Moments not missed: Frank Ruggeri’s story

Stroke Success stories
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Frank Ruggeri poses with his physical therapist Tommy Difilipo.
With the help of Tommy and the team at Encompass Health New England, Frank was able to walk his daughter down the aisle on her wedding day only months after he had a cerebellar stroke

When Frank Ruggeri began outpatient therapy at Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of New England, he had a clear goal in mind. He wanted to walk unassisted by July 13, and he had less than two months to do it.

Motivated and ready to work, Ruggeri told his therapy team that the date was non-negotiable, because on that July Saturday, he was going to walk his daughter down the aisle.

“It was very sudden,” said Nicole Ruggeri, Frank’s daughter. “He lost control over his limbs and his speech was inhibited, but cognitively he was still there. I wasn’t sure if he’d be able to walk me down the aisle, especially in the beginning. We just didn’t know how much he would progress.”

What mattered most, though, Nicole said, was that her dad was still with her. The remarkable progress he made with the help of Encompass Health New England was just the icing on the cake.

An interdisciplinary team approach

Just months prior to his daughter’s big day, Ruggeri, 72 years old, had a bilateral cerebellar stroke involving articulation of language and coordination of movement. Following the stroke, Ruggeri experienced consistent tremors and severe balance impairments that limited his mobility and caused slurring of his speech.

He began his journey to recovery with a two-week inpatient rehabilitation stay at Encompass Health New England. Ruggeri was an ideal candidate for inpatient rehabilitation and the interdisciplinary team approach it provides, said Dr. Ariel Savitz, brain injury medical director at Encompass Health New England.

The American Heart Association/American Stroke Association guidelines in 2016 emphasize an interdisciplinary program in an acute rehabilitation facility over a skilled nursing facility for stroke patients who are capable of doing intensive therapy 15 hours a week,” Savitz said. “Speech therapists were working intensively on Frank’s speech deficits, swallowing and cognition while physical and occupational therapy were working together on strategies to improve his balance.”

The dedication of Ruggeri’s care team and his determination to reach his goals set Ruggeri up for success during his time in inpatient rehabilitation.

 “Frank made an outstanding recovery,” Savitz said. “With intensive therapy and the patient’s motivation, he was able to overcome significant balance and language deficits to achieve his functional goals.”

Determined to succeed

No stranger to the demands of therapy, Ruggeri began his outpatient program with determination and confidence that he would succeed.

“I told them I had several big goals,” Ruggeri said. “I not only needed to walk her down the aisle; I needed to withstand a four-hour reception; and I needed to dance with my daughter.”

When he began outpatient therapy, Ruggeri was only able to walk short distances with a walker without his arms and head shaking, and he was only able to take two steps unassisted.

“His daughter’s wedding date date still sticks in my mind,” said Tommy Difilipo, physical therapist at Encompass Health New England. “And he even had a week of vacation thrown in there, too.”

The team made use of the Biodex balance system and treadmill training to help him progress from a walker to a single point cane, and ultimately to walking with only someone’s arm for balance, so he could walk down the aisle with the support of his daughter.

His occupational therapists worked with him extensively on navigating the reception venue and standing for long periods for pictures. He delivered speeches during sessions to practice for the speech he would make as father of the bride during the wedding reception.

When the wedding day arrived, the beaming father of the bride achieved his goals as he walked arm and arm with his daughter down the aisle.

“It was the happiest day of my life,” Ruggeri said. “I felt very prepared when the day came. I didn’t have to miss a beat of it.”

Not only did Ruggeri walk his daughter down the aisle, but he was also able to dance with Nicole and maintain his energy, strength and his enthusiasm through the entire night, Nicole said.

“It meant everything to me,” she said. “Encompass Health helped so much to prepare him for what was coming. It was fantastic.”

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