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Stroke awareness month has a special meaning to me. I am a stroke survivor. Having a major event such as a stroke changes your outlook on life

Stroke awareness month has a special meaning to me. I am a stroke survivor. I have struggled with the decision to share my story many times, but ultimately, my hope is that it may help others to have some insight and awareness of this devastating experience.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, stroke is a leading cause of death and disability both globally and in the U.S., where approximately 800,000 people experience a stroke each year. In stroke, "time is brain," as a stroke is a brain attack, and immediate treatment is of the utmost importance to avoid loss of function and mobility.

My story

Sept. 27, 2019 was like any other day.

I arrived for my job as a reporter at the Central Oregonian newspaper office. I checked my email and immediately began working on my next feature story. I chatted briefly with our office manager and laughed at one of her recent anecdotes.

Upon sitting down at my computer, I suddenly felt a wave of dizziness wash over me—and my keyboard seemed to temporarily shift under my fingers.

I felt a wave of panic, sensing something was terribly wrong.

What I did next was unprecedented and made little sense. I went into the bathroom, where I would be alone to gather my wits and my composure. I locked the door and immediately felt a need to sit down. My legs didn't feel like they would hold my weight, and I felt an overpowering dizziness and overwhelming sense of dread.

In a matter of minutes, I found myself on the floor and leaning into the corner of the room. My blood pressure felt like it was over the top and blood pounded in my ears. I was in a long, narrow room, and in the corner farthest from the door. I tried to pull myself up from the floor, and I couldn't lift my leg, my arm, nor could I move anything on my right side!

Instinctively I knew I had suffered a stroke. I also knew I had to get help as soon as possible. I had always paid attention to the acronym F.A.S.T., a nationally accepted means of identifying stroke early. F.A.S.T. stands for F (face drooping), A (arm or one-side weakness), S (garbled or unintelligible speech), and T (time to call 9-1-1). The informercials were often on television and the information to bring awareness now resonated with me as I found myself in need of help.

I didn't have my phone, so all I had were my wits. I had to get to the door on the other side of the room. I tried sliding with my left side, which proved extremely difficult. I basically was dragging my right side along the floor with my left arm and pushing with my left leg. This required an incredible amount of exertion and even though it was probably 15-20 minutes, it seemed like hours to get across the room. At one point, I tipped over onto my right side. I had to use all my remaining strength to get upright to reach the lock and doorknob.

There are double doors between the restroom and the main office, so all I could do is sit in the doorway and wait for someone to come through those doors. I knew someone would have to use the restroom — but how long would I wait? I was sitting in front of a full-length mirror, and I looked at my pale face and saw that my mouth was drooping on my right side.

Finally, our editor walked through the double doors, and immediately went in and closed the men's restroom. I got ready to make noise as soon as he came out. Would I be able to shout? Would he find me? I heard the door open, and I began to yell, "Help!" He came over to me and immediately asked, "What's wrong?"

I remember replying, "I have had a stroke." He immediately called 911, and thankfully help was literally about one block from our office. It seemed like they were there as soon as he hung up. From that point, until I was flown to Bend, everything seemed like it was in slow motion. I was conscious throughout the entire thing, and I was able to communicate — but with a great deal of difficulty.

They had to pick me up to put me on the stretcher because I couldn't move. As soon as I got on the stretcher, my muscles began to shake uncontrollably, as I had used every ounce of my strength to get to the door.

The clock begins

Our office manager immediately alerted my husband that I had been taken to the emergency room with a stroke. The EMS and ER staff on duty did an assessment and sent me off for an immediate CT scan. Upon bringing me back to my room, the doctor informed me that I had suffered what appeared to be an ischemic stroke, which means that it was likely caused by a blood clot. There was no bleeding in my brain.

The clock was ticking, and from the beginning of my symptoms, two hours had already passed. The window of time to administer tissue plasminogen activator (tPA), a medication that dissolves blood clots and restores blood flow to the brain, is three hours from onset of symptoms. TPA limits the risk of damage and functional impairment from a stroke if administered in that window of time. It can be a lifesaving drug, but also has potentially dangerous side effects.  

The doctor began asking me a series of questions. Did I have high blood pressure? Any blood thinners? Had I undergone surgery in the past couple of months? My answer was no to all of his questions, and he informed me I was a candidate for tPA. I had an occlusion on the left side of my brain which was causing the symptoms to my right side, and the drug they gave me could also cause internal hemorrhage. Patients must remain flat on their back in bed for 24 hours, under close surveillance.

