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Elkhart restaurant manager celebrates life after near death

For Nicole and Nina Kinkaide, Christmas was about how many presents they could shove under the tree.

The two sisters — and best friends, and soul mates — put a lot of emphasis on gifts.

But ever since the world went dark for Nicole, better known as Nikki, on Black Friday last year, there’s really only one gift they care about.

“Life is enough,” Nikki said.

On Nov. 29, 2013, she worked at 523 Tap & Grill, the restaurant the two helped the Anagnos family open at 523 S. Main St., Elkhart. She was planning to sing that night at the restaurant.

“I went home to get ready for the band and woke up a week later in ICU,” she said.

She remembers her vision going dark and then her arms and legs not working. She remembers falling and calling for her boyfriend, Rob Klinger. He found her convulsing and called Nina first, then 911.

In the emergency room at Elkhart General Hospital, they couldn’t do a CT scan until she stopped convulsing.

When a doctor saw the aneurysm that had formed behind her nose, he told Nina it would be fatal.

The chances of survival, much less full recovery, weren’t great. In the United States, about half of the people who suffer ruptured aneurysms die from them. Two-thirds of the people who get them lose neurological function, according to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation.

As Nikki battled for life, an ambulance took her to Parkview Hospital in Fort Wayne. The next day, Dr. Rakesh Khatri operated for five hours and filled the aneurysm with a titanium coil to stabilize it.

When he came out and talked to Nina; their father, Jim Kinkaide; and Klinger, he was optimistic.

“He said she’s amazing. She’s going to make it,” said Nina, who is also a server and bartender at 523.

No one knew whether she’d be able to walk or talk. “But she was alive. That was enough,” The recovery soon included walking and talking, as well as anger and giggling. After three weeks in the hospital, she went home Dec. 16. She couldn’t do much physically. She couldn’t drive. There were still risks.

The family celebrated Christmas quietly — except for the giggling — and with few gifts under the tree. The time in the hospital had cut into the time to shop.

Nikki started working again at 523 in February on a limited basis and grew stronger over time. In May, friends gathered for a benefit to raise funds since she had no insurance, and three days later had another surgery to put more titanium in the bubble that had formed in the vein in her head.

Dr. Khatri told Nikki and her boyfriend there was a 50 percent risk something would go wrong. They didn’t tell her father or sister. She felt the support and prayer of others. “I had so much faith in Dr. Khatri. I felt good. I don’t think the universe would allow me to be taken from my sister because we lost our mom,” Nikki said.

Their mother, Barb, died in 2006 after a fire in a storage shed where she may have been sleeping. She’d battled alcohol issues, Nikki said.

The surgery went great. An angiogram the week of Thanksgiving this year showed healing and no more need for surgery. Dr. Khatri “used the word fantastic,” Nikki said.

As they prepare for Christmas this year, Nikki can drive herself to do her shopping. She’s working full-time managing the restaurant. She has health insurance and after declaring bankruptcy, the debts are gone but her house isn’t.

Nikki jokes that what she gained from her recovery was weight she can’t seem to lose, but there’s more.

“I’ve gained a sense of calm,” she said. “I really feel OK with life and the way things are going. I didn’t think I’d get there.”

She’s not going 100 mph anymore, she said.

Nina, who was at her sister’s side during the recovery, cries as she talks about how much she loves her. “I’ve never been more grateful in my life,” she said. “She’s everything to me, and to know she’s healing is everything to me.”

On Thursday, they’ll gather again with family to celebrate Christmas. They’ll munch on a variety of food. They’ll laugh and love.

“It’s about who you’re with, not getting a new iPod or whatever,” Nikki said.

They are getting something new, expected to arrive in April.

Nina and her boyfriend, Justin Stump, are expecting a girl.

Nikki doesn’t say her sister will become a mother. What she says is, “She’s giving me a niece.”

They laugh and talk about how the girl will be loved and spoiled.

Nikki said she’s thrilled to be here, to be an aunt and to celebrate the gift of another life.

“Life is enough,” Nikki said.

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