Skip Navigation and Go To Content

Search UTHealth Houston


Improving lives while saving her own: Nursing expert develops clinical study while in treatment for her own health issues

Improving lives while saving her own: Nursing expert develops clinical study while in treatment for her own health issues
Philanthropy allows Seema S. Aggarwal, PhD, RN, Assistant Professor at Cizik School of Nursing to pursue important research that can help stroke survivors.

While in waiting rooms during her extensive breast cancer treatments, Seema Aggarwal, PhD ’16, RN, journaled to sort through her complex emotions and discovered a newfound urgency to improve other people’s lives.

“Having cancer put my life in perspective. I realized my time might be shorter than I thought,” Aggarwal says. “I started applying for research funding in my own field while receiving my treatment.”

Aggarwal's work at Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth Houston focuses on testing commercially available technology to help stroke survivors. Her current project examines the use of virtual reality goggles to regain cognitive and upper extremity functioning. Using Oculus Quest 2 technology, patients choose between four game scenarios—a chef, mechanic, office clerk, or store clerk. Each game becomes progressively more challenging as the participant develops the ability to follow sequential steps and improve their cognitive and motor skills.

“The purpose is to keep people functioning in the community. A lot of stroke survivors go on disability because they can’t do their old jobs, but they can learn to do new jobs,” Aggarwal says.

She saw this firsthand when her 48-year-old father had a stroke. He became depressed when he could no longer work as an engineer, but then he went on to a successful new career in property management. Aggarwal notes that targeted technology for stroke survivors has not improved much since her father’s incident 30 years ago. Stroke patients are also getting younger, increasing the need for rehabilitation programs.

“I can’t tell you how many stroke survivors reach out to me to ask what they can do to recover,” Aggarwal says. “A lot of studies look at technology that is not commercially available, but that’s not useful to families like mine. I study technology that people can easily purchase for home use.”

With many programs being sold now, Aggarwal wants to determine which ones are safe and effective and relay that information to patients—a goal she describes as a perfect research area for nurses.

“Nurses are implementers; that’s our strength. We can discover which technology is best and what the most beneficial regimen is. Not all technology is safe, so we need to be the testers so that stroke survivors have guidance,” she says. Her multidisciplinary team includes experts in nursing, technology, physical medicine, neurology, occupational and cognitive therapy, and gerontology.

“Most stroke survivors do not get rehabilitation services, which is the most essential factor in functional improvement. Not everybody can afford it or lives in a place with access,” Aggarwal says. “This technology we are looking at brings affordable rehabilitation into their home.”

Philanthropic funding was directed to the project by Constance M. Johnson, PhD, RN, through the Maria C. and Christopher J. Pappas Family Distinguished Chair in Nursing, and also by the UTHealth Houston Institute on Aging.

“I would not be able to do this research without philanthropy. Very little funding is available for preliminary studies in this area, but our donors make this possible,” says Aggarwal, whose work is also supported by a UTHealth Houston PARTNERS grant.

Philanthropy also enabled her to become a researcher. While she had been interested in the field, Aggarwal was a single mother and needed her job as a nurse practitioner to support her family. A scholarship from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo empowered her to obtain her PhD from Cizik School of Nursing and launch her research career.

“There is no way on Earth I would have been able to get my doctorate without that scholarship,” she says. She finds special joy in talking to study participants and recalls a mother who drives her adult son more than an hour each way because of how much this project helps him.

“She asked me who came up with the brilliant idea for this study and wanted to tell me how it will help so many people,” Aggarwal says. “That’s incredibly touching for me, and it’s only a result of the philanthropic funding I’ve received.”

With future funding, Aggarwal hopes to study the safety and effectiveness of other commercially available technology—in particular ones to help recover cognition and lower mobility strength—to provide guidance to stroke patients on the best technology for them.

site var = uth