Neurology and Neurosurgery

‘Miraculous’ to be alive: Rare stroke strikes New York woman

Jodi Hammell-Fifield before she had a stroke and went to Vassar Brothers Medical Center for care.


Jodi Hammell-Fifield had a rare type of stroke that is dangerous and often fatal. She survived, thanks to a tremendous effort starting with a co-worker and astute first responders to an excellent emergency, neurosurgery and intensive care team.


Jodi Hammell-Fifield, 54, nearly died from a rare type of stroke. On October 3, 2023, she suddenly could not move the left side of her body and felt unbearably lethargic. The next thing she remembered was waking up in the neuro intensive care unit at Vassar Brothers Medical Center on October 7, 2023. She is here today because of her strength, serendipitous events and lifesaving care.


A stroke causes weakness and inability to speak


Jodi is an administrative assistant in the film department at Vassar College, where she has worked for 25 years. She shares an office divided by a wall with a co-worker.


She was alone in her office and about to have lunch when she collapsed on the floor.


“I felt frustrated because I could not communicate and a sense of dread because I could not use my body. I tried lifting my left hand, but it would not move. I wanted to call for help but could not get any words out,” Jodi said.


“My officemate said she heard a thump. She came over to my side and saw me on the floor. She said I was pleading with my eyes for help. She also said I was struggling to breathe,” Jodi said. “She called 911 right away, and thank goodness she did.”


Jodi was having seizures when Empress Emergency Medical Services arrived at her office.


Unusual stroke symptoms


“The paramedics noticed she had some weakness on the left side of her body in between seizures,” said Dr. Domenico Mastandrea, an emergency medicine physician at Vassar Brothers Medical Center. “Seizing is not a typical stroke symptom, and Jodi did not have many other signs of stroke. But we initiated a stroke alert based on the paramedics’ excellent report.”



A stroke alert triggers a rapid response at Vassar Brothers Medical Center


A stroke alert triggers emergency medicine, neurology and radiology teams to rapidly evaluate possible stroke patients as soon as they arrive at the hospital. ‘Time is brain’ when it comes to stroke, and seconds can be the difference between a good outcome or long-term disabilities or death.



“Jodi was status epilepticus when she arrived; she was really sick with continuous seizures. We intubated her with a breathing tube, got her seizures under control and expedited a CT scan of her head. Imaging confirmed she was having a stroke,” Dr. Mastandrea said.


“Jodi had a basilar artery occlusion, a rare type of stroke that is dangerous,” said Dr. Jon Lebovitz, a neurosurgeon and chief of neurointerventional surgery at Vassar Brother Medical Center.


The basilar artery plays a critical role in supplying blood to the back part of the brain. A stroke in this area blocks blood and oxygen to the brainstem, cerebellum and occipital lobes. While any type of stroke is serious, a basilar artery stroke is particularly catastrophic.


The brainstem regulates your breathing and heart rate. The cerebellum controls balance, movement, attention and language and assists with vision. Finally, the occipital lobe controls visual processing. 


“Jodi was not showing clear stroke symptoms, but the Emergency Department team expertly identified she was having a significant neurologic event and got imaging of her brain quickly. We were surprised because seizures are an unusual symptom of a stroke and also for a condition affecting the brainstem,” Dr. Lebovitz said.



A neurosurgeon performs a mechanical thrombectomy to treat stroke


Dr. Lebovitz performed a mechanical thrombectomy using sophisticated biplane angiography technology. He used X-ray guidance to lead a catheter through an artery in Jodi’s wrist, up the aorta and into the brain to remove the clot.


Dr. Lebovitz restored blood flow to the brain by removing the clot. Jodi was in a medically induced coma to help her brain and body heal. She could sit up and talk when she woke up four days later.



Jodi was in the hospital and then inpatient rehabilitation for about a month after the stroke.


Recovering from a stroke


“Even though I was doing well when I got home, I had a long road ahead of me,” Jodi said.


She had balance, cognitive and vision trouble and weakness on the left side of her body.



Jodi is thankful for Cassidy Scharff, PA, a family medicine provider with Nuvance Health Medical Practice Primary Care. Jodi said Cassidy could tell she needed help and arranged home care, including a nurse and physical and occupational therapists.


“I was frustrated not to do my normal activities without assistance,” Jodi said. “I needed help draining pasta and opening jars. Cutting food was also difficult.”



Jodi’s daughter and sister helped her tremendously. She was also thankful to be surrounded by family who supported her.


“My 22-year-old daughter had just graduated from college and was living and working in Boston. She gave up everything to move back to Poughkeepsie and help me,” Jodi said. “She drove me to appointments, got groceries and walked my dog.”


