Local specialist also notes need to treat strokes quickly

Tumminello sees advances for daughter, all women


Dr. Paola Tumminello, a neurologist at Walker Baptist Medical Center, will mark Mother's Day today knowing she once saw the challenges that women faced to be accepted in the medical community - on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Now an American, she has seen where women have made advances in the medical community, paving for a better day for emergency female professionals - including her daughter. 

It is also important for her that advances be made to help the public, as May is Stroke Awareness Month.  Walker Baptist is offering a free, private online stroke assessment  that only takes a few minutes at www.brookwoodbaptisthealth.com

Tumminello, 58, is a native of Naples, Italy, growing up there. She went to medical school in Italy and became a certified physician there. 

"At 28, I came to the United States. I had to redo my schooling again," she said, resulting in an internship residency fellowship in neurology that was completed in 1996 at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, South Carolina. 

After 1996, she was based for four years at Warner Robbins, Georgia, then moving back to Charleston to be an attending physician at the Medical University of South Carolina from 2000 to 2010. 

She was at the University of Florida from 2010 to 2013, when she then moved to Florence to be at Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital. About two years ago, she came to Jasper, where she today has an office in Suite 3011 in Walker Baptist Medical Center's medical tower. 

Tumminello is a neurologist, which a subspecialty in epilepsy and sleep medicine. She sees general neurology cases, and most of her cases involve strokes. Her field also includes headaches, nerve pain situations (such as neuropathy and neuralgia), memory problems, depression and sleep apnea. 

She is troubled at the trends that are leading to heart attacks and strokes, pointing to weight gain, diabetes and the obesity epidemic, even in young people.

"Unfortunately, I've seen a lot of substance abuse that can cause devastation even in young people," she said. "Methamphetamines are horrible around here. It increases the risk of strokes, heart attacks and seizures. It is serious." 

Asked about the biggest lifestyle detail most people are not paying attention to, she said it was their diet. 

"I tell my patients that when we are young, we can eat everything," she said. "Then we turn 40," and the habits have to change at 40, 50, 60 and 70. "We gain weight, cholesterol goes up, lipids go up, diabetes crepes in. People tell me, 'I'm pre-diabetic.' Well, being a pre-diabetic is being a diabetic. Let's get to the chase."

This also leads to the heart attacks, strokes, nerve pain and memory problems, as well as other problems. "And I see younger and younger people because of the obesity problem," she said. "Conditions 30 years ago I used to see in elderly, and now I see it in 40 year olds. It is sad, because obviously a stroke at age 40 is serious."

Tumminello said over the years she has seen many advances in stroke treatment. "When I started, we didn't have much. Even in the 1990s, we didn't have much. Now we have alteplase. Alteplase has been a game changer," she said — although finding the symptoms and encouraging family and friends to bring in a patient is still the major challenge.

She continued to repeat and emphasize in the interview that the family has three hours to get the patient in for treatment - and that delays to second-guess are devastating.

"If I can just beg them, please go to the closest emergency room and not to be stubborn and stay home," she said. 

Also, the patient usually fails to recognize they have stroke symptoms as the brain is not functioning right - meaning the family or friends have to urge the patient to get treatment.

"The computer can recognize a malfunction anywhere in the body, but the computer cannot recognize a malfunction in itself," she said.  "People don't want to offend Mom or Dad. People don't want to upset the spouse. But in this case, we are not upsetting anybody." To do nothing is to "deny them essential care." 

Having dealt with male-dominated medical professions in two countries, Tumminello was asked as a woman what it has been like to overcome that. 

"It has been difficult," she said. "In Italy, I wanted to be a neurosurgeon. They did not allow me in the 1980s. I came to America and was able to become a neurologist, but by then I was a little older. I was in my 30s and it was too late to go to neurosurgery." 

Even then neurology was considered a male-dominated field. She was one of the first female residents in neurology at the the Medical University of South Carolina in 1992.

"But I had in the 90s, here in the United States, colleagues who told me, 'Fix me coffee.' My answer was, 'My coffee is too strong for you. Have your wife go fix it for you.' What could I have answered?" 

However, she said her attitude was to not take it seriously and to keep doing what she needed to do. Moreover, she said she finds the situation "way, way better" for women in 2019. 

She noted she has seen many changes over the years, including advances in women being accepted as equals. "That was a big goal of mine," she said. "I see women neurosurgeons today. That was unheard of years ago. I see more and more fields open, so I am very optimistic.

The improvements have come full circle for her, in one sense.

"My daughter is planning to go to medical school. I don't think she will see so many obstacles," she said. "The doors are way, way more open today than 30 years ago, which is excellent." 

Tumminello said she has wonderful colleagues in Jasper and enjoys working here. They are very good and very nice people here. I've had no issues here," she said. 

However, she said the adjustment to living in the United States was difficult, noting she is a typical first generation immigrant. "I don't belong in Italy and I don't belong to America," she said. "I don't belong anywhere. 

"I'm very grateful to America. America allowed me to be what my country didn't. America gave me an opportunity. I came here legally. I worked and paid taxes since day one. I raise my family. So this country is good. This is my country now." She noted she is a full citizen now and is proud of that.

She notes that she has sometimes observed the people who live in this nation "are not fully aware of how good they have it. I've seen it on both sides. Italy is a Western country, but culturally Italy is a little more backward," at least from what she recalls from the 1980s. But she has also compared notes with women who come from other regions and countries. 

"Americans have it very, very good. They should be grateful of being in this country," she said. "We should be grateful we have the ability to speak our minds. We should be grateful to have freedom of speech. We should be grateful for all the freedoms America allows us to have. 

I understand people are upset, this or that, with the government, whatever. Before complaining, people should educate themselves about what other countries have," she said. 

"We have amazing medicine here." 

She noted she went to Italy suddenly in September when her mother died suddenly, and she suddenly encountered European healthcare. "It was a shock to the system. I didn't remember how bad it is," she said, referring to all aspects of healthcare. "Everything is free, obviously. It's social healthcare. Everything is free." 

To point out the problem with that, she pointed to Medicaid, which she admitted is known for causing headaches at time. "European healthcare is way less than Medicaid. There is a one-year waiting list for an echocardiogram that we do overnight here. We don't even think about it. In Europe, you have to wait one year. If you want to have it sooner, you can — but you have to pay." 

Tumminello said her father required physical therapy for a broken hip, and the surgery was free of charge but not done correctly. A second surgery was required. "They sent him home. If he wants physical therapy, he has to pay for it out of pocket," she said. 

Her two twin daughters live nearby in Florence, attending the University of North Alabama. She works in Jasper, "but when I'm off, I'm back to Florence to see my babies." She attends St. Cecilia's Catholic Church in Jasper.