Mackenzi Pergolotti, PhD, OTR/L: A Leader in the Emerging Field of Occupational Therapy in Oncology

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Mackenzi Pergolotti, PhD, OTR/L

Mackenzi Pergolotti, PhD, OTR/L

Oncology occupational therapist Mackenzi Pergolotti, PhD, OTR/L, was born in Buffalo, New York. “I lived there until I was 6,” she shared. “Then my family moved around the state a bit, finally settling in the small town of Bath, situated near the Finger Lakes—a beautiful area in central New York.”

Curiosity About the Body Sparks a Career in Medicine 

ASKED WHAT generated her interest in health care, Dr. Pergolotti responded, “I was always curious about how the body works. My grandmother had a big impact on me growing up. She was one of the strongest women I’ve ever known, and I was always curious about her medical care, and how she was motivated to keep going through meaningful tasks, like knitting outfits for new babies or new sweaters to keep us all warm. And within our family, there were several people who had physical and mental challenges, so I think those factors sparked my passion for a medical career.” 

During high school, Dr. Pergolotti loved soccer; however, during her senior year, she dislocated her patella, which, although largely ended her soccer career, became the first step toward her career as a cancer occupational therapist. “After I was injured, I went to physical therapy, and my therapist actually convinced me to go into the field. At first, I aspired to work with injured athletes as a sports therapist, but as time went on, I began to think about therapy in more medical environments.” 

Igniting a Passion for Cancer Rehabilitation 

DR. PERGOLOTTI’S parents were hard-working small business owners, and family decisions, such as the college vetting process, were based on value. “I was looking for a good academic college, but financial aid was also high on the list. Russell Sage College in Troy, New York, offered a nice financial package and a great physical and occupational therapy program. So, I entered the physical therapy program in 1997 and did well. As I progressed through the curriculum, I learned more about occupational therapy and decided to change my major, and ultimately staying on for a combined BS/MS degree in occupational therapy.” 

She continued: “Once I switched to occupational therapy I flourished, realizing I’d made a great career move. That’s where I met my mentor Barbara Thompson. She was doing a small program working with children with cancer at the Ronald McDonald House. It was using expressive arts, what I describe as ‘arts without rules,’ that let the kids do whatever they felt like doing as an outlet to express their feelings throughout their treatment. So we would do all sorts of crafts and talk with the kids about what we’d done. It was a powerful experience. I did it for 2 years and from that moment on decided I wanted to go into oncology.” 

After receiving her master’s in occupational therapy in 2002, Dr. Pergolotti took a job at the Albany Medical Center, where she worked for about a year until a position opened at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “I called them immediately and said I want to work here. I said I want to spend my days working with children and adults with cancer. I wanted to build the children’s program, taking what I learned from my mentored training and bringing it to the clinic. A week later, they hired me, and I moved to Manhattan. I began as a staff occupational therapist and worked my way up to a senior occupational therapist. Shortly thereafter, I was appointed Assistant Chief of the Memorial Sloan Kettering’s occupational therapist program,” revealed Dr. Pergolotti. 

Making the Most of a Great Opportunity 

AT THE ONSET, Dr. Pergolotti was one of only three occupational therapists, and by the time she left Memorial in 2007, the program had grown to 13. “When I started, the rehabilitation leadership was open to new ideas and was totally supportive of occupational therapists in oncology. I had a great partner, Claudine Campbell, the occupational therapist manager, who shared my vision for oncology occupational therapy at MSK. We started with a pediatric program during which I’d see kids with cancer as inpatients and follow them as outpatients. Then we developed a program for adults with brain tumors, incorporating occupational assessments into their post-operative care and discharge planning. It was my favorite clinical position. I just loved it,” Dr. Pergolotti shared. 

Dr. Pergolotti still had more ideas. She met with the head of the pediatric program to propose an occupational therapy program for children undergoing bone marrow transplants. “He looked at me and said I should write it up as a research program. At the time, I felt I just didn’t have the skill sets to write a research paper, but he told me to go ahead and do it. That’s when I decided to return to school for my PhD,” said Dr. Pergolotti. 

“It is vitally important to help people with cancer have a good quality of life, throughout the cancer care continuum.”
— Mackenzi Pergolotti, PhD, OTR/L

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She added: “Oncology occupational therapy was still an emerging discipline, and what we did at Memorial was groundbreaking. I wanted to be in a position to move the field forward and make these valuable services available to patients with cancer across the country, not just those with access to a major cancer center like Memorial or MD Anderson.” 

Public Health 

IN 2011, Dr. Pergolotti began her predoctoral fellowship at the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. “The cool thing about the UNC doctoral program is you can really focus on what you’re passionate about,” said Dr. Pergolotti. She attained her PhD in occupational science and therapy in 2013 and was accepted to a postdoctoral research fellowship in the UNC Department of Health Policy and Management and the Cancer Outcomes Research Program. In 2016, Dr. Pergolotti became Assistant Professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy at Colorado State University, with joint appointments in the Department of Health Systems, Management, and Policy at Colorado School of Public Health, and an adjunct professorship in the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at the UNC School of Medicine. 

Asked about her interest in public health, Dr. Pergolotti replied: “I’m very interested in learning about the predictors, factors, and barriers associated with the use of cancer rehabilitation. A lot of this interest was driven by my own experiences in that my parents always struggled with quality health-care coverage. That was always part of our dinner conversation. There is a lot we can do to improve the quality of care for our cancer patients by employing occupational therapy, yet my research has shown there is an overwhelming majority of survivors, who even though they may need rehabilitation, do not receive the service. I found that the greatest barriers to receiving cancer rehabilitation revolve around determining who needs services and when, as well as issues of transportation and costs. Identifying these barriers to care can help us develop strategies to overcome them.” 

“It is vitally important to help people with cancer have a good quality of life, throughtout the cancer care continuum,” Dr. Pergolotti concluded. “I want my work to support broader access and systemic support of occupational therapy in cancer. We can break down these barriers to care and ensure that all cancer patients have access to the highest quality occupational therapists, who are trained in oncology to meet these special needs.” ■

DISCLOSURE: Dr. Pergolotti reported no conflicts of interest.