“She is a godsend and an amazing daughter,” Jodi said.


Jodi Hammell-Fifield with her daughter Sophie at her graduation in May 2023.


“My sister drove me to appointments and stayed with me so I would not miss anything my doctors said,” Jodi said.


Jodi is an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Before the stroke, she attended many meetings, enjoyed baking for members and was passionate about acts of service.



She also enjoyed walking Giovanni, her cocker spaniel, and spending time with Liliana, her Siamese cat.


But she could not do most of these things right after the stroke.


“I had trouble with my fine motor skills and tremors in both hands, which made it difficult to bake and type,” Jodi said. “I also felt like my speech was forced and talking made me very tired.”


Jodi had impaired eyesight and double vision. While she could walk around her apartment without a cane, she used it for balance to walk outside. Jodi also had to take a leave of absence from work.


“I missed my independence. I could not do simple things safely, like cooking, driving or laundry,” Jodi said.


“Honestly, it was difficult at first,” Jodi said. “But then I started noticing progress each day.”


For example, Marie Vegeto-Devens, Jodi’s occupational therapist, helped her learn to use adaptive tools like a rocking knife. Soon, she was attempting to make pasta with meat sauce.


Jodi continued working hard at physical, occupational and speech therapy for several months. In addition to Marie, Mary Ell Izzo, speech therapist, and Bethany Quattropani, physical therapist, helped Jodi at the Eric Shrubsole Center for Speech and Physical Rehabilitation at Vassar Brothers Medical Center.


“Mary Ell, Bethany and Marie are wonderful, I can’t speak highly enough about them,” Jodi said.



“I am a fighter at heart and a bit of a control freak. When I set my mind to something, I do it,” Jodi said.


(Left to Right) Bethany Quattropani, Physical Therapist, Marie Vegeto-Devens, Occupational Therapist, Mary Ell Izzo, Speech Therapist, Jodi Hammell-Fifield's rehab team at the Eric Shrubsole Center for Speech and Physical Rehabilitation at Vassar Brothers Medical Center.

Making gains and regaining independence after a stroke


Today, Jodi is baking and walking Giovanni again!


Jodi Hammell-Fifield loves walking her dog, Giovanni. Here he is happy after a walk with her, post-stroke.


Jodi Hammell-Fifield loves spending time with her cat, Liliana.


“I bake cakes and cupcakes for my AA meetings and walk Giovanni a little farther each day,” Jodi said.


Jodi’s next goal is to go back to work soon.


“Miraculously, I am still here,” Jodi said. “I was in the right place at the right time.”


The day before Jodi’s life turned upside down, her car broke down and it was towed. Normally, she would have gone out for lunch but stayed in her office since she did not have her car.


“I cannot think about what would have happened if I was driving or alone when the stroke occurred,” Jodi said.


“I am grateful for my officemate for having the sense to check on me and call 911,” Jodi said. “From what I am told, the first responders were excellent and took me to the best possible hospital for a stroke.”


Vassar Brothers Medical Center has Thrombectomy-Capable Stroke Center certification from The Joint Commission, a designation for high-quality stroke care and positive outcomes.



“I had exceptional emergency, neurosurgery and neurology doctors and nurses, who I had the pleasure of meeting afterward,” Jodi said. “The neurology residents were also fabulous; they were knowledgeable, thorough and spent time with me.


“I could not ask for a better doctor than Dr. Lebovitz. He is brilliant and has an impeccable bedside manner. He explained everything thoroughly and kept me informed,” Jodi said.


Dr. Jon Lebovitz, neurosurgeon, and Jodi Hammell-Fifield about a month after the stroke.


“Jodi’s outcome was remarkable because the type of stroke she had tends to be fatal,” Dr. Lebovitz said. “I am really proud of her and how well she is doing.”


“The neuro ICU staff also provided profoundly excellent care. I felt very cared for,” Jodi said.


 The night nurses who took care of Jodi Hammell-Fifield at Vassar Brothers Medical Center.


“For most people, a basilar artery occlusion is a truly devastating diagnosis,” Dr. Mastandrea said. “It was amazing we were able to save her and a great example of teamwork from pre-hospital care to the neuro ICU.”


“Jodi is a superstar,” said Erica Knapp RN, BSN, stroke program coordinator at Vassar Brothers Medical Center.


Members of Jodi Hammell-Fifield’s care team at Vassar Brothers Medical Center.


Disclaimer: Outcomes from stroke vary from person to person. No individual results should be seen as typical.