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Stony Brook Medicine

From left to right, physician assistants Michelle Rosa and Katherine Malloy, Dr. David Fiorella and Dr. Jason Mathew visit Joseph Annunziata in his hospital bed. Photo from Stony Brook Medicine

By Daniel Dunaief

Joseph “Bob” Annunziata, a resident of Kings Park, wants you not to be like him.

An army veteran, Annunziata urges residents and, in particular, other veterans, to pay attention to their medical needs and to take action when they find out they have a problem. 

A self-described “tough guy” who grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Annunziata put off medical care for a partially blocked left carotid artery and it caused a medical crisis.

“My brother and sister vets, if you got a pain or the doctor tells you to do something, do it,” he said. “It almost cost me my life. I don’t want that to happen to anyone else.”

Joseph Annunziata at his 80th birthday party

Annunziata, 80, was driving to the supermarket on Veterans Day when his right hand became limp and he was slurring his speech. Knowing he was in trouble, he turned the car around and drove 10 minutes to the Northport VA Medical Center.

The doctors evaluated him and rushed him to Stony Brook University Hospital, which is well equipped to handle stroke-related emergencies and is the only hospital in the state named one of America’s 100 Best Hospitals for Stroke Care for eight years in a row. 

Several doctors evaluated Annunziata, including by Dr. David Fiorella, Director of the Stony Brook Cerebrovascular Center and Co-Director of the Stony Brook Cerebrovascular and Comprehensive Stroke Center, and Jason Mathew, stroke neurologist.

“We identified that there was a severe blockage in the left side of his brain,” said Dr. Mathew. “If blood flow is not returned to this area, the patient is at risk for a larger area of stroke.”

Indeed, a larger stroke could have caused right side paralysis and could have robbed Annunziata of his ability to speak or worse.

Performing emergency surgery could protect endangered brain cells, but also presented some risk. If not removed carefully and completely, the clot in the carotid artery could travel into the brain or the stroke could expand over time due to a lack of sufficient blood flow to the left side of the brain.

Time pressure

Stony Brook doctors discussed the particulars of the case together and explained the situation to Annunziata, who could understand what they were describing and respond despite symptoms that threatened to deteriorate.

The hospital, which does between 200 and 250 interventional stroke treatments per year and handles many more strokes than that annually, has a group of health care specialists who can provide accessible information to patients who are not experts in the field and who need to make an informed decision under time pressure.

Stony Brook has become adept at “conveying this complex information in a time-sensitive way,” Dr. Fiorella said. In those cases for which surgery is the best option, each minute that the doctors don’t open up a blood vessel reduces the benefits and increases the risk of longer-term damage.

Stony Brook sees about one to two of these kinds of cases per month. As a whole, the hospital, which is a large referral center, sees numerous complex and unusual cerebrovascular cases of all types, Dr. Fiorella said.

Annunziata and the doctors decided to have the emergency surgery.

Dr. Fiorella used a balloon guiding catheter, which is a long tube with a working inner lumen that has a soft balloon on the outside of it that is designed to temporarily block flow. He deploys these occlusion balloons in most all stroke cases. 

The particular way he used it in these complete carotid occlusions is unique. The balloon guiding catheter makes interventional stroke procedures more efficient, safer, and the outcomes better, according to data for thrombectomy, Dr. Fiorella said. 

The occlusion balloon enabled Dr. Fiorella to control blow flow the entire time, which makes the procedure safer. The surgery took under an hour and involved a small incision in Annunziata’s right wrist.

Joseph Annunziata with his girlfriend Rosemarie Madrose

After the surgery, Annunziata was able to speak to doctors and call Rosemarie Madrose, his girlfriend of five and a half years. “He came out talking,” said Madrose. “I could understand him. I was relieved.” Four days after the emergency operation, Annunziata, who also received post operative care from Dr. Yuehjien Gu, Neurocritical Care Unit Director, left the hospital and returned to his home, where he spent the next morning preparing a welcome meal of a scrambled egg and two slices of toast.

The doctors attribute Annunziata’s quick recovery to a host of factors. Getting himself to the hospital as soon as symptoms started saved precious minutes, Dr. Fiorella said, as “time is brain.” He also advised against driving for people having stroke-like symptoms, which can include slurred speech, numbness, weakening of the arm or leg and loss of vision in one eye.

Dr. Fiorella urged people to call for help or to get a ride in an ambulance. Stony Brook has two mobile stroke unit ambulances, which are equipped with technology to assess patients while en route, saving time and alerting doctors in the hospital to patients who might need immediate attention and intervention.

These mobile units, which are available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., have helped reduce death and disability for stroke and have cut down the length of stays in the hospital.

People or family and friends who are observing someone who might be having a stroke can call 911 and indicate that the patient is having stroke-like symptoms. The emergency operator will alert the mobile stroke unit of a possible case if the unit is available and the patient is in range.

Helping a veteran

The doctors involved in Annunziata’s care were well aware of the fact that they were treating a veteran on Veterans Day.

“Oftentimes, we think about how we can give back more than just a thank you” to people like Annunziata, who “risked his life and helped his country the way he could,” said Dr. Mathew. “I’m helping him the way I can help.”