The doctor gave my husband and I a few minutes to discuss our decision and emphasized that time was short. It was now 2.5 hours. They would need to start the IV immediately. We gave permission, and my husband had to sign the permission form for me. Only approximately 5% of the population receive this life-saving drug, because it is based on availability, time frame, and the candidate's eligibility. The one thing that prevents many patients from benefitting from it is the timeframe.

My IV was started, and the nurses had to make several attempts since my veins seemed to have disappeared. The helicopter was on standby. I was loaded with my IV and transported to the Bend stroke unit. I was placed in ICU and was to spend the next 24 hours flat on my back with a catheter.

It was a stressful time, but I felt God's hand throughout the hospital stay — I knew that He was in control and would watch over me. I prayed that I wouldn't hemorrhage internally, and that the medication would reverse some of the damage.

Within hours of getting into my bed, I found that I could lift my right arm and leg. With each hour that passed they became stronger.

I awoke on my second day in ICU (during which I had not gotten much sleep) to begin my long road to rehabilitation. My 24-hour window came quickly, and it was suddenly time to transfer to the stroke floor.

I had not hemorrhaged! I had the best possible outcome, which I have no doubt was God's hand. When the nurse came in that morning and asked how I was feeling, I replied, "It feels like yesterday was a bad dream. I feel almost normal."

Unexpected barriers

I walked out of the hospital three days later. Upon going home, I immediately encountered some unexpected barriers. For the first couple of weeks, I felt dazed. Just like a computer that had shut down unexpectedly, my brain felt like it had been reset.

The first three weeks, my mental healing was very difficult. I was essentially healing from a traumatic brain injury, and I slept a lot. My head would hit the pillow and I would be asleep. I couldn't focus on a task for any length of time. I couldn't sustain a conversation for any length of time, because I would become overwhelmed. Going out in public caused me panic attacks and a sense of foreboding. I was not prepared for any of these challenges.

My husband was there every step of the way and had a fountain of patience. In addition to my husband, I had some very good friends who didn't hesitate to be with me the second week I came home. They helped take me to appointments, but mostly, they were just there. In retrospect, I can say that your support system during recovery is very important.

My kids and family checked on me often, and their constant support also made a big impact. Most of my family live on the other side of the mountain, but thanks to technology, I heard from them often. People who have been through a major life event know how important it is to just hear from your loved ones.

At my three-week landmark, I wrote my first story for the newspaper. It was healing to be able to construct the story, and to know that I still had the cognitive skills required to articulate the voice of a Vietnam veteran. Of all the tasks I resumed to get my life back, writing was the least challenging and the most healing. It was my form of communication and the way that I expressed myself.

I also began rehabilitation therapy twice per week. The staff at St. Charles Rehabilitation were incredible. I graduated after eight to ten weeks and continued the road to getting my strength and balance back.

My recovery has been bumpy. Sometimes it's three steps forward and two steps back. In the beginning, it wasn't a matter of "pushing through it." I have been a very active person my entire life, and my friends have often referred to me as an energizer bunny. It has been humbling and difficult to be patient with my recovery because pushing too hard set me back during the first year. I was told that six months was the mark for recovery, and I probably would be at my new normal at that point. I would encourage folks who have undergone a stroke to not limit yourself by these milestones, as I have continually recovered — but not without a lot of determination and support.

Trusting God has been my main focus and knowing that He is in control — no matter how difficult things may be.

Takeaways

Having a major event such as a stroke changes your outlook on life. It tests your faith, and reaffirms your relationships with family, friends and most of all with God. You find out who your real friends are. I have had a couple of people make remarks like, "but you look so normal," upon finding out about my stroke. It is an invisible kind of injury. I retired from a job where I worked with youth with disabilities and I now appreciate how it felt in the beginning to have an invisible disability and to deal with that stigma.

I appreciate little things, such as going for a walk with my husband and my fur baby. I cherish each day, even when I am having a bad day. The pleasure of interviewing community members and telling their stories is therapeutic. Performing simple tasks was something I feared I would be robbed of and is a blessing that I thank God for each day.

I give myself grace when I don't accomplish everything on my list for the day, and I try to give more grace to others. I am reminded how we should never squander our time, and not put off reminding those we care about how much they mean to us. Do not take life and limb for granted. I was recently told by my doctor that I have made close to a full recovery from my stroke. I am definitely one of the fortunate ones.

We are not guaranteed anything in this world, except God's grace and forgiveness.


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