Our People: Michelle Ballasiotes
Michelle Ballasiotes wants people to know that strokes can happen to anyone at any time.
Name: Michelle Ballasiotes
Position: Undergraduate in the Department of Health Policy and Management
Time at the Gillings School: I’m a senior about to start my second year of studies at the Gillings School.
What I do at UNC Gillings (and why I love it): I’m studying health policy and management because — as a pediatric stoke survivor who has had, at minimum, weekly health care appointments for more than 10 years — I often find myself saying, “This doesn’t make sense. It just isn’t logical! Why is health care the way it is in America?” I wanted to learn more about how our health care and insurance systems evolved. I remember my mom telling me how she fought get me access to a local provider for my required weekly physical and occupational therapy appointments, because the only other option was to go to the in-network provider more than an hour’s drive away. She won that fight, but many people don’t even know they can fight, and that’s where so many issues around health inequity and disparities in care begin.
At the Gillings School, I love my professors because they are so passionate — I truly look forward to my classes every day. I love my cohort, too, because everyone is so genuine and has the “work hard, play hard” mentality. When finals wrapped up for the semester, we hosted a huge barbecue party to celebrate.
My department also really supported me last year when I organized a Heart Walk team to raise awareness for pediatric stroke. I simply reached out over group text and about ten students traveled all the way to Raleigh on a Saturday morning to join me.
The pivotal moment that led me to public health: happened when I was eight years old. The American Heart Association (AHA) asked me to talk about my life experiences after suffering a stroke before birth. I was able to let the audience know that strokes can happen to anyone at any time. There was something about sharing my story with a group of people and seeing it influence them that made me want to keep having that kind of impact.
As I got older, speaking engagements and lobbying opportunities took me to Washington, D.C. multiple times. I won the AHA’s Youth Advocate of the Year Award in 2009 and got to speak with Congressmen about the need for more research funding for the National Institutes of Health. I’ve also worked at the state level on a variety of topics, including making healthy food available in more North Carolina corner stores.
Another project I led recently was creating Pediatric Stroke Hero bags for distribution at UNC Hospitals. Inside each bag is a Patient and Family Guide designed to provide basic information on pediatric stroke. There are also different toys for children, depending on their age, that aid in their recovery process. I included a journal for the parents, too, because I know that this experience can be stressful for them. They can write out their feelings or use the journal to take medical notes.
My plan for the summer: is to intern at the UNC Department of Neurosurgery. I’ll be working on several projects, the first of which is submitting a proposal to speak at the December 2019 conference for all North Carolina public school nurses — that’s such a great venue to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of pediatric stroke. Many kids suffering a stroke present with a severe headache, and emergency medical providers tend to write that off as a migraine and just offer some medication. Children rarely are assessed for stroke because of their age. With strokes, though, we say that “time is brain.” The longer someone goes without treatment, the more severe their long-term losses can be. My hope is that I can talk to state nurses about the “BE FAST” symptoms of stoke, which are the same for children and adults: Balance difficulties, Eyesight changes, Face drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulty, Terrible headache.
This summer, I’ll also do a chart review of 200 epilepsy patients to learn what workplace accommodations they asked for when returning to their jobs. Knowing what people ask for, and what gets approved, will help us inform physicians so they can better advise patients on what they may need to be safe and productive at work.
Something most people wouldn’t guess about me: is that I’ve been to Sharjah twice — it’s a United Arab Emirates city near Dubai. I attended two conferences there, and also went dune-bashing with my mom! I usually say I don’t like speed or feeling out of control — for example, I always avoid roller coasters — but riding through the desert at top speeds in this white car with the handles ripped off was the thrill of a lifetime!
A thing I’m really looking forward to: is becoming an occupational therapist (OT). I worked with the same OT in Chicago for almost six years when I was younger, and she’s still a close personal friend. She had an ability to make my therapy sessions fun, so I didn’t even know I was actually working. It made me look forward to every appointment, and I want to provide that same motivation to other kids. She always went above and beyond — she even took me skiing one time!
I also worked with an OT in Charlotte, N.C., both as a patient and as a colleague for educational presentations. I now think of her as a mentor. I’ve shadowed at her clinic, and a lot of her patients have hemiplegia, like I do. [Editor: Hemiplegia, the most common permanent effect of pediatric stoke, is when muscle weakness or partial paralysis affects the arms, legs and/or facial muscles on one side of the body.] I’d love to work with my own young patients and tell them, “Hey! Guess what? I have what you have.” Then they could go home and tell their parents about their new grown-up friend, who’s an example of just how far they can progress.
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