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Stroke Survivor Is Model Student, and Teacher

Sargent helped Mary Borrelli recover: now she’s giving back

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Mary Borrelli leaned closer to second-grader Kaylee James, who sat still as a statue during an early morning reading comprehension quiz.

“You, something’s wrong,” Borrelli said. The blonde girl dressed in neon colors didn’t respond. She stared down at the exam while her English Language Learner (ELL) teacher at the Lincoln-Thompson Elementary School in Lynn pushed on. “You have to help me,” Borrelli said, implying the rest of the sentence—“before I can help you.”

Borrelli and James scrutinized the multiple-choice question. When it was time to pick a response, the girl looked pleadingly at her teacher.

“It’s your choice, because it’s a test,” Borrelli said. “I can’t help you.”

Borrelli knows well what it’s like to struggle with language, but it wasn’t always that way. Four years ago, the Lynn native suffered a debilitating stroke that froze her dominant right side, robbed the natural storyteller of her gift of gab, and cruelly convoluted numbers for the one-time math teacher. In her mid-40s and at the prime of her career as an elementary school principal, she feared that life as she had known it was no longer possible.

Yet Borrelli isn’t one to throw a pity party. She followed her poststroke rehabilitation regimen, and two years later, sought additional help at Sargent College. Faculty enrolled her in the college’s first intensive treatment program for stroke survivors, one that combined nutrition classes with speech, occupational, and physical therapy. By month’s end, she had regained the confidence and skills she needed to return to teaching. With SAR faculty, Borelli approached Lynn public school administrators to discuss how she could best achieve that goal. By fall, she was back in the classroom as an ELL teacher, helping students with their math and reading lessons. The experience is mutually reinforcing.

“I know that I will always have this weakness,” said Borrelli, who still has trouble with speech and uses a cane and a foot brace, “but I know coping mechanisms that I didn’t know before. I thank God every day that I had this program.”

Mary Borrelli, Lincoln-Thompson Elementary School, English Language Learner ELL teacher, Boston University BU Sargent College intensive physical therapy treatment program for stroke survivors

Terry Ellis (right), a SAR assistant professor of physical therapy and athletic training, instructs Borrelli how to carefully ascend stairs, with the help of Constance Hillyer (SAR’12,’14) (behind Borrelli, left) and Elizabeth La May (SAR’12,’14) (behind Borrelli, right). Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

As well as working full-time, Borrelli volunteers as a patient in physical therapy labs for Sargent graduate students who need to practice their assessment and treatment skills.

During one Friday morning lab, half a dozen students holding clipboards surrounded her as they instructed her to sit, stand, turn around, pick up a shoe from the floor, and stretch out her hand perpendicular to her body. Each time she performed a task, they jotted down numbers that when totaled would indicate her risk for a fall.

Always the instructor, Borrelli gave students hints if they forgot a key part of the exercise. “Mary, don’t give it away,” playfully chided Terry Ellis, a SAR assistant professor of physical therapy and athletic training. Borrelli flashed a broad smile and stuck out her tongue.

When students asked her to balance on her right leg for 10 seconds, she leaned hard to the right and gingerly attempted the move three times before settling her left foot on the floor, letting out a light sigh.

“What does that mean to you guys?” asked Sara Crandall (SAR’10,’12), a resident and lecturer in the Neurological Physical Therapy Residency Program, who was observing the session. One student thought Borrelli was more at risk for a fall. Ellis turned to her patient, asking if she agreed.

“I don’t think so anymore,” said Borrelli, who last fell nine months ago during a physical therapy session at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and then again shortly afterwards at home while trying to get out of bed. She had to use her Lifeline® button, hanging around her neck, to call 911 for help.

Since her stroke, Borrelli has lived on the first floor of the two-story home she grew up in, and she hasn’t climbed the stairs to her bedroom or the full bathroom for fear of falling. She relies on the MBTA RIDE, friends, and family members to get around, although she hopes to drive her Nissan Maxima again someday.

Borrelli’s friends regularly check in on her and come over for dinner. “She has, for someone who lives alone, quite the support system,” Ellis said. “When someone has that kind of support, they were doing something right before this happened.”

Mary Borrelli, Lincoln-Thompson Elementary School, English Language Learner ELL teacher, Boston University BU Sargent College intensive treatment program for stroke survivors

Ellis (left) says patient volunteers like Borrelli are crucial to the education of physical therapy grad students. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Several weeks after her first lab, Borrelli returned to Sargent for a therapy session where Ellis and her students focused on particularly challenging tasks, like climbing stairs. Taking turns, students broke down each motion with her as they went up and down a flight of stairs within the building.

Patients like Borelli, who arrive with a range of conditions, from cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis to Parkinson’s and traumatic brain injury, enrich students’ lab experiences enormously. “If we didn’t have her” and other volunteers, Ellis said, “we’d be practicing on each other” to test for balance, coordination, sensation, and muscle weakness.

But lab sessions go far beyond assessing physical impairments. “You get an emotional insight into what these patients are going through that you wouldn’t get if you were doing these tests just on a student,” said Natalie Coviello (SAR’14).

Coviello and her colleagues describe Borrelli as positive, selfless, and determined. “It takes a very strong person to keep their head up in this situation,” said Lauren Murphy (SAR’14), “and that is motivating for us, and I think motivating for the other patients that come in. She makes me very excited about our field.”

Volunteering as a patient allows Borrelli to give back to Sargent while continuing her physical therapy. Stroke survivors, Ellis said, often receive little to no free follow-up therapies after their initial incident, even though speech and mobility can continue to improve for years.

Ellis recently took a group of students to Borrelli’s home to brainstorm ways they could adapt her environment to make daily living easier. They plan to pitch whatever accessibility tweaks they can’t do themselves to an organization that funds home remodels.

Back at Lincoln-Thompson Elementary School, Borrelli painstakingly led James through the rest of her quiz. She gave her no answers, but was there whenever the girl got stuck.

Success—in all its forms—comes with patience and persistence, but it helps to have a cheerleader along the way. That’s a lesson Borrelli knows, and teaches, well.

1 Comments
Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
Leslie Friday

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

One Comment on Stroke Survivor Is Model Student, and Teacher

  • Helen Steven on 07.11.2013 at 10:55 am

    This was a very good story and well written.

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