Focus on Health

By Serena Carpino

The Greater Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce hosted its 15th annual Health & Wellness Fest at The Meadow Club in Port Jefferson Station on Saturday, April 13. Dozens of businesses — ranging from local clinics to internationally recognized organizations — attended the event to spread awareness of their efforts to help people create healthy habits and promote a wellness lifestyle. 

Both returning and new businesses set up booths around the club. Some had attended for 15 years. For most, it was their first time at the Health & Wellness Fest. 

Many of the booths were centered around heart and mental health, but there were also representatives from therapy groups, local gyms and several other related programs. However, there was one main theme across the board: preventative care. Officials spread awareness about early screenings for different illnesses, regular doctor checkups and healthy eating to prevent chronic diseases.

For example, the Fortunato Breast Health Center at Mather Hospital is promoting breast health through early mammograms — around age 40 for all women and earlier for those with a family history of breast cancer — as well as breast self-examinations. According to Maureen Burke, an employee at the center, they have many resources for women who have been diagnosed with cancer and are encouraging them to utilize these opportunities. 

“We’re just making them aware of different programs that we have,” Burke said. One such program is a navigation system in which nurses follow patients through their cancer journey and are always available via phone to help schedule appointments or answer any other questions. In addition, they educate people on lymphedema and offer different blood tests through their oncology department. 

Other programs, such as the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, focused on nutritious eating habits to promote longevity. This organization is advocating for the MyPlate meal plan, which stipulates that half of our plates should be filled with fruits and vegetables. In addition, Cornell encourages making better beverage choices and remaining physically active. 

Linda Altenburger, a registered dietitian and the program manager for the organization’s diabetes team, said that Cornell has also partnered with WIC and SNAP-Ed populations and has offered many free resources to the community.

“We’re an outreach, you know, to the community … [we have] a lot of hands-on programs for children and adults, and overall just provide great resources so the community knows where to turn,” she explained. “We’re trying to reduce the incidence of diabetes and help those that are trying to lose weight and just how to cook healthy with more fruits and vegetables.” 

Cornell Cooperative has also partnered with local farmers markets and Sun River Health to further their efforts for the community. 

There were representatives at the fest from mental health groups such as LightPath Counseling Group and Youth Enrichment Services. 

LightPath has 20 therapists that have various focuses. Janice Martin, director of LightPath and a clinical social therapist for over 20 years said, “We do anxiety, depression, relievement, pretty much everything. Each therapist specializes in something different.”

Youth Enrichment Services was founded in 1987, but recently added its Community Mental Health Promotion and Support division. The organization is mainly located in Brentwood and Islip, with several school programs focused on mental health and community drug misuse awareness. This is the first year YES has attended the Health & Wellness Fest. Fernando Hurtado, a member of the COMHPS division, explained that it “is a good opportunity because it gives everybody a way to bolster everybody’s mental health outreach.”

Other groups present at the event included Redefine Fitness, Stony Brook University Heart Institute, New York Blood Center, Port Jefferson Free Library, Countryside Animal Hospital and more. 

By Daniel Dunaief

Different name, different location, same mission.

On Monday, April 8, Northwell Health opened its family health center at 1572 New York Avenue in Huntington Station. The center will replace the Dolan Family Health Center in Greenlawn.

The new center, which occupies a space formerly held by Capital One Bank, will provide primary care, as well as multi-specialty care for women.

Easily accessible by bus lines, the center is “in the heart of the community we serve” with the majority of the expected 30,000 patient visits each year coming from Huntington Station, said Lee Raifrman, Assistant Vice President of Operations for Huntington Hospital and the Northwell Family Center Health Center. Instead of having patients travel to the center, “we’re moving to them.”

The center anticipates around 30,000 visits per year.

“The new location, nestled in the heart of the neighborhood it serves and conveniently close to bus lines, ensures that our care remains accessible to all,” Stephen Bello, regional executive director of Northwell’s Eastern region, said in a statement.

The almost 18,000 square-foot building will provide pediatric care, adult/ family medicine, OB/GYN, ophthalmology, podiatry, gastroenterology, orthopedics and infectious disease care specific to HIV.

