Transforming Recovery Through Innovative Research

Gift supports physical medicine and rehabilitation research, honors Joseph Dragonette
Rita Dragonette, center, poses with RUSH doctors
Pictured from left to right: Karla Wente, DPT, Sol Abreu-Sosa, MD, Rita Dragonette, Sheila Dugan, MD, and Ravi E. Kasi, MD

When Joseph Dragonette, a Chicago business and civic leader, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, or MS, in 1976, he decided to go against his doctor’s advice. At the time, the general recommendation for patients with MS was to avoid staying physically active. However, Dragonette sought support from trainers and physical therapists.

“Joe was a renegade,” said his wife and business partner, Rita Dragonette. “Physical therapy was his salvation.”

Joe began working with Sheila Dugan, MD, in the 1980’s. Today Dugan serves as professor and chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at RUSH, though when they met, she was beginning her first career as a physical therapist. Dugan helped Joe regain his balance and work on his walking, including doing exercises in a swimming pool.

“Sheila gave Joe another 10 years of life,” Rita said.

Joe Dragonette

Joe spent 20 years with Daniel J. Edelman Public Relations (now Edelman), including 10 years as president of its flagship Chicago office. He subsequently served as chairman of his own agency, Dragonette, Inc., and its successor, GCI Dragonette, building it into one of the premier independent agencies in the country.

Joe combined his business acumen with his personal experience with MS — which he battled for nearly 25 years — to testify on behalf of the Americans with Disabilities Act. He also served as a member of the President’s Council on Employment of People with Disabilities and formed Project Access, an organization offering resources to businesses on how to comply with ADA guidelines.

“Joe was a strong and thoughtful man — just an amazing person,” Dugan said. “Through our time together, I witnessed his commitment to continuing his work, despite the challenges he faced. He demonstrated that people can make an impact — no matter how they move through the world.”

In honor of Joe, Rita established the Joseph and Rita Dragonette Funds for Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Research, the first donor-named, expendable research fund and the first endowed fund in support of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at RUSH.

Rita feels the gift is in good hands.

“Sheila is a great listener,” Rita said. “As you work with her, you come to really trust her. Her approach is inclusive — not only when it comes to listening to patients but also in collaborating with other physicians and researchers.”

Examining diverse research questions today and in the future

The $250,000 gift allows Dr. Dugan and her team to advance collaborative research projects, investigating a range of issues that impact patients’ lives and outcomes. Due to the structure of the gift, it will support research now and in perpetuity through an endowed fund.

“This funding supports high-priority pilot research that follows up on our faculty’s observations from working with patients,” Dugan said. “It will allow us to advance research and gather data that leads to new interventions that benefit patients.”

This year, funds were awarded to support three projects. The first, led by Ravi E. Kasi, MD, associate professor and residency program director in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, will examine if there is a correlation between patients developing depression after a stroke and how their support system views people with disabilities.

As a next step, Kasi hopes to see if providing education on disability to patients and their support systems after a stroke helps improve symptoms of depression.

The second project, led by Karla Wente, DPT, will involve qualitative research to better understand the experiences of women in midlife and menopause who have urinary and sexual dysfunction.

“Women during these life stages are underserved as it relates to their pelvic health needs,” Wente said. “This funding will allow me to champion a racially diverse group of women in midlife by highlighting their often-hidden voices.”

Finally, the third project, led by Sol Abreu-Sosa, MD, medical director of inpatient rehabilitation, will examine how factors, such as socioeconomic status, family support and gender, affect patients’ ability to return to their communities after inpatient rehabilitation.

Patients who are unable to return home are typically recommended to continue rehabilitation services in long-term care facilities, which are costly. Abreu-Sosa aims to establish stronger protocols to facilitate patients’ safe discharge — reducing health care costs and leading to a higher quality of life.

“Getting data behind these understudied issues is key for us to be able to impact a new level of patient care,” Rita said. “Joe would have espoused this work. He would appreciate how innovative it is and the real changes this research will make in peoples’ lives.”

If you’re interested in learning more about how you can support collaborative research at RUSH, please contact Brigid Mullen, executive director of major gifts, at or (312) 942-4460. You may also make a gift online.

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