What It Feels Like To Have a Stroke at 41

EVERYONE has a story, and I am SO excited to share this story with you today.  Let me introduce you to my friend Kate. She is an amazing mother (our sons are close friends), a talented photographer, and a very creative spirit.   She was also shocked several years ago when she learned that she had suffered a stroke at only 41 years old.  Today, Kate is thriving despite the ongoing challenges of stroke recovery.  She is doing so well that she even wrote the first GUEST POST in Still Chasing Fireflies‘ “What It Feels Like” series where she recounts the days immediately following her stroke.  I am SO GRATEFUL that Kate is kicking off this series on the last day of Stroke Awareness Month with a very important message, a message that just might save your life.  Please share Kate’s post with everyone you love!

Kate’s self-portrait today

I hope Kate also inspires you to think about your own story.  What is YOUR story?  What moment in time will live with you forever?  What experience have you had that others may not understand?  Please consider sharing it with us!

Here is Kate’s story.

One of Kate’s brain scans

It was mid-morning, Friday, November 9, 2012. I was still wallowing under the sheets when the heavens slapped me with a streak of sunbeam on my face beckoning me to get up. I knew it was about time for me to get out of bed, but the sheets were warm and the sickness had been going on for 2 weeks then, transforming my once sanctuary of a bedroom into an infirmary. But soon the situation would change. I would no longer be living in ignorance because the mysterious affliction would be given a name. And the name would change me forever, kidnapping me from that bliss of an unconscious life to an overdue time of reckoning. 

 I had yet to feel the temperature outside that morning, but peeking through the window I saw the trees sway as the technicolor leaves danced in the wind, so I imagined it was crisp and cold. The sky was sunny and bright and inviting, so for all intents and purposes, the day should have been a fine day to be productive. But I was unable to rid the pounding in my head. No reason to get out of bed that morning, I argued, figuratively and literally. I had several real and invented problems at the time but the throbbing, stabbing, heavy head was not an invention.

The problem with my heavy head was that I had fallen down the stairs thirteen days prior and the accident left me with an extremely painful and lingering headache. I was told by an emergency doctor that I had sustained a concussion and the hospital sent me on my way with prescriptions for both a painkiller and a muscle relaxant. And so I waited for days for the headache to get better. 

Left to face yet another day of pain, I had little options other than perusing the television channels for entertainment. My husband, Eric, had been in his basement office for most of the morning, and the kids had been in school since 8 o’clock. Aside from the snoring cat on my bed and the low volume of an old movie, the house was pleasingly still when it finally happened.  
With no thematic movie music to signal that the moments ahead would be more exceptional than the moments before, my right arm inexplicably went limp and fell on the mattress. I looked at the right hand on my lap, so completely conspicuous from the left, and it had been rendered lifeless, spiritless, without sensation and feeling like nothing but a cold piece of meat. I picked up my wrist with my left hand and the fingers hung like dead, dangling tentacles. 

In a desperate attempt, I violently shook my right arm with my left hand, trying to bring my right side back to life. How many minutes I violently shook it, I do not know. Five minutes? Ten minutes? 30? My memory is blotchy. Whatever the amount of time it was, the sensation finally came back, but it was not the same. My body was no longer one. I envisioned that it was cut right down the middle, connected only by faulty wiring. Even though my anxiety lessened, the moment was almost too much to bear.

The moment was scary and surreal. I put it back into my mind like it had been a dream, and with good defense mechanisms for denial it seemed inconsequential to tell anyone what I had just seen or to ask someone to bring me to the hospital. I didn’t want to scrutinize the reasons or sound an alarm but I knew something was probably wrong. Really wrong. Did I want to know that something wrong happened there, or should I keep it to myself and move on? Accepting it or doing something about it needed courage but I could not muster it. I rearranged the pillows that rested on the headboard and continued to watch the rest of the movie. 
Denial is a powerful thing.

And so later in the afternoon when my speech slurred, Eric read that a possible side effect from the muscle relaxant was slurred speech. It made total sense to us. So I continued to stay in bed, hardly interacting with anyone into the early evening until my stepson, Henry, came into my room to say goodbye. He was leaving for his mother’s house for the weekend and as he left he said, “You sound kind of strange.” He was annunciating something that I was already saying to myself.


