When Rose DeGregorio, Rose DeGregorio, an instructional support teacher at Bethel Park School District’s Abraham Lincoln Elementary School and avid runner, suffered a stroke in her home last year, it was her middle son, Jon – who wasn’t supposed to be there – who rescued her.
On May 1, 2022, DeGregorio, 58, suffered the stroke sometime during the Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon, but it wasn’t until her 27-year-old son, Jon, a physical therapist, dropped by later that morning and recognized his mother was in crisis that she learned how sick she was.
“I really did not know I was having a stroke,” said DeGregorio, who was serving as a volunteer at the marathon. “I realized when I went to the finish line that I was limping. I rode home on the “T” and I couldn’t text, I kept dropping my phone, and I had a headache.”
DeGregorio thought something wasn’t right, but her speech wasn’t impaired, so she thought she must be tired from a busy weekend – she is the site coordinator for Lincoln Elementary’s Kids of STEEL team (the Lincoln Loggers), which had competed in the 1-mile Chick-fil-A Pittsburgh Kids Marathon the day before, and she had arrived at the marathon at 5 a.m.
So she went home to take a nap.
Meanwhile, Jon, a physical therapist, stopped by to visit. He was scheduled to play in a soccer game, but – in what turned out to be a significant turn of events for DeGregorio – the game was canceled because the other team didn’t have enough players.
Shortly before 10:30 a.m., DeGregorio awoke from her nap and headed downstairs, where Jon and his father, Kyle, an assistant boys basketball coach at Peters Township High School and a retired guidance counselor, were watching TV.
“She said she wasn’t feeling well. Her speech wasn’t slurred, but I watched her trying to use her cellphone and she wasn’t hitting the buttons,” recalled Jon. “As a physical therapist, you could see that something was off.”
So he did a stroke screening.
“On the strength test, she was weaker on the left side – she’s left-handed – than the right. When we did the finger to nose test, she was fine on the right side, but on the left side, she was way off. Her mental clarity at that point was starting to fade and I knew something was wrong when I said, ‘Mom, I think you’re having a stroke,’ and she didn’t react much to that.”
Jon and Kyle drove DeGregorio to AHN Jefferson Hospital, where she was flown by helicopter to Forbes Primary Stroke Center and later was diagnosed with a hemorrhagic stroke.
More specifically, she suffered a basal ganglia stroke, which often results from high blood pressure, a condition DeGregorio has had for years. When she arrived at Jefferson, DeGregorio’s blood pressure was 253/150.
Doctors told the family if DeGregorio had not awoken from the nap and Jon had not realized she was having a stroke, she would have continued to hemorrhage and the outcome would have been worse, or fatal.
“I call it a ‘stroke of luck,’” said DeGregorio.
She spent five days in the ICU at Forbes and was transferred to Jefferson Hospital for nearly a month of in-patient physical, occupational and speech therapy.
A year later, DeGregorio’s grueling recovery continues. She has tingling on the left side of her body and struggles with fine motor skills with her left hand, so she has switched to writing with her right hand. She has “hitchhiker’s toe,” which causes her big toe to point straight up in the air.
And the basal ganglia, which lies deep in the center of the brain, controls several functions including behavior, emotions, movement control and learning, so DeGregorio is working to navigate those cognitive hurdles.
In addition to Summit Physical Therapy in Peters Township, DeGregorio credits Kyle and their three children, including daughter Julia, 25, of Dormont, with supporting her throughout her recovery.
Her oldest son, Paul, 30, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, has played a significant role, working out with her regularly and putting together training plans.
“Jon saved my life and Paul is keeping me going,” said DeGregorio.
Jon said his mother’s healthy lifestyle has been pivotal to her recovery.
DeGregorio completed the Pittsburgh Marathon in 2009 and 2016 and has run several half-marathons. Before the stroke, she worked out daily and ate a healthy diet.
“Nobody walks around with a zero percent chance of these things happening, but you have do whatever you can to knock it down as close to zero as you can. My mom already knows what muscle soreness is, she knows how to work out. You’re not teaching her for the first time,” said Jon.
DeGregorio’s family marvels at her determination. She returned to her position at Lincoln Elementary – where, in 2019, she received the prestigious Hilda M. Sundermann Award presented by the National State Teachers of the Year-PA Chapter – for half days at the start of the 2022-23 school year before resuming full days in April.
“She still has challenges. She’s still not where she wants to be, but I think she has a good balance of appreciating her recovery but not being complacent,” said Jon. “She’s made such a remarkable recovery after having a massive stroke, but I’ve learned with patients, and with my mom, you almost don’t see how much work went into getting back to where they are.
“It has not been an easy ride for her; it’s been a lot of hard work. But it was so easy to help her because she was working as hard as she could to get back and never complained. She never took a day off.”
DeGregorio still is grappling emotionally, too.
“It’s been a life-altering experience. How quickly life flashes before you,” said DeGregorio, who did not attend this year’s marathon. “The marathon is always a highlight for me. I love being a part of that. But it was way too emotional for me this year. I want to get back, though. I want to do Kids of Steel again.”
Jon said his mother’s stroke and her rehabilitation have brought their family closer together.
“You never think about it until it happens to you,” said Jon. “It gave me more of an appreciation for who she is and how much we love her and appreciate her.”
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