Dr. Fiorella added that he thought it was “wonderful” to “help someone who’s given so much to our country on Veterans Day.”

Army origin

Annunziata explained that he wound up in the Army through a circuitous route.  “We watched all the war movies” when he was young and wanted to join the Marines, he said.

When he went to enlist in 1962, he was told there was a two and a half year wait. He and his young friends got the same reception at the Air Force, Navy and the Army. As they were leaving the Army building on Whitehall Street, he and his friends ran into a sergeant with numerous medals on his uniform. The sergeant urged them to go back up the hallway and enter the first door on the right and indicate that they wanted to expedite the draft. About a week later, Annunziata was drafted and got a 15 cent token in the mail for a train trip to Wall Street.

After basic training at Fort Dix, he was stationed in Greenland, where Annunziata operated a radar at the top of a mountain for two years. He participated in drills in which he had to catch American planes flying overhead.

Fortunately, he said, even during the height of the Cold War and just months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Annunziata never spotted a Russian threat, even though the base was just 20 minutes from Russian air space.

Having gone through emergency surgery that likely saved his life, Annunziata urges residents to pay attention to any medical needs on their radar.

Dr. Fiorella was amazed at how quickly Annunziata expressed concern for his fellow veterans during his recovery.

“One of the first things he talked about was, ‘How can I use what happened to me to help other vets?’” Dr. Fiorella said.

Annunziata’s girlfriend Madrose, who is grateful that the procedure saved his life, said he “didn’t listen to me. He knew he had to do this. I kept saying, ‘When are you going to do it?’ He said, ‘I will, I will, I will.’ He learned the hard way.” She added that they both know he is “extremely lucky.”

WTC responders at Ground Zero, working on the pile in the aftermath of 911. Photo by John Bombace

As the medical challenges to first responders at the World Trade Center site after the 9/11 attacks increase, Stony Brook University’s treatment program has increased the number of people it helps and, recently, also the federal funds to support efforts to treat people.

Dr. Benjamin Luft at the Stony Brook WTC Wellness Program, where he serves as director. File photo

Recently, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, awarded the Stony Brook World Trade Center Health and Wellness Program $147 million over an eight-year period to expand patient care and support infrastructure needs.

The SB World Trade Center Health and Wellness program now sees up to 13,000 patients, which is more than double the 6,000 patients it used to see.

“Patients are getting sicker and their diseases are much more complex with a variety of different systems being involved, both psychologically as well as physically,” said Dr. Benjamin Luft, director of the WTC Wellness Program.

Through the work the SB WTC group has conducted, doctors and researchers have demonstrated that diseases and physical and cognitive challenges associated with aging have occurred more rapidly in the WTC population.

At the same time, COVID-19 has also exacerbated conditions related to exposure to the site, with over 20% of this population experiencing lingering symptoms due to the pandemic.

The WTC first responders have developed chronic sinusitis and a variety of gastrointestinal disorders, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (or GERD).

While these diseases occur in the general population, “the chronicity is unique,” Luft added.

The SB WTC Wellness program will use the funds to hire additional staff with specialties in pulmonology and psychiatry, among other areas, Luft said.

The majority of the work occurs at the Wellness Center’s main facility and clinic in Commack. SB also runs a site in Mineola. The funds will help revamp the Mineola site as well.

The two sites will use updated technologies and will deploy emerging capabilities in telehealth and artificial intelligence to communicate, diagnose and monitor cases.

Federal funds have supported the effort for 18 years, as NIOSH has funded clinical services for WTC patients treated at Stony Brook.

Medical conditions for this population have included post-traumatic stress disorder and respiratory illnesses.

The funding more than doubles the $60 million, five-year award the WTC Wellness Program received in 2017 from NIOSH that had provided support until the end of March of this year. NIOSH had extended the grant for six months until the current funding started at the end of September, Luft said.

Patients have developed a range of cancers, as well as lung issues such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder.

Additionally, patients are struggling with a variety of mental processing challenges.

“We see a lot of patients who have a variety of cognitive and memory problems,” Luft said. 

Luft emphasized that many of the thousands of patients he treats have several health issues simultaneously. By using new technologies, these efforts will enhance the quality of life for people who were on site after the attack.

Luft added that the connection and support from NIOSH have helped support health care for this population.

“The various people at NIOSH are really involved in the program,” he said. “It’s been very satisfying.”

Stony Brook University faculty in public health, psychiatry, pulmonary care, cardiovascular care and neuroscience all take part in ongoing research related to the health issues of WTC responders.

Luft emphasized that the care first responders at the WTC receive tries to be “proactive” with an extensive effort to screen for various diseases, including cancer.

The research and treatment efforts for the WTC population extends to other health care initiatives for people exposed to carcinogens in wars or from other unintentional exposures.

The exposure from 911 is similar to those from burn pits, Camp Lejuene and other hazards.

“The toxins are similar,” Luft said.

 

 

Recently, 1,150 members of the LGBTQ+ community participated in including Micah Schneider, from Ronkonkoma, above. Photo rom Lisa Czulinski

In a first of its kind survey of 1,150 members of the LGBTQ+ community on Long Island, Stony Brook Medicine found that people in this group struggle with numerous health care challenges.

