Patient Stories

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Jessica Purcell
A Race to Recovery

Three years ago, Jessica Purcell and Steven Zebrak were married in a beautiful ceremony, surrounded by family and friends. They vowed to be together in sickness and health, till death do they part. Only 97 days later, those vows would be challenged, literally, head-on.
Avid swimmers, runners and bicyclists, Jessica and her husband were on a 65-mile, triathlon training bike ride when Jessica suffered a traumatic brain injury. As she came down a steep hill and rounded a sharp turn, she veered to avoid another group of bikers. With no time to react, her bicycle slammed into a car stopped at a light.
Jessica was airlifted to Westchester Medical Center, where she underwent several surgeries and was placed in a medically induced coma. Her new husband, parents and in-laws gathered around, uncertain what path her recovery would take.
Once stable, Jessica was transferred to the specialized traumatic brain injury rehabilitation service at Helen Hayes Hospital. Her rehab team explained to her family the stages of recovery, stressing that every patient who has sustained a TBI recovers at their own speed, in their own individual way. As valedictorian of her high school class and a lawyer by profession, Jessica was up to the challenge.
“Initially, Jessica was in a very confused state,” recalls her father. “It is so hard to see your child that way, but eventually, we could begin to see the glimmer in her eye. But she was still in a fog.”
Jessica was faced with relearning everything- how to speak, dress and even walk, never mind run. Each day, she worked one-on-one with her physical, occupational and speech therapists to rebuild her life. Her therapists explained that parts of her brain would make new connections to compensate for the damaged areas. While she felt that the recovery process was slow and tedious, in fact, Jessica made amazing progress, impressing her rehabilitation team and her huge cadre of supporters.
Within months, Jessica walked into the offices of the neurosurgeon who had operated on her after the accident. He, too, was astonished by her progress and speedy recovery.
It was not long before Jessica was running and working out again, training for marathons and Iron Man events. She’s since finished the Boston Marathon at her personal best time, among other competitions.
Jessica’s race to recovery from one of the most serious types of injuries imaginable is indeed inspiring and amazing. It is a credit to her determination and strength, to her network of supporters, the love of her new husband, and a rehabilitation team that is committed to enabling every patient with traumatic brain injury to race to their own personal best.


Peter Modafferi
Never Missing a Beat

After living for many years with congestive heart failure, Peter Modafferi was given a grim prognosis. His heart was expected to hold out only another three to five years. A heart transplant was his sole option, and in the meantime, he had to keep strong, fit and healthy enough to receive the new heart when the time came. The year was 2007.

“And like clockwork, here we are in 2011 and I’m grateful and thrilled to say that I not only survived, but that I haven’t missed a beat,” says Peter. “ With the support of my wife, family, friends and co-workers, the wonderful rehabilitation and medical care I’ve received, and the truly amazing gift of a new heart, I am well on the way to being in the best shape of my life!”

Peter credits his physician’s referral to outpatient cardiac rehabilitation with literally saving his life. After each major procedure, including, among others, valve repairs and thyroid removal, Peter came to Helen Hayes Hospital for outpatient rehab. “Three rounds of cardiac rehab and one round of pulmonary,” he proudly boasts, “and each time, they kept me going so I could return to work and continue on with my life.”

The rehabilitation team at HHH was acutely aware of the precarious nature of Peter’s condition and they developed a customized treatment plan to build up his endurance, strength, lung capacity and muscle mass. As he walked on the treadmill and lifted weights, all under careful monitoring by a cardiologist, exercise physiologist, nurse and physical therapist, Peter bonded with his fellow patients and learned quite a lot about the rehabilitation hospital. “From the treadmill, I had a terrific view of the Hudson River and I pledged that if I survived, I wanted to give back to this hospital that was helping me so much,” he recalls.

