A Tribute to Two Wonderful Ladies

By Walt Kilcullen



The Brain Injury Association of New Jersey offers a mentoring program which trains interested individuals, many who are brain injured themselves, to become mentors to survivors. After training sessions, new mentors are assigned a brain injured “partner” to mentor. The amount of involvement varies greatly. Some mentors stay in touch by phone and e-mail as good listeners. They share problems, help with suggestions, and just offer their support. Some mentors get more involved by having lunch with partners and even having weekly visits.


I have been a mentor for about eight years and wrote an article in the September issue of Strokenet about the benefits for both the mentor and the partner. But this article is about two ladies whom I miss very much as they both passed away: one from a second massive stroke, and the other from a ruptured thoracic aorta. Both had something very much in common, however. They both had uncontrollable high blood pressure.


I started mentoring Anna Licata, age 77, in April 2004. She died of a ruptured thoracic aorta in early May 2006.  She lived in Toms River, New Jersey, which is a two hour ride from my house.


She had recently moved to Toms River from her long time home in Brooklyn, so that she could be close to her daughter.

                                                                    Anna & Macho 

I would speak to Anna by phone every Saturday, and I know that she looked forward to my phone calls. I knew she was lonely, but I did not feel sorry for her because she had a nice little house and a loving daughter, Patty, who visited her often and spoke to her every day on the phone. She also had a son, Steve, but he lived in California. He was also caring despite being so far away. He came east with his wife and two children whenever possible.


Anna was a hard worker throughout her life. When her two children were young, and she was divorced. She had to raise her children without child support. She began as a manicurist, working long hours with low pay, often being frustrated by complaining customers. In her 50’s she got her GED and a job at a bank. This helped with the finances, medical insurance, and a pension. Patty told me, “Steve and I owe a lot to our mother. She took care of us when my father left, and she never let us feel deprived, poor, or unloved. She also instilled in us the work ethic that has served us so well.”


I loved visiting Anna. She made me pasta with Italian meatballs and sausage. I really felt that we had a nice connection and I must say that she gave me as much satisfaction as I gave her friendship. Her greatest health problem was high blood pressure. Every medication that the doctors tried either did not work or had severe side effects. I knew this was a disaster waiting to happen, and when I called Anna in August of 2005 and did not get an answer, I feared the worst. I was right. Two days letter, Patty called to tell me her mother was in the hospital after suffering a ruptured aorta. It was directly related to high blood pressure.


I went to Philadelphia the next day, but she was not lucid and did not know me. The next nine months were a rollercoaster of recovery and relapse. Anna was in and out of hospitals, rehab facilities, and nursing homes, and I visited her as often as possible. I was still optimistic about her recovery when I got the call. Anna had died. I guess I should have expected the possibility, but I was still shocked. High blood pressure and stroke survivors are fierce enemies. I miss my friend even though it is more than three years later. Anna made me a better person and I pay tribute to her.


I started mentoring Betty Clark in March 2004. She died in July, 2009. She had just turned 60 years old. Betty was deeply religious, fun loving, and the most optimistic person I have ever known.


Regardless of her medical setbacks, she always kept her faith and told me how blessed she was.


 Betty & Walt

She never passed up an opportunity to go out and have a good time. We went to dinner at least twice each month and attended a support group together.


Betty grew up in South Carolina as one of seventeen children. Three of her brothers are Baptist ministers and most of her siblings live in New Jersey. Betty lived in Paterson, New Jersey, near several brothers and sisters, and just down the street from her church. Betty and I were more friends than mentor and partner. On occasion, my wife and I took her to various support group functions. She made both of us laugh. One summer she invited me to a family reunion at her sister’s house in Paterson. There were 85 people there and every one made me feel like I was family. I still write to some of them.


Betty’s parents were sharecroppers in South Carolina and each of the children shared in the work. After Betty graduated high school, she served in the army for four years. While in the service, she got married and had a son, Jim, who is presently serving in the army. After moving to New Jersey and graduating from Essex County Community College, she worked for the US Department of Immigration and then the US Marshal’s Office. But in 1999, she had her first stroke and this ended her working days.


This past summer, my wife Susan and I went to France for a vacation. On July 8th, I got an e-mail from a friend of Betty’s. I was shocked to hear “a massive stroke…she was dead.” Again, I knew her blood pressure was dangerously high and different medications did not keep her safe. She told me repeatedly that she was diligent in taking her medication, but I am not sure.


Not only do I miss her a great deal, but my other partners, Patty, Jose, Matthew, and Sandy miss her as well. Everyone in our support group felt her loss. I am better for having known Betty and I pay tribute to her.


It is necessary for me to make a plea to all the survivors out there. Make sure you are under the care of a good primary care physician and a good neurologist. Be sure your cholesterol level is safe and your blood pressure is normal. If you had an ischemic (clot) stroke, be sure you have your carotid (neck) arteries checked. According to Cedar-Sinai Medical Center’s Los Angeles web-site, 50% of the deaths due to stroke are a result of Carotid Stenosis (narrowing of the carotid artery). So many stroke survivors suffer a second stroke. It doesn’t have to happen. Be diligent. Eat healthy. Exercise. Stay alive. 


Copyright © May 2010

The Stroke Network, Inc.

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