“I have a joke for you. How do you know when date night is over? When your wife comes downstairs dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and tries to talk to you but her speech is so slurred you can’t understand her and you realize half her face is drooping. Ok, it’s not very funny. I know. That Friday night I was the subject, so I’m going to use my ‘humor deflection’ whenever I feel I want or need to.
My younger two kids were at their cousin’s birthday party overnight and my husband and I were enjoying a glass of wine with our neighbor and my mother-in-law. My 16-year-old had joined us and we were chatting (actually, THEY were fiercely debating and I was looking on with some amusement) about politics and the application of the Constitution. When we had solved the world’s problems, my eldest left for the homecoming game and the adults finished their glasses and headed home. My husband and I realized we had the house to ourselves for a few hours. This NEVER happens, so we decided to go out back and relax in the hot tub for a while. We looked at the stars and chatted about life until we were hungry and came back inside. I decided to change out of my wet suit while my husband stayed in the kitchen.
Upstairs, I sat on the bed and started to scroll through the emails on my phone. I had a bunch of junk I needed to delete, and I started checking the ones I wanted to move to the trash. As I was doing this I realized I felt really really tired. The kind of tired where I wasn’t sure my eyes were totally open and my body started to sink down into itself. (You know when you wake up in the middle of the night…but you’re not totally awake and you try to wake up some more but your body literally pulls you back down into sleep? That kind of tired.) I also got hot. Not ‘on fire’ hot but definitely hotter than I was in the hot tub. I pushed myself up to sitting straight and realized my throat felt weird too–as if it was catching on itself. This all happened in an instant, and I was still trying to focus on the emails. Next I realized I was having trouble tapping the screen with my right hand. My left was working fine, but I couldn’t get the fingers on the right side to touch the phone correctly.
I transferred the phone to my right hand, and then lost the ability to even hold it. As I watched my phone fall in quiet slow-motion to the carpet I finally became aware enough to know something was really wrong. I did a mental ‘systems-check’ and ascertained the entire right side of my body was very numb and heavy, but the left side felt ok. I pushed myself up to standing, and while my right leg felt utterly numb and dead, it somehow held me. It even listened to me when I told it to walk to the bathroom. At this point I weirdly wasn’t scared. My personality is one that ‘rises to the crisis’ and I somehow inherently knew THIS was a crisis, and I needed to act now and process later. I stumbled into the bathroom to look at myself in the mirror, and at that point I knew for what was happening. The right side of my face looked a couple inches lower then the left. My eye was sagging, my mouth was sagging. Fear tried to sneak its way in but I pushed it away. Act, don’t feel. I dutifully went through the steps I remembered from nursing school: try to smile: only one side of the mouth goes up. Stick out your tongue: it deviated far to the side. Raise your arms: one didn’t go up very far at all.
I was having a stroke.
At this point my brain went into hyper-activity mode. I remembered seconds mattered and I needed to get to the ER as soon as possible. I also realized I did NOT want to do that wearing a bathing suit! I quickly changed into jeans and a t-shirt, which wasn’t easy using only half your body. I remember I had trouble with the button on the jeans, but I used my left hand to pick up my phone and stuff it in my pocket and grab a pair of shoes. I don’t remember how I got down the stairs but I do remember my husband’s face when I walked into the den. He looked up from his phone totally confused at my appearance. He asked me, ‘Is everything ok?’ I tried to answer but only weird sounds came out. I had to super slowly and carefully articulate the words, ‘I think I need to go’ and he finished for me, ‘To the hospital? Do we need to go to the hospital?’ I nodded yes, and sat down on the floor to put on my shoes. He raced upstairs to change. From my spot on the floor I called my husband’s uncle who lives a few houses up. He’s a physician and, at this point, some doubt was creeping in. I was starting to think maybe I was just crazy and I wanted ‘professional confirmation’ this was really happening. I realize now that was my first bout with ‘denial.’ He answered and I tried to tell him about my symptoms…that I couldn’t feel the right side of my body and that my face was drooping and that I was having trouble talking (duh!)…but I’m not sure how much he caught of that. His reply was simply that he would meet us at the hospital.