By 2010, Peter’s heart was giving out. He was in end-stage heart failure and on life support when he had a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) implanted. Once again, he turned to the experts in Helen Hayes’ outpatient cardiac therapy program to keep him going. They coordinated his care with his medical team as he awaited a heart transplant, ensuring that he would be strong enough to undergo the life-saving procedure.

Today, only eight weeks since he received a new heart, Peter is walking two miles a day, swimming, driving and looking forward to returning to work. He’s also actively involved on the board of the Helen Hayes Hospital Foundation, where he hasn’t missed a single beat.


Joe McCullough
Joe McCullough with his wifeEndless possibilities 
for recovery

On a camping trip to Long Island with his family, Joe McCullough started to feel bad. Really bad. His family called an ambulance that brought him to a local hospital for observation. Joe never thought anything was seriously wrong, but when he awoke the next morning, and tried to get up, he fell to the floor. Joe’s right side was paralyzed. He had suffered a stroke.

After four days in the acute care hospital, Joe was transferred to Helen Hayes Hospital, near his home and family, for rehabilitation.

“I immediately felt better when I entered Helen Hayes because everyone was just so nice,” says Joe. “Everyone I met had a smile. All of my therapists, the doctors and nurses, the people in housekeeping, were all so kind and friendly. Even the food was delicious. I felt like everyone wanted me to get better.”

The members of the stroke rehabilitation team immediately took notice of Joe’s infectious smile, his tremendous determination and great sense of humor. He was very motivated and eager to try anything his speech, physical or occupational therapists had in mind. Joe also encouraged his fellow patients with his positive, can-do attitude. He made impressive gains and he was discharged home walking with a cane.

Today, Joe is continuing his therapy in the hospital’s Outpatient Neurology Rehabilitation Center. “I can open and close my right hand now, can grasp things, and am working on raising my hand over my head,” he reports.

Joe attributes his recovery to the outstanding care he received at HHH, and to the patience and devotion of Sonia, his wife of 31 years. “The staff of Helen Hayes has become like family to me. They’ve helped me to recover and they have really made a difference.”

Joe embodies the perseverance and strength required to face life’s challenges and demonstrates that the possibilities for recovery are endless.


Lauren Shields
Lauren ShieldsThe heart to run, dance 
and shop

Lauren Shields’ journey started in April 2008, the week before her eighth birthday. A mysterious bout of fatigue delivered her to Westchester Medical Center where doctors soon discovered that she was in the midst of heart failure due to a viral infection. Her parents were told that she had a 30% chance of getting better. 
She was transferred to Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital and endured intensive steroid treatments. Little Lauren was in need of some big interventions. She was in need of a heart transplant.

Lauren was placed on cardiac and respiratory life support and was held in a drug-induced coma, during which time she received multiple transfusions. Finally, the new heart came. But even after the transplant, her fight was far from over.

Lauren remained on respiratory support and kidney dialysis. Sometime during this period, and unknown to her medical team, she suffered a stroke. When she finally woke up, she had seizures. The combined effects of her long ordeal had left Lauren weak and debilitated.

Lauren’s parents turned to Helen Hayes Hospital to help their daughter recover. Before long, Lauren started twice weekly physical and occupational therapy in Helen Hayes Hospital’s outpatient pediatric program. She was fitted with leg braces and her therapy regime focused on strengthening her arms and legs and improving her balance and endurance. Of course, her therapists made sure the work was as much fun as it was challenging. From hula-hoops to bouncing balls, they incorporated every tool and technique they could to ensure that Lauren gleaned the maximum benefits from her therapy sessions.

By September of 2009, Lauren walked through the doors of her school, eager to return to her busy life. She says she wants to be able to, “run, dance and shop without resting.”

Her mother and father are tremendously grateful for the outpouring of community support that Lauren and their family have received. Their courage and devotion and Lauren’s strength and determination have been an inspiration to us all.


George Brunjes
George BrunjesGetting out on the dance floor following hip replacement surgery

George Brunjes loves to dance, especially Celtic square dancing. For the past several years, whenever he ventured out on the dance floor, he was in a lot of pain. His ability to enjoy his hobby was seriously limited, so in May 2008, George had his right hip replaced at the Hospital for Special Surgery.

