‘Babe, were you drugged?’ The entire right side of my body was limp. I opened my mouth but words wouldn’t come out.’: Stroke survivor details recovery journey, ‘I got a second chance at life’

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“As I handed my jacket to the coat checker, I noticed just how cold the large ballroom was. I knew as more and more people arrived, the room would soon heat up. My boyfriend, Noah, and I thanked the coat checker and proceeded onto the dance floor where there were hundreds of people already consumed in small talk as is always an occurrence at company Christmas parties. One of Noah’s newest employees approached us and eagerly introduced herself to me.

As she was saying her name, I started seeing black dots. My vision started dissipating. I opened my mouth to speak and my words wouldn’t come out. The room started spinning. My legs felt wobbly. ‘What is happening?’ I grabbed Noah’s hand and tried to ask for water but all that came out was a slur of gibberish. I began stumbling as my legs gave out. Noah, wide-eyed and panicking, asked me, ‘What is going on? Babe, were you drugged?’ He tried to pick me up but couldn’t, as he had just had foot surgery and was unable to put pressure on his left foot. As I laid on the dance floor in the giant ballroom, I could feel hundreds of eyes on me. I could feel their whispers and side-eye glances. I was mortified.

Finally, some doormen rushed over and propped me over each of their arms, leaving my legs dangling and feet dragging and they escorted me outside. ‘Please can you just pick her up? She clearly cannot walk,’ frantically exclaimed Noah. ‘No, sir, I am sorry. We cannot as that is a liability. This is the best we can do.’ Once outside, I army crawled to the nearest bushes and began projectile vomiting. The men kept asking, ‘Ma’am, what did you take? It’s okay, you can tell us.’ Unable to properly speak, I mustered up all my might to mumble, ‘Nothing.’

With the help of the men, Noah and I got into an Uber and went to the ER. As I was laying in the hospital bed, my vision began to come back clearer. I noticed my entire right side body was limp. I will never forget not being able to lift my hand to sign the hospital admittance papers. As the doctors were in and out of my room, I remember repeating to myself, ‘It’s okay, it’s going to be okay,’ not knowing if I would ever regain mobility in my right side body again.

Courtesy of Claire Villalobos

The ER doctor came into my room and said they would like to give me a CAT scan to better understand what was going on. The machine looked like something from NASA. I laid down on the cold hard plastic, keeping my head as straight as possible as instructed, and breathed deeply as my body was slowly transported into this large tunnel of a machine. I am dreadfully claustrophobic so for me, the CAT scan felt like an eternity. Once it was over, I was wheeled back into the ER room.

As I was waiting in my room with Noah, he insisted on calling my mom. I turned to him, holding back tears. ‘No, it’s fine, no need to call my mom and worry her.’ Then the doctor appeared. ‘Claire, your CAT scan results indicate you have a lesion in your brain and therefore had a stroke.’ The words echoed in my head. What? A stroke? I am young, fit, and healthy. A tenured yoga instructor of nearly a decade. Me? Have a stroke?!

Courtesy of Claire Villalobos

The doctor then suggested I go to the hospital via ambulance. Tears began to pour down my face. I sobbed. Uncontrollably. Am I ever going to be the same again? The ride in the ambulance was a blur of emotions. How is my life going to be now? As a yoga instructor, movement is my whole entire world. My livelihood. My medicine. Will my stroke permanently inhibit me from having full mobility?

Once I arrived at the hospital, I looked up at Noah as he clenched my hand. I could tell he was holding back tears. During tough situations, Noah has always had a very soldier-like mentality and rarely shows his emotions. For him to be fighting tears shattered my heart into pieces. I felt this strange twinge of guilt as if this was somehow all my fault. He could feel my pain and uncertainty. He looked me in the eyes and said he was going to stay by my side the entire time. He not only kept his word but even slept in the tiny twin-sized hospital bed with me for the duration of my stay. I knew at that moment, he was my forever person and I was going to marry him.

Courtesy of Claire Villalobos

Once we got settled into my new room, the doctors let us know they would be running several tests in order to attempt to find out why the stroke occurred. Aside from the tests, an occupational therapist would routinely come into my room and help me regain my strength by coaching me through stroke rehabilitation exercises. Before I knew it, a week had passed of them running test after test. They drew so much blood from me I joked to one of the nurses I thought they are all vampires. During one of the routine nurse visits, they even drew 12 vials of blood from my arm at once! Within that week, they also performed a few more CAT scans. To no avail, they did not find any answers as to why I had a stroke.

Courtesy of Claire Villalobos

Amidst the tests, I worked diligently with an occupational therapist. He was a kind large handsome man with a warm smile. I immediately felt safe in his presence. The exercises mostly consisted of him instructing me to make facial movements such as smile, lift my eyebrows, and scrunch my nose. Other exercises were a little more in-depth such as lifting one leg or arm up at a time.

One morning, the occupational therapist came in and told me we were going to go for a walk. I was terrified because I hadn’t walked, let alone stood up, since the night of the party prior to my stroke. He pulled out a gait belt and said he would tie it around my waist so in case I fell, it would catch me. I slowly sat up and immediately felt light-headed. I was so weak. Feeling that fragile made me want to cry. I felt so broken. So helpless. With shaky legs, I timidly tried to step one foot in front of the other. My therapist kept saying, ‘Relax, you’ll be fine.’ I eased up and mustered up enough confidence to begin walking. The occupational therapist told me, ‘Okay, our goal is to make it all the way down the hall to the parking lot window.’ I took a deep sigh and gazed down the long hall. It was troubling to think something that fundamental seemed like such a feat, especially for a yoga teacher who is used to doing handstands on the regular.