Stony Brook Medicine’s Dr. Alison Eliscu was the principal investigator of the study that 1,150 members of the LGBTQ+ community recently participated in. Photo from Stony Brook Medicine

Over two in five people responding to an online survey between June and September of 2021 said they were in fair to poor mental health. Additionally, about one in three people had thoughts of self harm, while 23.9% had seriously considered suicide within the past three years.

People in the LGBTQ+ community are struggling with mental health and access to care, while they also have had negative experiences with health care providers, who may have been making incorrect assumptions about their lives or who haven’t respected them, said Dr. Allison Eliscu, principal investigator of the study and medical director of the Adolescent LGBTQ+ Care Program at Stony Brook Medicine.

Partnering with 30 Long Island-based community leaders and community organizations, including Planned Parenthood, Stony Brook Medicine created the survey to gather the kinds of data that could inform better health care decisions, could provide a baseline for understanding the needs of the LGBTQ+ community in the area, and could shed light on the disparity in health care for this community.

“The idea [for the survey] came out when we were creating the Edie Windsor Healthcare Center” in Hampton Bays, Eliscu said, which opened its doors in 2021 and is the first such center for the LGBTQ+ population on Long Island. “We were trying to think about what we want [the center] to provide and what does the community need.”

Without local data, it was difficult to understand what residents of Long Island, specifically, might need.

The data suggests a disparity between the mental health of the LGBTQ+ community in the area and the overall health of the population in the country. 

Over half of the people who took the survey indicated that they had symptoms of chronic depression, compared with 30.3% for the nation, based on a 2020 PRC National Health Survey. Additionally, 23.9% of the LGBTQ+ community described a typical day as “extremely or very stressful” compared with 16.1% for the nation.

To be sure, the national data sampling occurred just prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, in February of 2020, while the Stony Brook Medicine survey polled residents during the second year of COVID.

Nonetheless, Eliscu suggested that her anecdotal experience with her patients indicates that the LGBTQ+ community likely suffered even more during the pandemic, as some people lived at home with relatives who may not have been supportive or with whom they didn’t share their identity.

Additionally, the isolation removed some LGBTQ+ residents from an in-person support network.

Stony Brook Medicine has taken steps to provide specific services to residents who are LGBTQ+. People who are transitioning and have a cervix continue to need a pap smear.

Some members of the transgender community may not be comfortable going to a gynecologist’s office. Stony Brook Medicine has put in place extended hours to meet their needs.

Micah Schneider, a social worker who lives in Ronkonkoma, served as a survey participant and also as a guide for some of the wording in the survey.

Schneider, who identifies as nonbinary and transgender and prefers the pronoun “they,” said the survey can help people “recognize that we’re not alone.”

When Schneider was growing up, “I had a sense that I was the only person in the entire world dealing with this,” which included a struggle with identity and mental illness.

“We as a community have each other and we can lean on each other,” Schneider said.

As for medical providers, Schneider suggested that this kind of survey can alert these professionals to the need to honor names, pronouns and identities and not make blanket assumptions.

Despite some improvements, the local and national LGBTQ+ community remains at risk, Schneider said.

“There are any number of people who are actively considering suicide,” Schneider added. “It’s a very real crisis in our community.”

On a conference call announcing the results of the survey, Dr. Gregson Pigott, Suffolk County Commissioner of Health, described the survey, which Stony Brook plans to repeat in a couple of years, as “groundbreaking. What you have here is hard data based on the survey.”

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Join Stony Brook Medicine for a free screening of the Oscar-nominated film “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” followed by a panel discussion via Zoom or in person at Stony Brook University Hospital, Health Sciences Tower, Level 3, Lecture Hall 6, 101 Nicolls Road, Stony Brook on Thursday, Oct. 6 from 4 to 7:30 p.m.

WHAT:

In October, the U.S. Department of Labor increases awareness of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), which celebrates the contributions of America’s workers with disabilities past and present. To recognize NDEAM, Stony Brook Medicine is holding a free film screening and panel discussion of the Sundance Film Festival winning documentary “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.” The film shows how a summer camp experience in the 1970s shaped the disabilities rights movement. Led by Maria Hensley-Spera, LCSWR, Outpatient Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Stony Brook Medicine, a paraplegic herself, the event promises to be an engaging, informative, and enlightening evening. Following the screening, the esteemed group of panelists will discuss the film and the lives of people with disabilities today. Participants can attend in person or virtually via zoom.

FILM DESCRIPTION:

In the early 70s, teenagers with disabilities faced a future shaped by isolation, discrimination and institutionalization. Camp Jened, a ramshackle camp “for the handicapped” (a term no longer used) in the Catskills, NY, exploded those confines. Jened was their freewheeling Utopia, a place where campers experienced liberation and full inclusion as human beings. Their bonds endured as many migrated West to Berkeley, California — a hotbed of activism where friends from Camp Jened realized that disruption, civil disobedience, and political participation could change the future for millions. And did.