The center’s prenatal care assistance program, which offers expanded Medicaid coverage for pregnant women and children under the age of 19, will continue to operate. The center also provides outreach through its Women, Infants and Children program, a supplemental nutriton offering that features nutritious foods for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and postpartum women, infants and children through the age of five.

The center also features a Nutrition Pathways Program, which is a collaboration dating to 2020 with Island Harvest that offers personalized nutrition counseling sessions with a registered dietician, access to nutritious foods from the on-site healthy food pantry, referrals to community resources and assistance with SNAP enrollment.

Through Nutrition Pathways, the center screens patients for social determinants of health.

“One of the areas we found that’s becoming more prevalent, unfortunately,” said Raifman. The center directs patients who are food insecure to a registered dietician, who can not only help balance food intake, but who can also manage the financial aspect of finding food.

“Better eating equals improved outcomes,” said Raifman.

Staff at the center reflects the diversity of the patient population.

About 19 percent of the patients are self pay, while a small percentage are on medicare. The center accepts many insurance plans, including all types of medicaid.

Staff at the Family Health Center will reflect a staff that reflects the patient population.

“Our mission is clear: to elevate the health of the communities we serve,” Nick Fitterman, Executive Director of Huntington Hospital said in a statement. “From our homeless to immigrant patients, we open our doors to all, offering care that’s not just accessible but compassionate.”

The hours for the center will be the same as they were in the previous location, opening 8:30 am to 5 pm on Monday and Wednesday and 8 am to 8 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Northwell executives would like to build similar healthcare facilities in other places within its geographic range.

The health care provider “anticipates replicating this model throughout the system in other under-served communities,” said Raifman.

Claudia Fortunato-Napolitano at her 'I Am Alive!' party.

By Stephanie Giunta

In honor of National Stroke Awareness Month, we would like to honor a local survivor, Claudia Fortunato-Napolitano, who is beyond inspirational. Here is her story.

On January 11, 2017, 34-year-old Huntington Village resident Claudia Fortunato-Napolitano, went to work like it was any other day, although she remembers having a bad headache. The passionate history buff and Executive Director at the Huntington Historical Society was making some personal calls during her lunch break. As she sat down to eat her lunch, she suddenly felt dizzy; her coworker asked if she was okay, and she couldn’t speak. Out of nowhere, a simple Wednesday became the day that forever-altered Napolitano’s future: the day she unexpectedly suffered a stroke. 

Once the stroke had occurred, Fortunato-Napolitano couldn’t remember what happened next, though she recounted her story by way of others at the scene. She was rushed to Huntington Hospital, and was then airlifted to North Shore University Hospital, where she resided for two weeks. When she woke up, she still couldn’t speak, had weakness in her right arm and couldn’t walk.

After a stint at the hospital, she was released into a rehab facility, but at the end of her week-long tenure, needed to move back into her parents’ house. Though the mobility in her arm was very low, she was slowly regaining the ability to walk, but couldn’t tackle the stairs up to her front door. She lived with her parents for three weeks, while simultaneously beginning outpatient rehab, seeing a handful of therapists to attempt to win her life back as her own through physical and cognitive recovery.

Claudia Fortunato-Napolitano at her ‘I Am Alive!’ party.

No warning signs 

Doctors were puzzled that a healthy 34-year-old, who had nothing more than a routine headache on the day of her stroke, could suffer something so unexpected and traumatic. At six months post-stroke, Fortunato-Napolitano began seeing a neurologist and underwent in-depth testing to reveal underlying notions of root cause.  She tested negative for everything doctors had assumed she would test positive for. Though they could confirm that the stroke was caused by a clogged blood vessel in her brain, the actual diagnosis remains inconclusive. 

A determined patient

After routinely attending speech therapy for six months, Fortunato-Napolitano still fought to talk. In our interview, she mentioned that she struggled with aphasia for the first two years during her recovery. Her therapist alluded to the fact that her speech would not improve — that she should simply get used to this new way of life. This led her down a dark path of depression, afraid that she would never regain her full ability to communicate with others. 