Now, with the help of the HHH orthopedic rehabilitation staff, George is dancing again. He just returned from a trip to Nova Scotia, where Celtic square dancing is very popular, and he was able to enjoy learning new steps and making new friends.

“I love dancing, and now, for the first time in six years, I can dance again,” says George. “I’m able to walk two miles and I’ve even climbed up a ladder to repair some loose shingles on my roof. I’m back to my old self again, with no pain in my right hip.”

George spent one week at HHH after his hip replacement surgery. “My neighbor strongly urged me to come to Helen Hayes for rehab, based on her own experience. ‘Don’t think you can do it yourself,’ she said, and she was right. I took her advice, and I am very happy that I did.”

One of the most valuable aspects of rehab was the education he received, reports George. “The staff was great. They helped me understand how my body was healing and how I could cope with my temporary limitations. Everyone was very friendly, helpful and supportive. The therapists were very patient and showed me how to adjust to my new hip. They taught me how to walk again, how to climb stairs, how to bend and how to get in and out of my car. They were with me, literally, every step of the way.” It’s been a little over a year now, and George says he can do almost everything he wants to.

“I am so grateful to my neighbor for recommending Helen Hayes. For the first time in six years, I can dance again, and that means the world to me.”


Ed Morgan
Ed MorganTransitioning to a new life following brain injury

In the spring of 2005, Ed Morgan was enjoying his work as the director of fitness at a prestigious college and relishing in his role of being a dad to his one year old twins. A certified and licensed athletic trainer, he was running a road race when he suddenly had a stroke, leaving him in a coma for 47 days. The resulting brain injury caused lasting communication impairments and physical limitations.

“Ed needed something else, including social contact with his peers,” explains his mother Rosemary. Ed’s family researched the options and discovered the New York State Department of Health’s TBI Waiver Program and the services it offers through the HHH Transitional Rehabilitation Program.

A customized three-day a week regimen was developed for Ed and he has benefited from vocational rehab, assistive technology services and occupational and speech therapy. His physical conditioning has improved through use of the hospital’s pool and Wellness Center. He has also participated in the GolfAbility program. Ed’s service coordinator closely monitors his progress and re-evaluates his program every six months to keep pace with his goals.

Today, Ed is highly motivated, has improved his communication abilities and has developed new interests and talents, including impressive photography skills. While he is still working toward regaining his athletic certification, he has started exhibiting his landscape and architectural photographs. They showcase his amazing sense of composition and color, his newly acquired digital photography skills and his ability to print, mount and frame his work. Ed finds that his photos help him to communicate without words, allowing him to document and describe his family, travels and feelings.

“The Transitional Program has really boosted Ed’s self-esteem and independence,” reports his Mom. “For him, it’s like going to work and his job is to get better.” To which her son replies, “I’m trying!”


Faizool Ali
Faizool AliA lower limb amputation leads to high athletic achievments.

Faizool Ali is a young man with a contagious enthusiasm for life. It’s a quality he readily shares with others in his work as a physical therapy assistant. For Faizool, it has also proven to be a valuable trait in overcoming a major life challenge.

Eight years ago, Faizool’s girlfriend drove him to the emergency room with crushing leg pain. An active, healthy and energetic individual, the diagnosis of deep vein thrombosis was not something he expected. While he received immediate treatment, the clot in his lower leg resulted in complications.

“Through my training, I knew that the DVT was life threatening and that I could potentially lose my leg,” recalls Faizool. “I also knew that living with a below-the-knee amputation would be much less difficult than living with an above-the-knee amputation.” With that knowledge, and his family’s love and support, Faizool went through with the surgery that would save, but forever change his life.