MODERATOR:

  • Elizabeth Bojsza, MFA, Alda-certified facilitator at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science®, Assistant Professor of Practice & program head for the Advanced Graduate Certificate in Communicating Science at the School of Communication and Journalism, Stony Brook University

PANELISTS:

  • Judith E. Heumann, Lifelong advocate and leader of disability rights movement, teacher & author

  • Michelle Nario-Redmond, PhD, Author & Professor of Psychology & Biomedical Humanities, Hiram College

  • Jeanie Waters, Paralympian wheelchair sports athlete and civil rights attorney

  • Brooke Ellison, PhD, MPP, Science, healthcare policy & ethics expert, author & Associate Professor, Stony Brook University

  • Jacob Greene, BFA, Graphic Designer of socks for autism awareness & recent graduate of New York Institute of Technolog

    To learn more visit, https://www.stonybrookmedicine.edu/disabilitymovement.

    Register to attend in person here.

    Or join via zoom by registering at this link.

The Long Island Cranx Foundation, which completes "Epic Rides For A Cause" will bike to Stony Brook Children’s Hospital to deliver a check for $22,000 in support of Stony Brook Children’s Hospital Child Life Program and the Pediatric Emergency Department Expansion project. The Foundation has pledged a gift of $50,000 over 5 years, and has already surpassed its first-year goal of $10,000, on Wednesday July 27, 2022. Photo from Stony Brook Medicine

On July 27, the Long Island Cranx Foundation, completed its “Epic Rides For A Cause” biking to Stony Brook Children’s Hospital where members of the charitable organization delivered a check for $22,000 in support of Stony Brook Children’s Hospital Child Life Program and the hospital’s Pediatric Emergency Department Expansion project. The Cranx Foundation has pledged a gift to Stony Brook Children’s Hospital of $50,000 over 5 years and has already surpassed its first-year goal of $10,000.

With the help of word-of-mouth, grassroots fundraising, social media, and an event held on April 9th called “The Epic-High Five”, $22,000 was raised in about 4 months to help aid the hospital expansion project that will double the number of patient exam rooms and pediatric emergency specialists; enlarge the child playroom; purchase books and toys and bolster a pet therapy program.

“This gift and the ongoing relationship with the Long Island Cranx Foundation will have a far-reaching impact as we significantly expand our Pediatric Emergency Department to more than four times the current space,” said Dr. Carl Kaplan, Chief, Division of Pediatric Emergency Medicine, Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. “The foundation’s epic rides will help fuel our epic expansion project for our physicians, providers and nurses as they continue to care for the most critically ill and injured children in Suffolk County.”

“The connection between Long Island Cranx and Stony Brook Children’s has been a perfect fit,” said Michael Attard, Child Life Specialist, Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. “We’re incredibly grateful for their epic rides to help hospitalized children have a more comfortable, anxiety-free visit. Funds raised by Cranx helped with the purchase of cutting-edge resources such as the MRI compatible video goggles which reduce how often patients need to be sedated for MRI procedures.”

Brian LeDonne of Mount Sinai and Larry Alvarez of Sound Beach, friends for more than 6 years, were among the riders (Roy, Matthew, Loreta, Antonio, Larry & Brian) on April 9th who cycled for 20 grueling hours through the woods and endured 5 arduous laps on the 30-mile Glacier Ridge/Overton Trail System (GROT) on Long Island’s Glacial Moraine.

Matthew Herrschaft of Bayport and Brian LeDonne founded the Long Island Cranx Foundation in 2021 as a Registered 501(c)(3) Tax-Exempt Organization. The group has grown to 15 thrill-seeking mountain bikers and roadies from Suffolk County, with the collective charitable goal of giving back to the community in which they live. “I’m impressed by Stony Brook Children’s Hospital and its medical experts. Children’s health is top-of-mind for me as my wife is pregnant. We’re expecting our first child on October 3rd,” said LeDonne.

Alvarez is ecstatic that the foundation will have the opportunity each year to help Suffolk County meet its growing demand for pediatric emergency services. He joined Stony Brook Medicine’s MRI Department in 2010 and is now the lead MRI tech, overseeing the cardiac MRI program and the Child Life Program’s imaging service.

“I’ve been at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital for 11 years and have seen it grow and build. Every day, I’m grateful for the opportunity to help families and their children, and a lot of money is needed to expand the pediatric emergency room. Knowing that the ER will continue to get bigger because we are helping to contribute is something special to be a part of,” he said.

Stony Brook Children’s Hospital is Suffolk County’s only children’s hospital offering the most advanced pediatric specialty care in the region. The pediatric emergency department cares for about 21,000 patients per year.

About Stony Brook Children’s Hospital:

With 104 beds, Stony Brook Children’s Hospital is Suffolk County’s only children’s hospital. Part of Stony Brook Medicine, Stony Brook Children’s has more than 180 pediatric specialists in 30 specialties. The hospital is Suffolk County’s only Level 4 Regional Perinatal Center and Level 1 Regional Pediatric Trauma Center. It is home to the nation’s first Pediatric Multiple Sclerosis Center and also offers a Level 3 Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy Center, Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity Center, Healthy Weight and Wellness Center, Cystic Fibrosis Center, Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Program, Pediatric Cardiology Program, Pediatric HIV and AIDS Center. To learn more, visit www.stonybrookchildrens.org.

Stony Brook Breast Cancer Screening mobile truck. (8/24/18)

By Daniel Dunaief

Some groups of people on Long Island have a much higher incidence of a particular type of cancer than others.

