After a pair of debilitating strokes at 49, she chose to help others recover
Posted in , Sep 25, 2018
All day I’d been unpacking, putting things away in my new apartment. I opened the fridge. Nothing in there. Not surprising, since I’d just moved in, but looking at the bare shelves, I couldn’t help feeling a kind of emptiness myself. I’d recently gone through a devastating divorce. My three kids were grown and on their own. There had been no point in staying on alone in our house in Cameron Park. I wanted to be closer to my mom, who was getting older, so I’d left Cameron Park and rented this apartment in Campbell, where I’d grown up.
A good place to get a fresh start, I figured. I had extended family here and old friends. What I didn’t have was a job, a new direction. Something to fill my life the way being a wife and mother used to.
Maybe I could start with filling this fridge, so my apartment would seem homier and I’d feel more settled. I drove to the supermarket. As I stepped out of the car, a wave of dizziness hit. Must have stood up too fast, I thought. I held on to a shopping cart to steady myself and pushed it inside the store.
I felt worse. More dizziness. Leaning heavily on the shopping cart, I went back to the parking lot. I felt as if I was going to pass out. As if I might die. I looked up at the sky. Please, dear God, don’t take me until I see my kids. I saw a man standing beside the car next to mine. I handed him my phone. “Please call 911,” I said. I opened my door and sank into the front seat.
I reclined the seat and lay back. “They’re on the way,” the man said, returning my phone.
Soon an EMT was by my open door. I pushed myself up. “I’m feeling better now,” I said. “I’ll be okay.”
“We’ll check you out anyway,” he said, patting my arm.
To my chagrin, he and his partner strapped me onto a gurney and wheeled me into the ambulance, where they wrapped a blood pressure cuff around my arm. “Are you in any pain?” they asked. “Experiencing any numbness, chest pain, difficulty breathing?” I answered no to all questions. “Did you just take a shower?”
“Why?” I asked.
“Your hair is sopping wet,” he said. “Your blood pressure is 243 over 140. That’s dangerously high. We’re taking you to the ER.” That’s when I knew something was really wrong.
Mom met me at the emergency room. I floated in and out of consciousness, losing all track of time. Doctors ran tests but couldn’t determine what was wrong. The nurse suggested I go home and get some rest. But Mom wasn’t having any of it. Strokes ran in our family. My dad suffered an ischemic stroke at the age of 39 and died of another, massive stroke 10 years later, when I was only 13. My older sister had had a hemorrhagic stroke that left her partially paralyzed for the past 16 years. The doctors agreed to admit me to the hospital for observation.
That morning, at 3 a.m., an aneurysm—a weakened blood vessel—ruptured in my brain, causing a hemorrhagic stroke. I was rushed into surgery. Surgeons found the rupture and clipped the blood vessel. If I hadn’t been in the hospital when that blood vessel burst, I would never have survived.
I was released from the hospital after three weeks. I felt good but tired. There didn’t seem to be any lasting effects of the stroke. Now, I told myself, now I can restart my life. I could finally move forward. I looked around at the empty walls of my new apartment. What was I meant to do? I was only 49. What was my new direction?
I’d only been home for a week when I was brought down by another stroke, a more serious one, and rushed to the hospital again. This time, recovery was not going to be so easy. There had been damage to my brain. I needed to relearn how to walk, talk, do daily tasks. There were huge gaps in my memory. My oldest daughter had called the ambulance; I know that only because she told me later. I barely recall the three months I spent in the hospital. There is only one moment I remember, a conversation I overheard, a doctor telling my mom, “Rita’s going to need help 24/7 for the rest of her life.”
“No!” I wanted to sit up in bed and shout. I couldn’t do this to my family. Mom was 80. She’d already spent years caring for my dad and my sister. I didn’t want her to have to do it for me. But there was no other choice. I moved into the spare room at Mom’s. Therapists made their visits, several times a week. A speech therapist, a physical therapist, an occupational therapist. I shuffled into Mom’s living area to meet them, holding on to my walker for dear life.
One afternoon, as I was in the bedroom where I stayed, my gaze fell on my statue of Jesus—the statue of Divine Mercy. His right hand was raised in blessing; his left hand was touching his heart. His eyes seemed to see right through to my frustrations and fears. “I know what you’re going through,” he seemed to say. “I have suffered too. You can turn to me. Trust me.”