He arrived at Helen Hayes Hospital prepared to forge ahead. His physician, therapist and prosthetist worked as a team, imparting the skills and tools Faizool would need to restart his life. The hospital’s Prosthetic Orthotic Center fit him with high tech lower limb prosthesis and Faizool was on his way.

He returned to work, married and started a family and was grateful to be alive. Yet he sensed a void. He missed playing sports and coaching. And he wanted to connect with his peers – individuals who faced similar challenges.

Faizool’s prosthetist at Helen Hayes told him about the hospital’s adapted sports program. It wasn’t long before he was out on the court, playing wheelchair basketball with a bunch of guys who shared not just his enthusiasm and drive, but similar life experiences.

“It just clicked,” says Faizool. “It was just what I needed and I’m so thankful to Helen Hayes for opening new opportunities for me.”

Turns out Faizool is an outstanding wheelchair basketball player. Today, he plays for the professional team the New York Rolling Knicks.


Mary Ellyn Devery
Mary Ellyn DeveryHaving the very best rehabilitation after a joint replacement is key to a good outcome.

Restoring mobility and independence and resuming activities of daily living is the goal for patients recovering from single and bilateral joint replacements. Often, the journey from painful movement to surgery, followed by rehabilitation, is filled with trepidation and procrastination, as Mary Ellyn Devery will tell you.

Over a forty-year career as a theatrical producer and manager, Mary Ellyn has traveled the world – from New York’s Broadway to produce with the late Helen Hayes MacArthur, to Russia to bring the Bolshoi Ballet to America, to producing an award-winning show about Gertrude Stein, starring Pat Carroll. When knee problems caused so much pain that she could no longer face work or the rigors of travel, Mary Ellyn decided the time had finally come for a knee replacement.

Mary Ellyn credits her outstanding outcome to three factors: pre-surgical therapy, the skills of an exemplary surgeon and excellent post-surgical rehabilitation. “Dr. Thomas Sculco at the Hospital for Special Surgery performed my knee replacement. He was pleased that I was fortunate to have access to the rehabilitation services at HHH,” she says.

At her physician’s recommendation, Mary Ellyn came to HHH for several weeks of outpatient physical therapy prior to her surgery. She concentrated on performing a range of exercises that helped to strengthen the muscles around her knee and in her legs. Mary Ellyn was back at HHH for inpatient joint rehabilitation only two days after her surgery at HSS. She can vividly recall the pain, but worked hard at following her therapist’s instructions and directions.

Following discharge, Mary Ellyn continued her recovery at HHH with additional outpatient physical therapy, as well as warm water aquatic therapy, which improves flexibility and endurance while reducing stress on joints.

Today, Mary Ellyn is taking long walks with her papillon, Mimi – is pain free, and has been on four working cruises half way around the world, and made several working trips to Europe. “Having the very best rehabilitation after a joint replacement is key to a good outcome and I tell everyone that Helen Hayes Hospital should be the first place they consider for therapy following such surgery. Now, since my surgery and rehab, I don’t have to second-guess what I can do or where I can travel. I got my world back.”


Maria Heng
Maria HengFighting back from burn injuries to open the window of possibility.

The candle caught the back of her dress on fire and within moments, Maria Heng was fighting for her life. She suffered third-degree burns over 86% of her body and yet somehow, this amazing woman survived.

Maria came to Helen Hayes Hospital following a six-month stay in the burn unit at Westchester Medical Center, including two months in a medically induced coma. Maria had decided that the intensity of inpatient rehabilitation available at Helen Hayes was just what she needed and wanted in order to make the fullest possible recovery. Upon arrival, she was unable to do anything for herself, and needed full-time medical care.

Her inner strength and determination helped Maria survive the devastating damage to her body and she made a commitment to herself that she would not surrender. “I never knew how far I would be able to go,” she recalls, “but I knew how much effort I could put in.” The therapists were enthusiastic, and Maria’s arduous work began.

After being almost totally paralyzed and suffering relentless pain, Maria learned how to lift her arm so she could feed herself, and how to sit up in a chair. Gradually, she began to stand.