On an age adjusted rate, African American men, for example, were almost twice as likely to develop prostate cancer from 2014 to 2018 as Caucasians. Out of 100,000 African American men, 216.6 had prostate cancer compared with 123.9 out of 100,000 white men, according to data from the National Cancer Institute.

Dr. Linda Mermelstein. Photo from Stony Brook Medicine

Dr. Linda Mermelstein, Associate Director of Stony Brook Cancer Center’s Office for Community Outreach and Engagement, is working with her team to address those stark differences and to empower members of the community to protect their health and make informed decisions.

“A lot of our focus is on addressing disparities” in cancer care in various communities throughout Long Island, Dr. Mermelstein said. 

The Cancer Center Outreach and Engagement office has taken numerous steps to inform the public about research and care. The center has a Mobile Mammography Unit, which travels into communities to provide access to screening for breast cancer.

On June 5, at the Latina Sisters Support Inc. Spanish Fair in Brentwood, the Cancer Center’s Community Outreach and Engagement staff provided mobile mammography screening and cancer prevention and screening education.

At that event, the Suffolk County Department of Health Services provided human papillomavirus and Covid-19 vaccines and Stony Brook School of Health Professionals offered blood pressure screening.

An information chasm

Dr. Jedan Phillips. Photo from Stony Brook Medicine

Dr. Jedan Phillips, Medical Director for Stony Brook Health Outreach and Medical Education and Associate Professor of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine at the Renaissance School of Medicine, explained that Covid-19 exposed the “chasm” between what the health care profession believed and the reality of what works and what doesn’t.

During the pandemic, Stony Brook University brought a vaccination pod to Uniondale in Nassau County, which is a predominantly African American community. “Because we had no relationship there, we might have wasted over 200 doses of the vaccine” as residents were reluctant to get vaccinated, he said. “Even though [Stony Brook] offered something that would help, people chose against it. It’s not about the vaccine. It’s something deeper.”

Dr. Phillips said East Elmhurst, Queens, where he grew up, was “ravaged by Covid. I know at least 10 people in my community who were regular figures in my life that died. I saw how vulnerable of a position we were in as a group and I felt I needed to get involved.”

Dr. Phillips, who has a family medical practice in East Patchogue, together with Dr. Yuri Jadotte, Assistant Professor and Associate Program Director for the Preventive Medicine Residency in the Department of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook, created three focus groups to survey the views and understanding of African American men on prostate cancer.

Many African American men don’t get screened for prostate cancer, even though such screenings could lead to earlier treatment and better outcomes.

By listening to what inspires African American men throughout Long Island to take action, Dr. Phillips hopes to tailor information to that type of delivery.

“It’s important to listen and understand,” Dr. Phillips said. Understanding what motivates people and seeking to provide the formats in which they prefer to access information can help establish a community connection and demonstrate cultural compassion.

Part of Dr. Phillips’s focus on preventive medicine comes from his experience with his father, who died from complications related to diabetes. His father, who was an inspiration for him, “didn’t live life in a preventive way,” which made managing his health more difficult, Dr. Phillips said.

With the numerous programs offered by the Office for Community Outreach and Engagement, Dr. Mermelstein said the group has four primary goals.

Dr. Jedan Phillips provides medical care.

“We want to monitor and understand what is the cancer burden in our catchment area” which includes Nassau and Suffolk County, she said. “Much of our activities are identifying the issues in terms of cancer” and understanding any barriers towards cancer care, like education, screening, diagnosis and treatment.

Secondly, she wants to provide cancer prevention services, screening, education and community navigation. Third, the group has a bi-directional engagement, with researchers getting to know the community and community advocates and the community learning about the research process.

Finally, the group seeks to catalyze the research by focusing on disparities, providing research services to the entire community based on specific needs.

One of Dr. Mermelstein’s first actions after heading up this team in 2019 was to create a community advisory council for the Stony Brook Cancer Center.

Janine Logan, Vice President of Communications and Population Health with the Long Island Health Collaborative, serves on that advisory council.“What I’m most excited about is that the committee understands the importance of knowing what your community thinks and needs,” Logan said.

Logan is pleased with the work the Stony Brook Cancer Center has done to educate residents about the lifestyle behaviors that can contribute to cancer, such as smoking, inactivity, and nutrition.

“They’ve done a lot of work in reaching out and educating communities to help them understand that these simple, modifiable behaviors can reduce their risk” of developing cancer, Logan said.

The effort at the Cancer Center to educate the public about the danger’s of the sun dovetails with some of the work she has done at the Long Island Health Collaborative.

Indeed, the Cancer Center Community Outreach and Engagement hosted a “Block the sun, not the fun” gathering on May 7 at the Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove.

The Stony Brook Cancer Center is also working with the Suffolk County Department of Health Services Cancer Prevention and Health Promotion Coalition to provide information about sunscreen safety.

In addition to the disparity among African American men who develop prostate cancer, the outreach effort also addressed the difference among hispanic women who have a higher incidence of cervical cancer than the non-hispanic Caucasian population.

In Suffolk County, about 10.2 Hispanic and Latino women out of 100,000 Hispanic and Latino women develop cervical cancer, which is higher than the 5.9 per 100,000 for white, non-Hispanic women, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Human papillomarvirus is estimated to cause about 36,500 cases of cancer in men and women every year in the United States. The HPV vaccination, which works best before exposure to the virus, can prevent 33,700 of those cancers. Because the vaccine doesn’t prevent all cancers, women still need screening to protect themselves.

