Member Spotlight: Sergio Aito
June 16th, 2019
Dr. Sergio Aito obtained his Doctor of Medicine degree in 1978 from the University of Napoli in Italy. He completed postgraduate training in anesthesiology, intensive care and pain therapy in 1982, also at the University of Napoli. He subsequently worked as an anesthesiologist and intensivist, which included the care of persons with spinal cord injury (SCI) in the intensive care unit setting. He served as an expert with the Italian Foreign Affairs Ministry for programs in international health cooperation in Egypt from 1986 to 1988, and in Palestine from 1989 to 1990. He was subsequently recruited to help develop a program in SCI care at Careggi Hospital in Florence. He became Medical Director of the SCI Unit, which soon served as a national model. He also became Director of the Department of the Regional Agency for Spinal Cord Lesions in Tuscany from 2004 to March 2011. Over the years, he taught and lectured extensively in the field of SCI medicine. He contributed multiple book chapters and numerous articles in the peer-reviewed literature.
Dr. Aito joined ISCoS in 1994 at a regional meeting in Cyprus. He has served as a Vice President of the European region, member of the Editorial Board of the Spinal Cord journal, member of the Council, member of the Scientific Committee, member of the Prevention Committee, and member of the WHO-ISCoS Liaison Committee and Ambassador for Albania. He was the principal organizer of the ISCoS 2009 meeting in Florence. In 2012, he earned recognition for his immeasurable contributions to the Society with its highest honor, the ISCoS Society Medal. He is the only Italian doctor so awarded to date. He has also served as Vice President and President of Societa Italiana Midollo Spinale (the Italian Spinal Cord Society).
Dr. Aito retired from active clinical practice in April 2011. He is currently Director Emeritus of the SCI Unit at Careggi University Hospital. He is an advisor in medicolegal processes involving SCI issues. He is currently working on the development of SCI medicine in Albania as the ISCoS Ambassador.
How did you become interested in becoming a physician?
I was attracted, when I was very young, by those physicians who are able to actively save lives in the emergency room. I was romantically attracted by that heroic job!
How did you become interested in the field of SCI medicine?
I became very emotionally involved and interested in taking care of persons with paraplegia and tetraplegia during my work in the hospital as an intensivist. I was particularly attracted by the comprehensive care model taught by Sir Ludwig Gutmann. I became convinced that working in the field of spinal injuries was the best way to make contributions in knowledge and committment to the people most in need.
Coming back from a health cooperation experience for three years in developing countries (from 1986 to 1990), I was approached both by people leading the Association of SCI and by my hospital directors to develop a health program for SCI care. I started with a period of observation and learning in Germany (with Prof. Paeslack at Heidelberg and Prof. H.J. Gerner in Bad Wildungen) and in the United States (with Prof. Ed Carter and Prof. William Donovan at TIRR, as well as at Craig Hospital). I returned to Careggi Hospital in Florence with an organizational plan, incorporating my knowledge of intensive care medicine and respiratory management. First, I implemented a regionally-based acute stage care plan for SCI that was particularly lacking. I then implemented a model of multidisciplinary care, centralizing it in Florence, but also involving the main health centers of the Tuscany region, an area with a population of 3.5 million. Shortly thereafter, the Center became a national model.
What have been your main areas of interest within the field of SCI/rehabilitation medicine?
Acute stage management, respiratory management, deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism prevention, pain management, and spasticity management.
What have been the most important innovations in SCI medicine that you have witnessed in your lifetime?
First of all I would like to mention the progress in the organization of care in the early hours following spinal cord trauma. In the last 10-15 years, the prognosis in SCI has dramatically improved due to prompt and appropriate care in the first hours, including the appropriate use of surgical procedures. Second, I would mention the establishment of centralised, specialised centers that are increasingly recognised as the most appropriate places to administer comprehensive care for persons with SCI. Third, the progress in the effort to modulate neurological dysfunction, through the use of electrical stimulation, botulinum toxin, baclofen, and chemical and surgical neural blocks, etc. Finally, the development of increasingly sophisticated systems for standing and walking artificially, both with and without the aid of electrical stimulation. Unfortunately, I am not as optimistic as I would like to be about the efforts towards neural repair. I continue to hope, however, that scientists and researchers will be able to provide more promising answers in the near future.
Please tell us about your most memorable patient encounter.
When I was in Bad Wildungen with Prof. H.J. Gerner, I met a young man affected by locked in syndrome who could communicate only with the movements of his eyes. His strength and his positive attitude towards life justified the enormous efforts that the health system and surrounding people were giving to him.
What have been your most memorable/favorite activities you have participated in as a member of ISCOS/IMSoP?
I have played an active role in many ISCoS activities over the years. But among all, I like to mention my participation to the “Landsort group,” a think tank led by my friend Claes Hultling, from Stockholm. Over the years, he gathered many active clinicians and researchers for an intimate and joyful workshop to better understand the current worldwide situation in SCI care and to elaborate the most important steps that the SCI community should be taking to improve quality of life for persons with SCI. This group met for the first time in Landsort, a very small Island in Sweden. The group went on to meet and work yearly until the New Delhi meeting in 2010, where we held a very interesting workshop entitled, “ride the wave of passion,” which was aimed at motivating the younger generation to join our community. Finally, I would like to say that ISCoS has always welcomed me as a member of its family. I have made friends with many members of the Society.
What personal and professional accomplishments are you most proud of?
I consider the gratitude of my patients and their families as my most important personal accomplishment. Receiving the ISCoS Society Medal in 2012 was a professional milestone.
What keeps you busy/busiest these days?
I enjoy traveling, going to the seaside, doing physical activities, reading for leisure, reading to stay up to date scientifically and medically, giving advice to former patients, following my family in their activities, and trying to meet my best friends as much as possible.
Who is the person(s) you would most like to thank and why?
My wife for her immense love and support she gives me daily. My sons for the same reasons. My colleagues who have taken care of my health when necessary. Finally, I would mention Prof. John Ditunno, for his support since my first years at ISCoS.
What interests do you have outside of work? What do you like to do on your days off from work?
Since I am retired, every day is a day off work for me. I like to play guitar and sing, jam sessioning whenever possible.
Where are the most memorable places you have traveled? Are there any places you have never visited that you hope to visit in the future?
The most memorable place I have traveled to in my life was India in the 70’s. I remember that experience as the most filling to my eyes, my mind and my soul. It represented a cornerstone in my young life. I have been traveling a lot across five continents. Some day, I would like to explore China, Japan and New Zealand.