“Every little victory became joyful,” she says. “When I had a good day, I would take myself down to the gift shop and get some chocolate as a reward. The wonderful staff of Helen Hayes Hospital opened the window of possibility for me. They enabled me to see myself as an independent person, even when I couldn’t really imagine it. I don’t feel limited, even though I know there are things I can’t do. I am grateful for what I have.”

Now, Maria says she wants to make a difference in the lives of others, just like those who inspired her.

At the annual Honors Assembly, Maria was presented with the highest honor, the Helen Hayes Hospital Spirit of Achievement Award. It was bestowed in recognition of her steadfast courage, perseverance and determination to open windows of hope for those embarking on their rehabilitation journey.


Mary Margaret Owen
Mary Margaret OwenStitching together a life
following stroke.

When the cup of ice slipped through her hand, Mary Margaret Owen knew instinctively that something was not right. When she could not will her fingers to operate the computer keyboard and one side of her body started going numb, she recognized that she was having a stroke. By the time she slipped off her chair, her co-workers at Nyack Hospital were rushing her to the Emergency Room.

A New York State Department of Health Designated Stroke Center, the staff at Nyack immediately went to work to assess Owen’s condition and mange the stroke’s effects. Once she was medically ready, Owen was transferred to Helen Hayes Hospital for stroke rehabilitation.

“I’ve been working harder at this than at anything I’ve ever done in my life,” she says. Owen’s physical, occupational and speech therapists have been encouraging her every step of the way. “They motivate me to do my facial exercises, which have almost eliminated the droop on one side of my mouth. And when they told me I really could get up out of the wheelchair, and I took my first step, I was elated. I called everyone I knew.”

Along with the intensive therapy, Owen credits her recovery to the caring medical and nursing staff, the soothing Hudson River views from her room and the tremendous support she has received from her family. “When I first arrived, many of the other patients offered encouragement,” she recalls, “and now I try to return that help. We motivate each other and celebrate our progress together.”

Owen’s remaining challenge is to regain full use of her left arm and hand. When that happens, this determined stroke survivor is looking forward to sewing once again.

“When I first arrived at Helen Hayes, I was like a droopy Raggedy Ann doll,” she says. “But slowly, my life is taking form again.” With a little time, Mary Margaret Owen may be stitching together a rag doll herself.


Matthew Castelluccio
Matthew CastelluccioSpinal cord injury has made me a better person than I was.

Matthew Castelluccio has big plans. He’s going back to college to gain his teaching certification, a career change from his earlier position in finance.

He loves to travel, but his number one passion is sports. He’s planning to go surfing soon, and during the past year, he has gone skydiving, water skiing, snow skiing and bicycling. Matthew loves the socialization of team sports, especially his quad rugby team.

What you might not expect until you meet him in person is that this young man uses a wheelchair for mobility. At age 26, a devastating motorcycle accident left him a quadriplegic. When a car made an unexpected turn right in front of Matthew, he went flying over the handlebars. His spine was severed, all of his ribs were broken, and he suffered severe nerve damage to his right arm.

After a few weeks in the intensive care unit and months of rehab, Matthew regained some use of his left arm. He had extensive surgery to reinforce his spine, and regained some use of his shoulder.

Matthew came to the Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program at Helen Hayes Hospital for more intensive rehabilitation and for help learning the skills he would need to become independent. “The people at Helen Hayes gave me the courage to try things,” says Matthew, and he’s never looked back.

After more surgery, this time to free up his left hip, Matthew returned to Helen Hayes Hospital, first as an inpatient and then to the Day Hospital. A brief setback caused by a broken leg meant additional outpatient rehabilitation, focusing on stretching and strengthening his muscles.

Matthew worked hard, and the results showed. He earned his independence. Today, he easily navigates his wheelchair, eager to get on with his life.

