in Alexandria, Va.