For a leader in stroke care, a life’s work becomes personal
In an instant, his life’s work became personal. Mary Jo Santo Pietro, Ph.D., is a recognized leader in the treatment of aphasia, a condition that renders people unable to speak or understand speech, usually due to stroke or other brain injury. As a doctoral student in the late 1970s, Dr. Santo Pietro treated soldiers returning from the Vietnam War with brain damage.
As a specialist in neurogenic communication disorders, Dr. Santo Pietro has taught aphasia to generations of speech-language pathologists and other healthcare professionals – at Rutgers University and City University of New York. In 1995, she joined Kean University. In her retirement from college, Dr. Santo Pietro, now 77, continues to create and lead aphasia support groups and advocate for the 70,000 New Jersey residents living with the disease.
But on that October evening last year, as she and three generations of her family sat at the table in Metuchen, the notorious leader in the field of aphasia felt helpless despite her years of studies and teaching. Dr. Santo Pietro reached out to ask his son-in-law to pass a bowl. “I couldn’t pronounce the words,” she recalls.
Dr. Santo Pietro can count among her mentees her granddaughter, Ariana Santo Pietro. As a child, Ariana accompanied her grandmother to aphasia support rallies, such as “stroke picnics”, and eventually followed in her grandmother’s footsteps. Ariana, 24, is currently an intern in the Speech and Hearing Department at the Hackensack Meridian JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute and will be graduating in May with her Masters of Science and Communication Disorders degree from Teachers College Columbia University.
Aware of the warning signs
At that October dinner, Ariana sat to her grandmother’s left. “I was paying attention to his speech,” Ariana recalled. “She was clumsy, but just a little. I started to pay more attention and thought, ‘That’s a warning sign. I hope that won’t happen. I didn’t want to freak out my whole family. I leaned down and looked at the right side of my grandmother’s face and saw a slight droop. I thought, ‘Oh no. It’s time.’ I said to everyone, ‘I think Grandma is having a stroke.'”
The family called emergency medical services and then had Dr. Santo Pietro repeat a common phrase, the early bird catches the worm. His words were unintelligible. EMS arrived within minutes and the woman who has spent her life helping stroke victims was rapidly declining. She couldn’t speak anymore.
“The last thing I remember is getting into the ambulance,” recalls Dr Santo Pietro.
Act fast and save a life
At Hackensack Meridian JFK University Medical Center, the emergency team moved deliberately and quickly. She was diagnosed quickly and the anti-clot drug, intravenous tPA, was immediately administered. In emergency stroke treatment, time matters. Prompt diagnosis and treatment saved Dr. Santo Pietro’s brain from what could have been a life-changing stroke. The next morning she felt fine and diagnostic tools found no signs of brain damage.
The experience gave her insight into what her patients are going through, and she will take it into account as she continues her work as an inaugural member of the Mike Adler Aphasia Task Force, which monitors the prevalence of aphasia in New Jersey. , creates aphasia support groups and other resources, and provides recommendations to the governor and state legislature.
“You’re lying there and there’s a feeling of helplessness which is awful,” Santo Pietro said. “I couldn’t force my mouth to answer the questions. It was getting worse every minute and it was very scary. All my years of knowledge were not helpful on the point. My granddaughter has seen what no one else has seen. … I’m so grateful to him and all the people at JFK. They saved my life.
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