After what felt like the longest walk of my life, I did it. I made it to the window. I gazed out the window and thought to myself, ‘Wow if only we could always celebrate such tiny victories and treat them as everyday miracles, there would be so much more happiness and positivity in this world.’

Courtesy of Claire Villalobos

Day after day, I lay in the hospital bed and gazed out the window, wondering if life was passing me by. I couldn’t help but want to beat myself up for taking for granted life outside of the stale white four corners of this holding space I was in. I barely had the energy or strength to get out of my bed and only really did to shower. I even had to use a bedpan when I didn’t have help to escort me to the bathroom. One morning, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and couldn’t believe my reflection. My hair was so matted, it looked like dreadlocks. At first, I was horrified. Then I realized appearance really doesn’t matter. Society teaches us to put so much emphasis and pressure on our looks, but when you are in the hospital fighting for your life, stripped away of all beauty products and materialistic items, it makes you realize just how petty and shallow all of the outward beauty and shiny objects we idealize truly are. I have always been one to preach do whatever makes you happy, but what if we lived in a world where outward appearance wasn’t judged and people focused solely on their inner beauty? This world would be a lot less ugly if you ask me.

Courtesy of Claire Villalobos

A couple of weeks went by and the doctors were still performing multiple tests. Finally, they decided to do an Echo Bubble test, which confirmed I had a hole in my heart I was born with. The hole was located in between the top two atriums. A cardiologist then appeared and told me I would need heart surgery in order to help prevent any future strokes. Heart surgery?! Does this nightmare ever end?

The cardiologist informed me the heart surgery consisted of the surgeon inserting a metal wire device through a catheter in my groin. The metal device, the size of a quarter, would plug the hole. He then showed me the device. Picture a wire dish scrubber, you know, the kind that almost looks like a flower? Yeah, that was to go inside my heart. I turned to Noah and again, the tears started flowing. All of this change out of nowhere happening so fast. One minute, I was at a company Christmas party feeling festive and jolly and the next, I was laying in a hospital bed being told I need heart surgery.

Thomas Do Photo

The morning came for me to have heart surgery. Noah and I were laying in the hospital bed when the doctor came in and said I would be transported to the surgery room. Noah gave me a big kiss and said, ‘I love you,’ and made his way to the waiting room. The doctor wheeled me into the surgery room. I remember lying on the hard metal table and staring up at the bright shiny overhead lights. With all of the medical equipment everywhere, it truly felt like a scene out of a movie. I was quickly put under anesthesia. Upon waking up, I saw Noah and my mom smiling over me. Pure relief washed over me.

The surgeon recommended I stay a few more nights in the hospital to recover as it was imperative I didn’t risk any internal bleeding or rush the healing process. The next day, as I was being escorted to the bathroom by my nurse, I felt extremely dizzy. With my arm wrapped around her shoulders and most of my weight leaning on her, I took baby steps and tried my best to find a stable walk. Once we made it to the bathroom, my head started spinning and I blacked out. The next thing I knew, I woke up lying on the cold bathroom floor and saw Noah’s bewildered face. A few seconds later, a team of nurses pushed Noah out of the way and pulled out defibrillators. ‘Claire, can you hear me?’ the nurse holding the defibrillator asked. I managed to whisper, ‘Yes.’ The nurses then lifted me up and carried me back to my hospital bed. My faint caused my incision to open back up so the nurses had to put pressure on the opening to stop the bleeding. It was an excruciating pain I had never felt before. I couldn’t help but scream out. I cried in sheer pain and out of pure exhaustion. To say I was over this nightmare I was living in is an understatement.

Shortly after the nurses got my incision bleeding to stop, the cardiologist came in. He explained my heart stopped for four seconds. I flatlined. He was unsure as to why but assured me everything was fine now and the best thing I could do was to simply rest. I gathered all of my strength to force a smile and thank him. I was trying my very best to remain in good spirits but felt as if I couldn’t catch a break. Life is hard and it’s moments like these that truly put your mental strength to the test. Can you breathe in the face of adversity? Can you remain positive and keep the faith no matter how many times you get knocked down? I have always believed in the power of positivity and at this moment, I knew I needed to give it my all to channel an optimistic mindset. I was going to get out of this hospital. I was going to continue living my life to the fullest. I was going to wake up from this nightmare and actually be thankful for this dark chapter in my life because ultimately it caused me to be stronger than before.

Courtesy of Claire Villalobos

Finally, the morning arrived when the doctor came into my room and said the words I had been longing to hear, ‘You’re going home today.’ I felt a wave of emotions pour over me. Something I have never felt so intensely. A combination of relief, gratitude, and pure love. Not only was I alive but was now able to actually continue living my life instead of trying to survive. I felt as though I got a second chance at life. A chance to actually live instead of merely exist. I vowed to never take for granted the precious gift of movement and heartbeat again.

Although it is quite painful for me to relive this memory, I have a calling to turn my pain into purpose. Now I make it my mission to ignite gratitude for movement and vitality through my online yoga and fitness website. A portion of the proceeds generated from my website go to the American Heart Association. Please join me in celebrating life through movement. From my heart to yours. Namaste.”

Edgar Vega Photography

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Claire Villalobos from St Petersburg, FL. You can follow their journey on Instagram and their website. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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