Trust. That’s what I so desperately needed. A new life could come only by trusting God. Trusting when all else seems to have failed. Trust when trust seemed impossible.
The exercises sounded simple when the therapists explained them, but they were so hard to do properly. Grounding my feet evenly to steady my steps. Standing on one leg with my arms stretched wide to improve my balance. Making my mouth form words, one by one. Putting words together in a sentence. Saying what was in my head.
My speech therapist would show me pictures and ask me to describe what was happening in them: a woman in a kitchen with a plate and towel in her hand, a child on a stool that tipped as he reached for a cookie. “He wants a cookie,” I would say, the words stumbling out of my mouth. At least it was a full sentence. She’d point at objects in the pictures. “What’s this?” she would ask.
“What’s it used for?”
“Cutting things.” It was as though I were a child again myself, relearning everything.
“Let’s go for walk outside,” my physical therapist said one day. “This time, without the walker.”
She must have seen the fear in my eyes. “I won’t let you fall,” she said.
Taking those first few steps down the sidewalk, I felt so shaky, I might as well have been walking a tightrope across Niagara Falls. How was I going to make it to the end of the block? With each step, though, I grew more confident, the sun warming my hands and my face. True to her word, the therapist didn’t let me fall. But then, by the end, I hardly had to hold on to her.
I came inside and glanced at the statue of Divine Mercy. “Trust,” I murmured to myself. I’m trying to have trust, Lord, that I will live independently again.
Things that I’d always taken for granted were lost to me. I’d read a few sentences, and the therapist would ask me about what I’d read. I couldn’t answer. Couldn’t remember. My short-term memory was shot.
“It will get better,” she said. “Just keep at it.” I kept at it.
After six weeks, the insurance-covered outpatient therapy came to an end. But not the work of recovery. If I was going to become independent again, I would need to keep working at it. One day, when Mom wasn’t looking, I grabbed my car keys and slipped out of the house. I didn’t want to go far. Up and down the driveway would be enough. I just needed to see if I could do it.
My foot hovered over the brake, then the accelerator. I clutched the steering wheel and started the engine. I looked down at the gear shift. I put the car into drive and went forward a few feet. Then R for reverse. Up and down the driveway, back and forth, that was all. When I came inside, Mom asked where I’d been.
“I want to drive,” I said sheepishly.
“Not by yourself,” she said. She started riding with me in the front seat, like driver’s ed at 50.
My body and brain needed rest to recover from the trauma of my strokes. I took long naps every afternoon. One afternoon, I woke up reliving the most vivid memory.
I lay in a hospital bed with people in dark blue scrubs rushing around me. Someone—maybe a nurse?—stooped over me. I had the sense that I was in a recovery room, that I’d just come out of surgery. “Rita? Rita, are you okay?” she asked. Then she touched my arm, and an intense wave of love surged through my body. As if Jesus had laid his hands on me.
At that moment, i knew what I wanted to do when I was completely recovered. Go into the medical field, like that nurse. Care for people the way Mom had cared for my dad, my sister and me. That would be my new direction in life.
Against all odds, that is what has happened. I started out as a volunteer at the same hospital where I’d been a patient. My short-term memory issues made scrolling through the information desk computer to help find a patient’s room challenging, but with each task I could feel my confidence grow. In time, I came to know that hospital like the back of my hand.
I enrolled in evening classes to become a medical assistant. The other students were half my age. I didn’t let that faze me. What I struggled with—since the stroke—was reading comprehension. A friend suggested reading the material out loud. That made all the difference.
Two years after my stroke, I earned my degree. My first job? Patient care liaison/medical assistant at the office of one of my own stroke-care doctors. At the end of one of my appointments with him, he asked if there was anything else he could do for me. “Yes,” I said. “I need a job!” And he gave me one.
When I saw stroke patients who had suffered the way I suffered, who wondered if there was any future ahead, who felt trapped in their own bodies the way I’d felt trapped, I could say, “I know what you’re going through. I’ve been there.” I was able to give them hope.
Now I’m working as an independent living specialist, helping people with developmental disabilities live and work independently—something else I understand. I’ve started a nonprofit called A Stroke of Luck (astrokeofluck.org), to work with stroke survivors one-on-one. This is the exciting new direction I’ve been led to take since my strokes. That sense of emptiness I once felt is gone. Life is full and fulfilling—more than I wished for, more than I ever could have asked for.
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