After 4-5 months, her parents encouraged her to seek a second opinion from another therapist who would work with her past the “6 month window.” As Fortunato-Napolitano stated during our interview, her mother “God bless her soul!” put her in touch with her current speech therapist, Judy Cavallo, who she still sees to this day. Cavallo even provides Fortunato-Napolitano with homework because she asks for it!

In addition to speech therapy, Fortunato-Napolitano continues to see an occupational therapist, Ian MacManus, to aid in her physical disabilities. Seven of her fingers work, but three fingers on her right hand are bent in a fixed manner. She dreams of the ability to wear high heels again, but walking is too difficult in any shoe aside from her signature Doc Martens and Birkenstocks — which she has in a wide variety of colors.  Her right foot cannot be fully-placed on the floor, and only the outside edge can go flat completely. 

To this day, Napolitano still goes to outpatient rehab twice per week (once to her speech therapist and once to her occupational therapist) to improve her skills and continually progress.

New realities 

Prior to the stroke, Fortunato-Napolitano was a writer. She wrote a historic Half Hollow Hills column for Patch Media on a weekly basis, as well as many articles for the Huntington Historical Society. Now, on average, it will take her about three hours to write three paragraphs. She mentioned that this has been the hardest thing for her to overcome from a professional perspective. But Siri is her best friend. She is so grateful for technology, which helps her text, post on social media, and write emails.  

Claudia Fortunato-Napolitano at her ‘I Am Alive!’ party.

A major milestone

Within the first five years of having a stroke, an individual is 50% more likely to suffer from a second stroke in comparison to a person of the same age. So, in January 2022, Fortunato-Napolitano threw herself an “I Am Alive!” party to celebrate meeting this critical milestone. There were over 85 people in attendance, including her neurologist and speech therapist, and she donned a stylish, sparkly green jumpsuit. Not only was this a celebration of how far she had come, but also that statistically, her chances of having another stroke or stroke-like episode would start to significantly decrease.  

Pivotal life lessons

Fortunato-Napolitano is so grateful to be alive. She could have been paralyzed and in a wheelchair; she may not have survived. But now, she makes sure that she lives every day to the fullest. She voluntarily chooses happiness.

Prior to the stroke, she was unhappy about stupid, inconsequential things. Now, Fortunato-Napolitano uses a “whatever!” mentality. She believes that life is worth living and she intends to make the most of the hand that she has been dealt. The biggest lesson she learned from her stroke, she mentioned, was, “I can be unhappy [about that] or I can just be happy. And I choose to be happy all of the time.” 

Fortunato-Napolitano fuels her happiness with her work. This February, she was newly-appointed as the Executive Director of the Greenlawn-Centerport Historical Association. She loves her job and the challenges it provides.

She is also a travel connoisseur — something she has been passionate about from a very young age. Her next destination includes heading to Cleveland on a baseball stadium tour for her husband’s birthday, but the top future spots on her international travel list include Africa, Argentina, Australia, and Turkey.

A message to all stroke survivors 

Fortunato-Napolitano’s hope is that someone in similar shoes reads this article, her story, and becomes happy due to reading it.  She can’t stress enough that you can and will get better — you just can’t stop believing in yourself. At six months post-stroke, her original speech therapist told her she would never speak again. Six years later, Fortunato-Napolitano is carrying on conversations beautifully. Each year, she sees subsequent progression and truly believes that she will continue to improve for the rest of her life.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel even during the darkest and most depressing of times. Her outlook on life has drastically changed from Year 2 to Year 6. She stressed the importance of self-dedication, while also surrounding yourself with a great support system.

Above all, Fortunato-Napolitano is a true inspiration.  She epitomizes optimism, and is dedicated, admirable, and determined. Her new dream is to become a life coach, as she hopes to help others through similar dark and unexpected times. She would love a platform in which to tell her story publicly. Fortunato-Napolitano is a happiness evangelist, a survivor to the nth degree, and only hopes she can inspire others, stroke conquerors or not, to live life to the fullest. 

Follow along with Claudia Fortunato-Napolitano’s journey on Instagram: @ayoungstrokerecovery.

This article first appeared in TBR News Media’s supplement Focus on Health on May 25, 2023.