Kate’s self-portrait a few months after the stroke

The evening came in quickly and all I wanted to do was sleep, so with no announcement to anyone, I slept. That night was the first night that I did not tuck my six-year-old son to bed. There were no kisses, no hugs, no I love yous, no alarm clocks, no clean teeth. 

I have no idea what time I fell asleep that night. 

The next morning, I got up very early and immediately showered. At that point, I still hadn’t mentioned the paralysis to anyone, including Eric. As I showered, the warm water stung my skin on my right side like prickles from a cactus. Suddenly, I felt a new sense of urgency. Suddenly, something was undoubtedly wrong. 

Suddenly, fear gripped me. 

Eric had woken and gone downstairs. After a quick shower, I grabbed my robe, went downstairs and met him at the kitchen table. I stood against it, grabbed a pen and tried to write something. The result was pure gibberish. I wasn’t able to put down anything logical, or even illogical, on the paper. Since last night I had already been suspicious about my ability to write because someone had texted me and I wasn’t able to text them back.

“I can’t write,” I slurred.  “Something is wrong. I can’t write.”

It was at that time that we both agreed it was time to go to the hospital again. 
If incoherent speech, brief paralysis and broken cognitive skills don’t give you a hint to go to the hospital, then what does? I thought, how stupid of me that I hadn’t gone to the hospital sooner! 

Denial is a powerful thing.

With a methodical scurry, we all got dressed, got in the car and drove to the nearest hospital. For me it was a confusing trip, fraught with extreme trepidation. And the longer Eric drove, the more I convinced myself that I was surely dying. I thought of my guileless young sons in the backseat, and my soul melted with guilt, positively certain that whatever I was dying of, I did this to myself.
I needed to be a better mom.
I needed to be healthier.
I needed to be a better person.
I bargained with God by saying my Act of Contrition. 
After the longest 15 minute car ride in my life, we arrived at the emergency room. At the reception desk, I couldn’t provide my full name, so Eric took over the conversation for me and gave them some particulars about how I had been feeling and for how long and so on and so on. Hearing my symptoms, the hospital whisked us into the emergency room immediately. At that point, I definitely was scared. But scared of what?
After a few minutes in an examination room to get personal information, health insurance cards, and vital signs, I was rolled into a CT scan room. I had just been at the emergency room for a scan one week earlier because of my fall, so the scene felt like deja vu. When the whooshing noise of the scan became louder and the red lasers rotated around my head, I looked upward, sighed, closed my eyes and prayed. 
Back in the examination room after they completed the scan, we all waited for news. I don’t remember how long we were waiting; in fact, I really don’t remember what we were even doing or talking about. I don’t remember wanting to talk about anything at all. I was in my thoughts, in my mistakes, and in my regrets, thinking about the year that had transpired and how life can turn on a dime. Eric and I were just married in January of that year, full of passion and good intentions with a new blended family of seven, and then found ourselves in the middle of our fair share of bad decisions and happenstance – unemployment, financial distress, and the perplexing affliction. The once lush lawn of our new home was spiraling into mud, and I spent days and weeks in despair. But the desperation didn’t seem to matter anymore. In that room my eyes were fixed on the bright, fluorescent overhead light. I tried not to blink so that I could take the moment in as much as possible. In the light I saw a collage of good things – laughter, kisses, places, dreams, plans, everything that was going to happen, everything that I had forgotten.
I was already mourning them all.

When I was brought back to reality by the sound of a doorknob, my destiny finally revealed its bad hand. A doctor opened the examination room with determination, and with a somewhat anticlimactic tone he said, “Well… you’ve had a stroke.”

At least I know what I’m scared of now. At least it has a name. 

Kate (and Kate), using her story to help others

Kate would like to thank Eric Sorenson and Dawn Hosmer for their editorial assistance with this post.  I would like to give Kate a HUGE thank you for sharing her story and for helping me to get this very exciting new adventure on the blog off to a powerful start!  If you have a story (and you do) and you are interested in sharing, please reach out to me!  You don’t have to be a writer to guest post.  I can help you!  Think about it!

You can read more about Kate and her journey on her personal blog, The House of Revelry, at http://thehouseofrevelry.blogspot.com.