Recently, he’s taken great satisfaction from teaching people about life with a disability. He travels as a speaker with one of his closest friends, a young man who was in the movie Murderball, about quad rugby.  And he’s joined the staff at Helen Hayes as a peer mentor to newly injured spinal cord injury patients and as the coordinator of the hospital’s successful Adapted Sports & Recreation Program.

“I can live a completely normal life,” says Matthew, “other than for my wheelchair. This is who I am. It might take me a little longer to get in and out of cars, and it can be frustrating to try and reach something, but I’m a greater person than I was.”


Alfie Schloss
Alfie SchlossA second chance at life

“I’ve been given a second chance at life,” says Alfie Schloss, who spent nearly two months at Helen Hayes Hospital recovering from the devastating effects of a brain aneurysm.

Schloss, a reverse mortgage consultant, awoke one morning with a terrible headache, which persisted for several days. He continued to go to work until he collapsed and was taken unconscious to Orange Regional Medical Center. After being stabilized, he was transferred to Westchester Medical Center, where he spent nearly four weeks in an induced coma and underwent successful surgery to relieve the pressure on his brain.

Arriving at HHH to begin rehabilitation, Schloss was lucid and able to speak, but was unable to walk and had some memory problems. “My goal was to be able to walk out of the hospital on my own two feet and I quickly realized that the only way I would get out was through hard work,” says Schloss. A rigorous course of therapy slowly helped him to regain his lost abilities.

“Helen Hayes Hospital is a very special place,” he says. “Everyone I encountered, from the people who cleaned my room, to those who brought my meals, the medical and nursing staff, and all of the therapists were always supportive and encouraging. I wanted to make progress to please them.”

On the day before Thanksgiving, Alfie Schloss was discharged home to celebrate the holiday with his family. “We had so much to give thanks for,” he recalls.

Schloss continued outpatient rehabilitation at HHH for four weeks, including speech and occupational therapy, and still returns to visit those who were so encouraging throughout his recovery.

“I can’t do enough to help Helen Hayes Hospital. When one of my clients closes on a loan, the company I work for makes a donation to a charitable not-for-profit organization.  I always tell my clients that if they don’t have a favorite non-profit charity, to please consider supporting Helen Hayes Hospital, and I am thrilled that many of them have allowed me to do so.”


Keith Gurgui
Keith GurguiFocusing on a future of possibilities

Eighteen-year old Keith Gurgui, captain of his high school crew team, a lifeguard and an avid swimmer, was ten days away from going off to college. Studying to become a physician assistant was in his plans.

A diving accident while on a family vacation in Delaware would change those plans forever. Suddenly and unexpectedly, this star athlete sustained a spinal cord injury resulting in quadriplegia. Upon admission to HHH, he was dependent on a ventilator for breathing and had great difficulty verbalizing a single word.

Starting with the very first day of his rehabilitation program, Keith’s therapists noted that their patient was motivated to do his best. Through tremendous effort and hard work, Keith was able to wean off the ventilator. He took time to speak with his fellow patients and keep them motivated and engaged in their therapy programs, as well. Despite the challenges, Keith focused on the possibilities ahead of him.

The Functional Electric Stimulation (FES) equipment at Helen Hayes Hospital is an important part of Keith’s ongoing, comprehensive rehabilitation program, helping him regain his strength and cardiovascular fitness. He appreciates the fact that he doesn’t have to transfer out of his wheelchair to use the equipment.

“It’s great at getting my heart rate up, and when I’m done, I’m really tired,” reports Keith. “The FES equipment helps keep my muscles from atrophying. I hope to be able to get one of these for my home.”

Throughout his recovery, Keith has had the support of not only his family and friends, but also his local community. Several local community groups have raised funds to help the Gurgui family pay for home modifications and other supplemental expenses.

Keith hopes that advances in the treatment of spinal cord injury will come soon. In the meantime, this young athlete is moving forward toward getting a degree in social policy, structure and change, while continuing therapy at home to rebuild and maintain his strength. There is, after all, a world of possibilities to explore.

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