On a cold Minnesota afternoon on January 24th, 2003, at the age of 29, I suffered a massive stroke. I was young, very active in a Marketing and Sales career, as well as in our church, healthy, and happily married to the man of my dreams, Dainis. I had just resigned from my position at an airline and had accepted a new position at our church as the Office Manager. I was at work at our church when my arm started feeling numb and very heavy. While 911 was being called, my left leg went numb, and I fell from my chair. We didn’t know it, but a blood vessel had ruptured on the right side of my brain, due to an undetected malformation I had had since birth (Arteriovenous Malformation).
The ladies at the church, who were with me, called my parents, who lived nearby. I remember my Mom arriving and heard her speaking to me, but I couldn’t move my left side and I was beginning to slur my words. I was having trouble breathing, and became unconscious by the time the paramedics had me in the ambulance. During the twenty minute drive from the church to a trauma hospital in St. Paul, the paramedics worked to save my life. When we made it to the hospital, a CT Scan detected the malformation, and I underwent a five-hour emergency brain surgery to stop the massive bleed. The amount of blood that had flooded the right side of my brain was the size of a fist.
The surgeons were able to stop the bleeding, but I spent the next seventeen days on life support in a drug-induced coma. The nurses and doctors struggled to get me stabilized as they tried different medications, battled pneumonia and fevers, and worked to get my blood and brain pressures under control. My family said I was surrounded by machines, the room was kept very dark and quiet, and I was not allowed to be touched. After I came out of the coma and was finally able to breathe again without the ventilator, I went to a general medical unit to continue my recovery, learning how to swallow and eat again.
I had physically lost the use of my left side. On February 26th, I underwent yet another ten-hour brain surgery to remove the malformation, so that a new bleed could not occur. I had no idea what my family was going through, and what was at stake. But, the surgery was successful, and I was admitted to the hospital’s rehabilitation center for in-patient therapy. I remember trying to sit up for the first time, and I was like a rag doll. My whole center was based on my right side, and I had no balance. All I could do was lay there while the therapists worked my muscles.
Like a baby, we started from the beginning. First I learned to sit up and stay balanced, then stand, and eventually walk a few steps with assistance, an AFO, and a cane. My schedule included physical, occupational, speech and pool therapies everyday. I went home on March 19th in a wheelchair. Dainis and I went to live with my parents, who had moved to MN the year before to be closer to us, and they were my main caregivers while Dainis was at work. Unfortunately, on May 5th, Dainis was laid off from his position with the airline industry, but soon found a new position and moved right away to Phoenix. With my parents help, we sold our house, and theirs, and bought two new houses in Phoenix. Looking back, I don’t know how my family physically and emotionally did it all.
Unfortunately, another obstacle occurred on September 21st, right after we moved to Phoenix, when I developed epilepsy. The brain started reacting to the scar tissue from the brain surgeries and the blood deposits from the hemorrhage. The seizures began as a thirty second stare, but over time, progressed to eight minute convulsive seizures. After two years of working with medication changes, and battling side effects, we were finally able to get the seizures under control. Between the challenges of my disability and the epilepsy, we had no life. I was unable to assist with any daily chores or activities, and social functions were out of the question. In August 2005, in order to survive, we ended up selling our two new homes in Phoenix, and buying one larger home in which we could all live together.
When we moved to Phoenix, we discovered a fabulous intensive neuro therapy program in Phoenix, Southwest Advanced Neurological Rehabilitation (SWAN), which was founded by Dr. Kay Wing in October 2003. Their therapy program is based on the philosophy that through repetition, motor function can continue to improve after a stroke, and the brain has the potential for significant recovery many years later. I started in this program in November, 2003.
At that time I was walking only with assistance using both a cane and an AFO, had no strength in my left shoulder, and no movement in my left arm and hand. My progress has far exceeded what my doctors and therapists thought after my stroke. So many medical professionals believe that the only recovery a stroke survivor can make is within the first six months post stroke. After that, gains are generally minimal.
Research shows that the brain does have the ability to relearn and a stroke survivor can recover some of the function they lost. I have learned so much while being a patient at SWAN. They have instilled in me the self confidence and tools needed to get back to the life I had before the stroke. Thanks to them, and my own perseverance, I have made great progress.
As each day passes, I am getting stronger, and all of our lives are getting easier. We can’t get back what we have lost, but we still have each other, and that is the most important gift of all. My family’s help, love, and devotion through this journey goes beyond words. This isn’t how any of us planned for life to be, but we have all come together as a family, and a team, to get through it.
Today, I continue to work on therapy at home and with the therapists at SWAN, and recovery will always be a part of my life. I will always have a disability and be a stroke survivor, but I have gotten my life back. I am active in our church and have had a chance to lead a ministry that helps others in a time of need. I have wonderful girl friends and am active in our women’s ministry. I can drive and do many things around our house. My husband and I can now travel and participate in a lot of the activities we enjoyed before my stroke.
The best news and greatest gift of all is my husband and I are now on an adoption journey to Colombia, and we are so excited! When we first started praying about and researching adoption, we felt led by God to adopt, parent, love, and share our lives with brothers. We look forward to nurturing them, raising them, and creating lifelong memories with them.
When I was lying in a hospital bed almost eight years ago not knowing what our future would hold, we never imagined a family was possible. Research states that the type of stroke I suffered from is the most lethal, and it accounts for about 10% of strokes. Only 20% of stroke survivors that suffer from this kind of stroke recover enough to be functionally independent. Each one of us all have a disability and struggle of some kind but with perseverance and prayer, everyone does have the potential to make some recovery. God was watching over me that cold winter day on January 24th, 2003. He has blessed us through all of our trials and challenges, and we are so thankful for our faith.