Previously employed for 22 years with the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, Dr. Mermelstein, who has a medical degree and a master’s in public health, briefly retired, before taking this job at Stony Brook.

“I wanted to do something to help address cancer after I retired, and so I contacted Stony Brook Cancer Center and began in this position about four months after I retired,” she explained.

Those interested in reaching out to the Office for Community Outreach and Engagement can call 631-444-4263 or email [email protected]

Paolo Boffetta. Photo by Jeanne Neville/Stony Brook Medicine

By Daniel Dunaief

Screening for cancer can help people take steps to head off the development of a disease that could threaten the quantity and quality of their lives.

During the start of the pandemic, people around the world stopped screening for cervical, breast and colorectal cancer, according to a recent study led by Paolo Boffetta, Associate Director for Population Sciences at Stony Brook University’s  Cancer Center.

The results of the study were recently published in the journal JAMA Oncology.

Compared to 2019, screenings for breast cancer dropped in the first few months after the start of the pandemic by 35.6 percent for breast cancer, 41.8 percent for colorectal cancer, and 54.1 percent for cervical cancer compared to the same period in 2019.

Paolo Boffetta. Photo by Jeanne Neville/Stony Brook Medicine

Boffetta chose these three cancers because they are the ones public health authorities recommend for the population at large. Screenings can improve patient outcomes. 

“For some/ most cancer, the earlier the better for detection,” explained Stony Brook Cancer Center Director Yusuf Hannun.

Boffetta, who is also Adjunct Professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, suggested that the longer-term impact of a reduction in screenings in the early part of the pandemic won’t be clear to doctors or patients in the short term.

“It will take a little bit of time to have a full understanding of this,” said Boffetta. Depending on the specific type, cancers “that are detected by screenings would not otherwise appear for a few years.”

Boffetta suggested that the pandemic, apart from the illnesses and symptoms that threatened the health of people who were battling the virus itself, affected public health services. He believes several factors likely contributed to the decrease in screenings. Patients around the world were reluctant or restricted in their ability to leave their homes amid lockdowns.

Additionally, some cancer centers likely reduce the number of people they monitored to cut back on the density of patients in health care facilities, although Boffetta did not gather any data on the reduction in the number of screenings at health care centers.

The positive news amid this study, which surveyed cancer screening data in PubMed and other medical journals from 19 countries from January 2020 through December 2021, was that the number of patients screened returned to a more normal level within several months of the start of the pandemic.

“An important finding is that by the summer of 2020, the decrease in screenings for breast cancer and cervical cancer seem to have disappeared,” Boffetta said by phone from Italy, where he is a part-time professor at the University of Bologna. “For colorectal cancer [the decrease in screenings] lasted longer,” through the end of 2020.

Boffetta described the reduction in screenings and then a return to normal as a U-shaped curve, with an initial decline followed by a recovery. Doctors typically screen for colorectal cancers by using a colonoscopy. This technique requires several hours in the hospital. Patients may have been “more reluctant to go back to such a complex procedure, compared to the mammography or pap smear” which screen for breast and cervical cancers, respectively.

Boffetta is conducting a broad study of the cancer literature from early findings to clinical diagnosis to treatment. At this point, he has finished a paper on the frequency and types of clinical diagnoses amid the pandemic. He is collecting data for another study that will examine cancer treatment.

“We are interested in how the pandemic affected each of these stages,” he said.

Hannun suggested that Boffetta’s work expertise help address important health care questions related to the pandemic and other threats to public health, adding, “Epidemiology is essential for understanding the pandemic and many chronic diseases, especially cancer with exposure issues.

A lab update

Boffetta joined Stony Brook University in April of 2020, soon after the start of the pandemic.

Also a Professor in the Department of Family, Population and Preventive medicine at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, Boffetta will return to the United States in a few weeks from Italy.

Boffetta has added Research Coordinator Germana Giupponi and postdoctoral fellow Malak Khalifeh to his research efforts at Stony Brook. 

Germana Giupponi

A native of Italy, Giupponi, who started working with Boffetta in July of 2020 and provides administrative support and coordination with Boffetta’s collaborators, earned her master’s degree from the University of Milan.

Khalifeh joined Boffetta’s lab in March, is originally from Lebanon and conducted her PhD research in France at the University of Bordeaux. She is studying the link between the exposure people have to various chemicals in drinking water and bladder cancer. The bladder is especially susceptible to toxins from the environment.

Boffetta, meanwhile, has started teaching some graduate level classes at Stony Brook on cancer epidemiology for master’s and PhD students. He will teach one class this fall.

He is also continuing his studies with survivors of the World Trade Center attacks.

He has been comparing the survival of these first responders to the overall population in New York, comparing how the risk of cancer changed over the course of the 21 years since the attacks.

Boffetta has been working with Ben Luft, Director of the Stony Brook WTC Wellness Program at the Renaissance School of Medicine. Luft has provided clinical and research support for WTC responders.

Boffetta continues to have academic affiliations with other academic institutions, including Harvard University and Vanderbilt University.

