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.

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