Finding Elizabeth

The Elizabeth that I knew lived in a nursing home.  She was elderly and frail.  I don’t remember seeing her stand or even sit up.  I remember her as a tiny, fragile lump beneath the covers.  Her lips were dry, and her words were mumbled, and she was hard for me to understand.

I remember that it smelled in that place.  It smelled like everything awful, and it smelled like the chemicals that tried to wash the awful away. I was five-years-old.  What I remember most is that I did not like to go there.

We went there because my mother loved Elizabeth.  She said that something tragic had happened to Elizabeth once.  She said the people closest to Elizabeth claimed that she had never been the same after that.  My mother had fond memories of her.  She knew Elizabeth.  She knew her heart.  But for me, at five-years-old, the two of us had nothing in common.  Elizabeth, to me, was lost.

Until I found her in a box of old letters.


In 1944, Elizabeth was living in Ohio with her husband, raising two children and devoting her time to her home and family, like most women of her generation.  Her eldest daughter had already married and moved a few hours away.  Elizabeth was probably still adjusting to this change, one of her chicks leaving the nest.  But Betty was safe.  She was happy.  She was protected and she was loved.  Elizabeth missed Betty, but she knew that Betty was okay.

Her eldest son, Charles Jr., however, was another story.  The distance between Elizabeth and her son did not escape her.  She could never, not even for one moment, take his safety for granted.  Every joy was tempered by her worry that Charles might be cold or hungry, depressed or homesick, or, worse yet, injured or imprisoned.

Charles had enlisted to serve in the United States military.  Somewhere far away, on the other side of the globe even, he was fighting in World War II.  Her heart was so proud of his selfless courage, but it was equally crushed by the weight of her fears for the safety of her son.

Portrait Closeup

Elizabeth listened to radio broadcasts and read newspaper articles about the developments during the war, but what was happening on the frontlines still seemed distant.  News was not instant, and the images were static.  Life at home continued, as normally as possible.  She had teenagers to care for, Lewis and Maxine, and her daily routines helped to keep her occupied.

And she had letters.

Charles wrote regularly, and Elizabeth wrote to him often, as well, sending packages to remind him how much he was missed.  He enjoyed her gifts, like the peanuts she sent that he shared with his friends and fellow soldiers.  Occasionally, he asked her to send specific things that he needed, and she always obliged.  He shared funny stories, like the time that a deer sneaked into the barracks and ate all of the snacks, and he told her about the Abbott and Costello movie that they had watched for entertainment.  His letters were upbeat and positive.  War didn’t sound so scary at all.

Letters from Charles never mentioned danger.  They never described exactly what he was assigned to do or even where he was.  He mentioned that he censored his letters so that they would be approved to leave the base, leaving Elizabeth to wonder what he was omitting.  He often looked forward to the day he would come home, and he always signed off with the same encouraging closing: “Thumbs up!”

As the oldest boy in the family, Charles was full of advice, especially for his younger brother, Lewis.  Even from across the globe, he advised Lewis about girlfriends and class schedules.  He told Lewis to keep his options open with the ladies, even though Charles himself was clearly sweet on one young lady, Doris, whose name was mentioned frequently in his letters.  He asked Lewis to send him pictures so that he could stay connected to what was happening at home.  He told Lewis what classes he should take in high school and was clearly disgusted, even in the midst of war, when his little brother did not take his advice.

Charles was thoughtful, as well, remembering his mother on important dates throughout the year.  He must have known how much she worried about him.  His Mother’s Day message in 1944, so simple and plain, was the most beautiful Mother’s Day gift that Elizabeth could have received while he was gone.  Her tears, as clear as glass, left no stains on the precious letters from her son overseas, letters that she opened oh-so-carefully.

Mother's Day

Elizabeth must have read her Mother’s Day note a thousand times before safely tucking it away in the box where she kept all of Charles’ letters.  Gently touching that paper, running her fingers across his ink on the page, was the closest that she could come to embracing her son.  To the world, these men in uniform were so strong and so brave.  But to her, Charles was so very young, hardly a man himself, really.  Just a few years before, he had still needed her advice, her reassuring touch, her loving care.  She had gently washed and bandaged his skinned knees not all that long ago.  Yet now he and so many young men like him had been entrusted to save the world.