Boffetta and his wife Antonella Greco, who have been living in New York City, plan to move to the Stony Brook area. Their three daughters live in Brooklyn, Italy and Argentina. Now that pandemic restrictions have lifted, Boffetta has been able to return to the opera and museums and has done some skiing and hiking.

As for this study, Boffetta suggested that the findings about screenings were consistent with what he might have expected during the beginning of the pandemic.Delaying screenings could mean that some people discover cancers at a more advanced state by the time they diagnose them, he said.

Nikhil Palekar, MD. Photo by Jeanne Neville/Stony Brook Medicine

Stony Brook Center of Excellence for Alzheimer’s Disease selected as the only recipient on Long Island, and one of only 10 NYSDOH-supported, hospital-based centers of its kind in New York State

Stony Brook Center of Excellence for Alzheimer’s Disease (CEAD) was awarded a new $2.35 million, state-funded grant over five years (2022-27 grant cycle) by the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) and renews on June 1. Of the 10 NYSDOH-supported, hospital-based centers in the state, Stony Brook Medicine is the only recipient of this competitive grant on Long Island and will continue to serve the growing needs of communities in both Nassau and Suffolk counties.

To qualify as a Center of Excellence for Alzheimer’s Disease, a hospital-based center must meet rigorous standards which are measured and reviewed annually. These include: high quality diagnostic and assessment services for people with Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia; patient management and care; referral of patients and their caregivers to community services; training and continuing education to medical professionals and students on the detection, diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

With scientific strides being made in identifying potential new ways to diagnose, treat and prevent Alzheimer’s and other dementias, Stony Brook’s efforts during this five-year grant cycle will also include a continued focus on research.

“The renewal of this important NYSDOH grant comes at a time when there are a growing number of people with Alzheimer’s disease in our state, many of whom reside in underserved communities right here on Long Island,” said Harold Paz, MD, MS, Executive Vice President Health Sciences, Stony Brook University, and Chief Executive Officer, Stony Brook University Medicine. “It reinforces the strong reputation Stony Brook has built over the years, as an expert in diagnosis, care, training and resources, and as an institution committed to being at the forefront of research and clinical trials seeking effective treatments and a cure.”

A Growing Population of 65+

According to the DOH, 410,000 New Yorkers age 65 and older live with Alzheimer’s disease. By 2025, this number is expected to increase to 460,000 New Yorkers needing care for Alzheimer’s disease. Long Island has the second-highest age 65+ population in New York State after New York City. On Long Island’s East End, approximately 36 percent of homes have at least one person in the household who is over 65 years of age.

“We are honored once again to be recognized for all that our team and community partners have accomplished as we continue to serve this vulnerable population,” said Nikhil Palekar, MD, Director, Stony Brook Center of Excellence for Alzheimer’s Disease. Dr. Palekar, who joined Stony Brook in 2017, has been instrumental in developing the Center’s mission and services.

An expert in the treatment and research of cognitive and mood disorders in older adults with grant funding from National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Alzheimer’s Association and Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, Dr. Palekar encourages people who are having trouble remembering, learning new things, concentrating, or making decisions to get screened and diagnosed — the sooner the better. “When the brain is unable to function well, your entire health starts to suffer. If you’re having memory issues, you’re probably forgetting to take your medications for blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, causing a worsening of chronic medical conditions,” he noted.

Cognitive Screenings, Clinical Trials, Federally Qualified Health Center Partnerships

The Stony Brook Center of Excellence for Alzheimer’s Disease, part of the Stony Brook Neurosciences Institute, now offers free cognitive screening clinics to the community at CEAD’s offices at Putnam Hall on the campus of Stony Brook University, as well as at Stony Brook’s Advanced Specialty Care location in Commack. The Stony Brook CEAD staff is also available to conduct free screenings in communities on Long Island upon request. Each individual screened will receive the screening results on the spot so that they can bring the results to their primary care physician for further assessment and treatment if needed.

The Stony Brook Center of Excellence for Alzheimer’s Disease also offers a variety of clinical trials in support of groundbreaking research studies on aging, memory, and dementia. Stony Brook has been selected as a study site for several clinical trials, including monoclonal antibody therapy trials that target amyloid plaque for the treatment of mild Alzheimer’s disease.

Another new initiative of the Stony Brook CEAD is the establishment of partnerships with several federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) on Long Island to help meet the needs of unserved and underserved people spanning communities from the east end to those bordering Queens. Stony Brook CEAD will provide free cognitive screening assessments, educational resources, training for physicians, and opportunities to participate in research studies and clinical trials, which will help improve early diagnosis and quality of life for people in these communities living with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

For more information about the Stony Brook Center of Excellence for Alzheimer’s Disease, visit ceadlongisland.org.

About the Stony Brook Neurosciences Institute:

Stony Brook Neurosciences Institute is the regional leader in diagnosing and treating a full range of brain, neurological and psychiatric disorders in adults and children. As a tertiary care center, we also serve as the “go-to” medical facility for community physicians and other specialists in the region who have complicated cases and seek advanced care for their patients. We bring the expertise of renowned specialists together with the use of sophisticated technology to deliver high-quality, disease-specific, comprehensive care for patients, while providing peace of mind to their families. This care includes access to various resources and therapies to assist with rehabilitation and reintegration into everyday living during and after treatment. The Institute features more than 15 specialty centers and programs — several that are unique to our region — and more than 70 research laboratories dedicated to the study of various neurological and psychiatric disorders and diseases. The Institute also provides challenging yet supportive educational experiences that prepare graduates to practice in a variety of clinical and academic settings. To learn more, visit www.neuro.stonybrookmedicine.edu.

