18-Year-Old Survivor Thanks Penn for Helping Her Regain Independence

By Daphne Sashin

Patient Sophie Borrelli does exercises with the help of Matthew Prusinski, a physical therapist with Penn Therapy & Fitness
Patient Sophie Borrelli with Matthew Prusinski, PT, DPT, a physical therapist with Penn Therapy & Fitness

On July 15, a month before she was due to start college, Sophie Borrelli was on vacation with her boyfriend’s family on the Jersey Shore when she began to feel ill.

“I was profusely sweating and I didn’t know why, and at first I could swallow, but then a couple seconds later I stopped being able to swallow. My voice just completely went away, and the whole left side of my body went completely numb,” Sophie says in a video for Good Shepherd Penn Partners (GSPP), a joint venture with Penn Medicine that manages patient rehabilitation services.

The average 18-year-old, let alone a young and fit lacrosse player like Sophie, who worked out frequently and ate healthy foods, might not assume they were having a stroke. But in Sophie’s final semester of high school outside of Philadelphia, she had worked in a local hospital as part of her school’s allied health program to learn about different health careers. At the end of the term, she had to choose one of her hospital rotations to write a paper on. She picked strokes.

“I'll never forget the call I received from her when she started to experience stroke symptoms,” said her mom, Julie Borrelli. “She very calmly told me what was happening. I tried to suggest maybe it was an allergic reaction to food ... I remember a distinct moment where I just said to her, ‘What is your gut telling you?’ She clearly said, ‘I am having a stroke and I need to go right to the hospital.’”

Sophie was right: She had suffered a PICA (posterior inferior cerebellar artery) stroke, which affects the artery responsible for coordination, dizziness, and balance. She was airlifted from a regional hospital to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) for care by the Neuroscience team.

From HUP, Sophie was transferred to Penn Medicine Rehabilitation – HUP’s inpatient rehabilitation unit at Penn Medicine Rittenhouse – where she participated in daily therapy to improve her strength, balance, and coordination. She quickly progressed to the Penn Therapy & Fitness outpatient rehabilitation program in Radnor.

In sharing her story with GSPP, Sophie thanked her rehab therapists for giving her the skills and confidence to regain her independence. Five weeks after her stroke, Sophie started her freshman year at the University of Florida, where she is in the honors program, following a pre-med track.

“Sophie’s story is remarkable on so many levels,” said Jessica Cooper, MS, executive director of Good Shepherd Penn Partners. “While we don’t often see strokes in 18-year-olds, strokes can happen at any age. The fact that Sophie recognized her symptoms and advocated to get care promptly was crucial to her having a good outcome. There also was tremendous partnership throughout the Penn continuum of care to support her recovery.”

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