Charles Closeup

Days and months passed, and Charles remained at war.  Elizabeth was comforted by his letters, but sometimes there were long spans between them, and this made her nervous.  If she waited long enough, another letter always came.  It would include an apology for the long delay, explaining that he had been quite busy with his responsibilities, although exactly what his duties were was a bit of a mystery.  Each letter provided some  solace, but Elizabeth knew that by the time she received it, time had already passed, and the reassurance of his safety was actually old news.  As soon as one note was received, she eagerly awaited the next.

In the meantime, Elizabeth loyally supported her son from afar.  She hung a  banner in the family’s front window for everyone to see and took Maxine’s picture in front of it.

Flag  Flag in Window

And she clung to a poem (author unknown) that criticized the discontent of those who weren’t directly in the line of fire.  How dare someone complain about rationing when her son’s life was on the line?


In January 1945, Elizabeth received a letter with a little more information than usual.  Charles’ letters had been few and far between for a while now, but in this one he shared, “We are now allowed to say that we are someplace in the Philippine Islands.”  What a relief it was to know where her son was actually located!  She could point to it on a map.  She could imagine the climate and the scenery where he was.  “I have picked up a few more souvenirs,” he said, although he explained that he wouldn’t be able to send them for a while.  Someday, she thought, they would look at those souvenirs together, and he would tell her interesting stories about the culture and the merchants there and how much he had paid for the beautifully crafted and exotic gifts.

In Phillipines

As always, Charles had asked for more letters.  Over the previous months, their letters, flying back and forth across the sky and over the ocean, had created an invisible web that kept them connected, mother and son.  Even when there was nothing to write about, Elizabeth kept writing.  She would write and write and write, about nothing and about everything, until she could finally see Charles face to face once more.

And there, in the bottom of the box, I found them.  The two letters, stamped March 19, 1945 and April 16, 1945.

In the first envelope, Elizabeth had neatly tucked a letter full of updates for her son.  The news from home was nothing out of the ordinary.  Lewis has a cold.  Maxine recently visited Betty.  The snow has melted, and Doris performed well in the show last night.

But the war still loomed like a dark cloud over the small town in Ohio.  Charles, of course, was abroad.  There was concern that John could be drafted after being reclassified to 1A.  And Chet, another local boy, was being held captive in an enemy prison camp.  “Thumbs up” was now “Keep praying.”

Return to Sender Close

And then there was a second letter from Elizabeth, a letter mailed in March of 1945.  Elizabeth wrote about the recent flooding in the area and how the mail had been delayed.  There wasn’t much to share, really.  The news at home was mostly uneventful.   The letter was a bit mundane.

But then, the ending.  A simple statement that was dripping with emotion.

“Have not heard from you for 5 weeks . . . Write.  Love, Mother.”

And their standard closing, “Thumbs up.”

Five Weeks

And something in my stomach turned, and my throat tightened at the thought of Elizabeth’s anguish, her desperate wait for a response.  The sadness rushing to my eyes threatened to interrupt the story when I realized that here, in this box full of letters from Charles, I was holding two letters from Elizabeth.  Two love letters from a mother to her son.  Two letters that she had mailed to the Philippines.

Two letters that should not be in this box of mail that she had received.

Two letters that confirmed that what she had always feared had come true.

The Elizabeth that I knew lived in a nursing home.  She was elderly and frail.  I don’t remember seeing her stand or even sit up.  I remember her as a tiny, fragile lump beneath the covers.  Her lips were dry, and her words were mumbled, and she was hard for me to understand.

My mother said that something tragic had happened to Elizabeth once.  She said the people closest to Elizabeth claimed that she had never been the same again.  But my mother loved Elizabeth; she had fond memories of her grandmother.  For me, at five-years-old, my great-grandmother and I had nothing in common.  Elizabeth, to me, was lost.

Until I met Elizabeth, a young mother of sons, just like me, a mother who loved courageously and prayed steadfastly and hoped fiercely for the well being of her greatest treasures, her children.

Until I found her in a box of old letters.

We often associate love stories with courtship and romance, but maybe, just maybe, there is no greater love story than the love between a mother and her son.