Trevor Verga, of Kings Park, was reported missing March 20. Photo from SCPD

Nearly a month after a Kings Park man was reported missing by a family member, his body was found off Piper Lane in Head of the Harbor on April 9.

Dr. Trevor Verga, 45, last spoke to a family member on the phone on March 20 at approximately 1 a.m., according to the Suffolk County Police Department, and was reported missing around 2:15 p.m. that day.

Verga’s 2019 Dodge Ram was found in the parking lot of 500 East Long Beach Road, Nissequogue, and video surveillance from the parking lot showed a man matching Verga’s description exiting the vehicle at approximately 2:30 a.m. on March 20.

According to SCPD, Homicide Squad detectives are investigating the cause of death, which is believed to be noncriminal. 

A graduate of Northport High School, Verga attended American University and received his medical degree from New York University Grossman School of Medicine, according to his obituary on the Branch Funeral Homes website. He joined North Suffolk Cardiology, a location of Stony Brook internists, in 2010 and also served as a clinical assistant professor at Stony Brook University. 

According to Stony Brook Medicine officials, he was the first doctor on Long Island to perform the LARIAT left atrial appendage suture exclusion procedure for atrial fibrillation.

Stony Brook Medicine officials released a statement after news of Verga’s death.

“Dr. Trevor Verga was a beloved Stony Brook Medicine Community Medical Group physician known for his compassion and commitment to his patients and community. Our thoughts and prayers are with Dr. Verga’s family, friends, colleagues and patients. To support our community, Stony Brook Medicine has shared with our staff a wide range of counseling services available to help them during this difficult time.”

Verga was also a cardiologist at St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson since 2010, according to St. Charles Hospital officials. He was a member of the hospital’s medical board since 2015 and president of the board since 2021. Officials described him as “an esteemed colleague who will be sorely missed.”

“We are deeply saddened to hear of Dr. Trevor Verga’s passing and offer our sincere condolences to his family during this difficult time,” officials said in a statement.

For Dr. Trevor Verga’s full obituary, see branchfh.com.

131 RSOM students match to residency programs; 20 percent to stay at Stony Brook Medicine

Taking a major step toward launching their careers, 131 Renaissance School of Medicine (RSOM) fourth-year students matched to residency training programs all over the country, New York State and at Stony Brook Medicine on March 18. Twenty percent of the students matched to training programs at Stony Brook, the highest percentage staying at Stony Brook since 2010 when the school began tracking this metric annually.

Match Days are held nationwide each year, a celebratory event when students learn of their residency training assignments. Administered by the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP), this year more than 39,000 positions were filled. See this NRMP news. The numbers of physicians continue to increase, in part because of a need for our nation’s growing population and increasing need for specialty services in medicine. The two-year international pandemic has also raised awareness of the importance of a strong physician pool going forward in the 21st Century.

“The role of the physician has never been more important,” said Hal Paz, MD, MS, Executive Vice President for Health Sciences at  Stony Brook University, in a video message to the matching students. “You will soon be joining a network of over 4.500 physician alumni. The Renaissance School of Medicine gave you an opportunity to become a physician, but you did the hard work to fulfill your dreams.”

Collectively the students matched to programs in 18 states and Washington, DC. Approximately 43 percent of the students matched to programs in NYS, and 56 percent to programs in other states. The leading programs matched to included Internal Medicine (21 students), Emergency Medicine (15), Anesthesiology (12), and Pediatrics (11).

To view the celebration and some students’ matches see this video.

“You all stand on the threshold of your medical careers, a threshold can be the entrance to a new place, or it can be the beginning of some new chapter in our lives, or it can be the limit of a prior condition. For you it is all those things,” said William Wertheim, MD, Interim Dean of the RSOM.

Considering these challenging times in our society and in healthcare, Dr. Wertheim continued:  “COVID has become, during your student years, a fact of life. Though it has posed disruptions for you all, it has also created opportunities  — for you to witness the advances of science and how each of these advances is incorporated into practice, for the rapidity with which recognition of new conditions and new challenges are adopted into medical care. These are all good lessons to learn.”

Among the students matching include native Long Islanders Kristin Krumenacker and Justin Cheung. Krumenacker, a dual-degree student who will also earn a Master of Arts in Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics in May, matched to a Radiology residency at Virginia Commonwealth University Health Systems. Cheung, who earned a BS in Chemical Engineering at Stony Brook University as an undergraduate, hopes to pursue a fellowship in hematology/oncology. He is one of four fourth-year students completing the BS to MD program at Stony Brook. Cheung matched to an Internal Medicine program at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Another student completing the BS to MD program at Stony Brook, Verdah Ahmad, matched to Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Jersey. A native of New Jersey, Ahmad was hoping to match to a school in the New York metro area. She is very happy to match to a program in her home state.