I remember thinking it must really be serious if he wanted us to go right away and that scared me. I knew I didn’t have time to be scared though, I needed to ACT. I made myself think about what I would need at the hospital and used the countertop to help myself balance as I stumbled toward the garage. Grabbing my purse from my my car (Insurance card! Be practical!) I used my left arm to pull myself into my husband’s truck. I remember thinking how weird my mouth tasted so I grabbed a piece of gum so my breath wouldn’t be bad. We had some trouble figuring out which entrance to go into at the hospital, and when we finally found the right door my husband rushed ahead of me to the admitting desk. I clumped along behind him. I wanted so badly to be somewhere someone else could take care of me and I could stop thinking. I don’t know what my husband said, but when I got up they had a paper ready for me to sign. I couldn’t hold the pen very well, but I scrawled something and the next thing I knew I was in a wheelchair and people were rushing me toward the big double doors. I remember there was a little boy waiting to be seen: he had a magazine wrapped around his arm and was holding it gingerly. He looked at me in astonishment as the nurses took me in first and I felt so bad for him.
From that moment it was a literal whirlwind. A CT showed my brain wasn’t bleeding, so it was off to the MRI. That was a little bit harder because the staff wasn’t sure what magnetic power they could use on me due to a little plug I have in my heart. I remember the nurse googling it, I and was thinking—‘this can’t be OK!’ I remember asking them to call the hospital in Kansas City where I’d had my surgery to have them verify it. All this time my speech was getting better, then getting worse. Better, then worse. Nurses and doctors were circling my bed (as well as a couple of EMT students learning to start IV’s!). I finally made it into the MRI. It was so quiet in there, and I was alone. That’s when fear began to take little baby steps toward me agian. I thought, ‘If I die, I die. But If I die because the magnets on this MRI rip this metal plug from the wall of my heart it’s going to hurt really badly.’ I remember forcefully slowing my breathing down and trying not to move while super hot tears ran down my cheeks. Once I was convinced nobody had gotten the power wrong and that plug wasn’t going to come forcefully shooting out of my chest, I had a chance to think about what was going on. I’d like to believe that any medical professional who could have access to my thoughts during the 20 minutes in the loud metal tube would have been utterly impressed with my reason and logic. I’d LIKE to believe.
I am not a candidate for a stroke; I’m young(ish) and a runner. I eat pretty well, don’t smoke and my blood doesn’t have the propensity to clot too much. I take aspirin every day! I have been having a lot of migraines lately though. Those might be from little clots. Hey, maybe this is a screwy migraine. One of those hemipeligic ones I’ve learned about. That can totally mimic a stroke. And that would probably be caused by a vasospasam…which could tighten and loosen…which could be the reason my speech is getting better then worse! There! Diagnosis complete! Who needs the hospital?
As I exited the MRI room there was a new person standing there. Looking very official in her long white coat, she greeted me and introduced herself as a neurologist. I said ‘hello’ and realized my speech was good again. As she walked back to the ER next to my wheelchair I explained what my certain diagnosis was, and how even though it wasn’t a great experience to have it was way better than a stroke. The doctor was strangely silent as I was helped back into my ER bed and she pulled up some MRI images on a screen. ‘Look here,’ she said, mincing no words and pointing to a bright white line in an otherwise darkish area of the left hemisphere of my brain. ‘You’ve had a stroke.’ She continued talking about the pros and cons of starting TPA (a clot-buster commonly used to treat acute strokes) but I don’t think I really heard her. I nodded appropriately and let her perform another stroke-scale evaluation, but wasn’t really able to engage in what was happening. Then she said something about needing to consult with someone and stepped out. At this point my husband’s uncle looked at me and said, ‘Can I please call your dad now?’
And my husband said, ‘Can I please text your Bible Study and ask them to pray now?’ ‘Yes.’
The doctor came back in and I asked her if there was anything I needed to be on the alert for when I went home. She stared at me slightly incredulously, ‘I’m not letting you go home. You are having an acute stroke!’ From there the whirlwind turned into a tornadic frenzy of activity… there were more tests that night and the next morning then I can remember. I was moved into another room with people who did neuro-checks every 15 minutes. The decision was made to transfer me to Kansas City to the hospital where I’d had my heart procedure done 5 years prior. They had a Level One Stroke Team and were able to do additional testing if needed, plus they were familiar with my heart device. Early that next morning my mom and my eldest son came to the hospital. I could see how scared they were so I tried to make light of things, tried to reassure them I was OK. The transfer team came in and put me on a stretcher, and they both started crying. I remember smiling and waving and trying to joke to lighten the mood. Then I was bundled into an ambulance and carted north. I asked the driver to PLEASE abstain from lights and sirens; I was already past my limit of drama that day and he agreed. I was so out of it for that 3 hour ride that I didn’t feel much of anything, which is probably good because I was strapped down riding backwards and had to desperately go to the bathroom, not my idea of a great road trip!
