PHYSICIAN SPOTLIGHT: Erasmo A. Passaro, MD
Director, Comprehensive Epilepsy Program, Bayfront Medical Center
ST. PETERSBURG - You can find one of Erasamo Passaro’s favorite quotations in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. The words appear on a plaque beneath a portrait of George Bailey’s father, Peter, founder of the savings and loan in mythical Bedford Falls:
“All you can take with you, is that which you’ve given away.”
Based on Passaro’s contributions in the diagnosis and treatment of epilepsy, he will have his hands full when that time comes.
Passaro is the architect and director of Bayfront Medical Center’s Comprehensive Epilepsy Program, one of only five Level 4 referral centers in Florida, the highest designation by the National Association of Epilepsy Centers. He proposed and established the program in 2001 at Bayfront, where “no one else on the west coast of Florida deals with the complexity of cases that we do, the ones that require the complicated (brain) mapping, particularly in areas of function,” he said.
Passaro, an epileptologist, leads a multi-disciplinary epilepsy team, the only one of its kind in Pinellas County, he said, which includes an epilepsy neurosurgeon, a neuropsychologist, neuroradiologist, a social worker, a speech pathologist and specially trained technologists. That team’s expertise is available to every patient, he said. “We all discuss the complicated epilepsy cases and determine if someone is a candidate for epilepsy surgery, or the best procedure for that (patient).”
“It’s an incredible team of people who put their egos aside, who are passionate about what they do, and who bring unique (talents) to the table,” said Passaro, 51.”The synergy that comes together as we change people’s lives is inspiring. I’ve worked in multiple places (that specialize in epilepsy) and the team we have here is just great.”
Even when he’s not at Bayfront, Passaro is remotely connected to his patients there. He can monitor them from his office practice, Florida Center for Neurology, or even from his home, he said. “I can see their seizures while it’s happening, or I can just see their brain activity at the time.”
Passaro said he sees about 80 patients a week, referred by other neurologists and primary care physicians, but “many are self-referred just because of our reputation ... they find us on the web.” Some travel thousands of miles, noting one who recently came from Hawaii. “When you have complicated illness such as epilepsy, and people are at the end of their rope, they are willing to travel to a place that can find answers,” he said.
Passaro is determined to raise awareness about epilepsy, which will affect one in 26 people at some point in their lifetime. He said it can take anywhere from 6 months to 38 years to be diagnosed, and it can affect anyone at any age. Given that it is “one of the major neurological illnesses,” and has direct and indirect costs of about $12 billion a year in the U.S., he said, epilepsy research is woefully underfunded. For example, epilepsy receives less funding than Parkinson’s disease, even though it is more common, Passaro said. “There needs to be greater public awareness because this is a disease that has major ramifications for people’s lifestyles.”
Emphasis must be placed on educating health professionals, he said, noting that at Bayfront “everyone is trained in how to recognize seizures, know what to do and not be frightened by them.”
Cindy Whittaker has had a front-row seat to observe the evolution of the epilepsy program at Bayfront. She has worked at Bayfront for 36 years, and has been manager of the neurodiagnostics program for 25 years. Her oversight also includes the epilepsy, sleep study and non-invasive cardiology centers. Whittaker said she helped Passaro set up the program, the rooms and the diagnostic staff.
“Dr. Passaro is a brilliant – and I don’t often use that word – physician,” said Whittaker. “He is very passionate about epilepsy. He is very focused on the person and how epilepsy affects their everyday lives,” she said.
“We try every possible way to help the patients. Sometimes it’s surgery. Sometimes it’s changing medications. We have patients for whom that changes their life because now they can work, now they can drive, now they can interact with their families. But even for the patients we can’t help in that way, (Passaro) is constantly looking for the newest medications, the newest treatment, the newest (clinical) trial,” she said.
“Compassion is one of his greatest traits. He gets very emotionally invested in his patients,” said Whittaker. And Passaro is willing to invest time in treatments, she said. “These are patients who require a lot of patience. It’s not like treating someone with a broken finger or the sniffles. These patients, because of their epilepsy, bring a lot of baggage. Many can’t drive, can’t work, they have difficulties having a social life. It’s a very needy population,” she said.
By the time they get to Passaro, they’ve already been through multiple physicians and medications, Whittaker said, but when they become aware there are epileptologists who focus on their problem, they are very grateful.”
Passaro said his decision to help others crystalized when he was very young. After he was held back in first grade in Bayonne, N.J., he “became incredibly motivated to succeed because I had been labeled not one of the smart kids.” Then, when he was 11, his mother, an Italian immigrant, was diagnosed with scleroderma. She nearly died, but “the illness was forestalled at Brigham Hospital in Boston,” Passaro said. “This was a moment that changed my life. ... It propelled me to pursue this profession.”
Passaro’s education and training are extensive and can be reviewed at www.floridacenterforneurology.com. What you won’t read there is that he lives in Tierra Verde, is the father of two children (ages 10 and 9) and the husband of Velicia, an ARNP he married 14 years ago and is now his practice administrator. “She she fills in the blanks for my weaknesses and she supports my strengths. It is good to have a wife who has an understanding of my work and the demands on my schedule,” he said.
Passaro finds time to jog about 4 miles five days a week, and one of his favorite weekend pastimes is gardening with his children, in whom he also is planting seeds of spirituality.
“Faith is central in my life,” he said. “Scripture lets you know who you are and your place. It centers you. First, that you have reverence and that you’re not the center of the universe. Second, to be thankful and forgiving.”
That outlook goes hand-in-hand with advice instilled in him by his grandmother, his mother, and now his wife. “Be thankful for your time, your talents and your treasures. You don’t own them; you are a steward of these gifts and you have a responsibility to serve others.”
Peter Bailey would approve.