I spent the next four days in the KU hospital. My dad and step mom met us in KC and my dad’s experience as a critical care pulmonologist helped ease our minds as we tried to figure out what was happening. I had just about every possible test invented and a few I suspect were created just for me! Over and over I heard from the doctors, ‘You’re not our typical stroke patient! Your heart/arteries/clotting factors/vessels/cerebrospinal fluid/blood tests/blood pressure/cholesterol look amazing!’ Lovely compliments certainly–it’s not every day one’s cerebrospinal fluid is compared to ‘champagne!’ However, it left us with no good answers. The best theory is that my stroke was caused by a migraine; that’s happened in rare cases. That doesn’t mean it WAS a migraine unfortunately, it just means a certain kind of migraine can actually cut off blood supply to the brain by means of a micro-clot or a severe vasospasm, causing an acute stroke. So, by diagnosis of exclusion, we can say my stroke was either caused by a migraine or it was cryptogenic (of unknown origin). Either way the treatment is blood thinners, a small heart monitor that was implanted in my chest, migraine-preventatives and what seems like 89 other medicines. After all the testing, when they were sure I wasn’t going to have another immediate stroke, it was time to go home and heal. And hope.
So now what? Will it happen again? Maybe. Maybe not. Apparently 1:3 stroke victims have a recurring stroke in the next 5 years. Only God knows what’s in store for me. But, considering how well He worked out the details and every facet of my experience last time, I know He’s there and will take care of me no matter what happens. For now it’s enough to keep on moving forward…to keep living. Do I worry about it happening again? I’d like to tell you I don’t, but the truth is, it’s always in the back of my mind. When I get a migraine, when I have a ‘normal’ headache, when I stand up too fast and get dizzy or my arm goes numb from laying on it. I do a complete mental self-assessment to make sure I’m OK. I want to be fine, to be as ‘normal’ as I was before this happened. I have worked very hard to ‘prove’ to everyone I can do all of the things I did before; that I’m still the same person. But in reality, I’m not. That stroke brought me up close with mortality. It shoved a very harsh reminder in my face that we are not guaranteed another year, another day, or even another hour. That stroke changed my perspective without anything too horrible happening. I have friends who have gotten testing done because of what happened to me. I have reordered my priorities. I have remembered how to be humble enough to accept help. I have learned to slow down and just be present. I am not the same as I was before, but perhaps my perspective is actually better.
God’s done a beautiful job of restoring me. Physically I am back to where I was before, but I do get tired more easily. When I am tired I have trouble getting my words out or finding the right words. I also have what I’ve learned to call ‘warning headaches.’ If I’m in a stressful situation (be it homework help with a teenager or a huge gathering where I have to speak to a lot of people) I have this flash of pain that goes from behind my right eyeball to the back of my skull. It’s only momentary, but I use it to remind myself to take a deep breath and proceed with caution. I have had a lot of people ask me if I’m mad or if I’m asking Him, ‘Why?’ or if I’m scared. Truthfully? I don’t understand why it happened, but I’m not angry about it. It just DID. God didn’t cause it, but He certainly helped me through it, and I feel a huge sense of thankfulness for that. Am I scared it’s going to happen again? Well, I don’t really WANT it to, so I’ll do what I can to prevent it. But, I might get hit by a car tomorrow. Or a meteorite. Or worse…something could happen to my family. If I really deeply considered and focused on all the things that COULD happen I wouldn’t be able to leave my bed in the morning. So I don’t obsess. I choose not to live in fear. I just remember what’s going to happen is going to happen: I pray for protection for my friends and family and I do what I can to keep all of us healthy. I’ve also been working on learning how to sift out what’s important from all of the daily debris that clutters our lives. When you’re faced with such solid evidence that everything you know and love can be taken away and changed in one instant, it makes it easier to remove the things that don’t matter.
So please forgive my bad joke at the beginning. I could blame the stroke for my altered sense of humor, but that would just be lying: it’s always been off! However, I am totally going to pull the ‘stroke card’ next time I can’t remember someone’s name, or birthday, or commitment I made, or when I forget to bring something. Good can come from anything you know, we just need to see it.”
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