The Story of a Stroke Survivor
by Rhonda Petersen
THRIVEnet Story of the Month - April 2001
When I hear people say, "You don't look like you've had a stroke," I am perplexed. Since a stroke affects the brain and the brain is located inside the skull, what is a stroke survivor supposed to look like? I am not sure whether to begin teaching stroke education or to accept the remark as a tribute to my arduous journey through stroke recovery. After all, it's almost been ten years since the event turned my life upside down.
Over time, my brain has formed new pathways of adaptation and my spirit has endured through the loss of employment, divorce, and financial disaster caused by this catastrophe. Now, at the age of fifty-two, I view the stroke as a part of who I am. Now, I prefer to view my assets instead of my deficits. I choose to look at what I have learned through the experience.
In 1992, I had two strokes within days of each other. The neurologist said that I had been having "mini-strokes" or "Trans Ischemic Attacks (TIA's)" for years. All the physicians agreed that a congenital heart problem called Atrial Septal Defect was causing the strokes. After the first major stroke, however, I was not well enough to undergo the corrective heart surgery. First, I would have to build strength and endurance through physical therapy.
The right-sided strokes had rendered the left side of my body numb to the touch, heavy, and extremely uncoordinated. Peripheral vision was permanently damaged. It was difficult to stay awake, least of all alert. The brain stem swelling caused imbalance, dizziness, and at times a slowing of respiration. Stroke affected vital pathways in my brain, causing constant electric-like pain on the left side of my body.
After the second stroke, machines aided life support and the doctors decided to operate immediately. I had run out of time. Before the heart surgery, I wasn't concerned with life beyond the hospital walls. I was concentrating on staying alive!
After the surgery, Intensive Care, pneumonia, infection, and six weeks of in-hospital therapy followed. When discharged from the hospital, like a re-birth, everything seemed new and overwhelmingly exciting. I remember breathing the warm breeze of summer, feeling the rays of the sun against my cheek, and hearing the birds as if for the first time. I had traveled far in my journey of recovery; however, I was oblivious to any permanent life change and surmised that eventually I would return to my normal routine.
For the next two months, I attended outpatient therapy. I was unable to remember or recite a short sentence and counting skills were beyond my capabilities as well. I found I could only speak to the rhythm of nursery songs, when the beat ceased; my memory seemed to lose focus. Words would not connect from my mind to my mouth and I'd close my eyes to help visualize what I wanted to say. In the process, my voice became high-pitched and monotone.
While at home, I began to understand stressful situations experienced by my family. Our finances were in shambles. I was unable to resume full time employment. After the hospitalization, the medical bills had exceeded one-million-dollars and I was quickly dropped from our policy benefits. My medications continued to be about $800 a month. We had to sell the house. Our marriage was faltering under the strain. Our three teenage children were angry that their mother had changed, that their life had changed, and that everything was about to change again.
The stroke had severely curtailed my independence. Without my autonomy, my spirit would eventually shrivel like a plant without water. My memory could not store needed information about the past or the future, I literally lived in the present. Difficulties in processing information complicated decision-making. Nevertheless, I was determined to begin to take control of my life. It would take time for my brain to heal, but time seemed to be an enemy once again.
Our twenty-two year marriage ended in divorce and I began living independently. Because of the stroke, I was unable to drive, unable to understand the concept of money or how to make change for the bus or for food. Because of the stroke, I was having frequent seizures, I couldn't read, write, or comprehend newspaper headlines. But because of the stroke I found inner-strength, spirituality, a sense of humor, and an attitude about living in the moment that said, "I can not change what has happened but I can literally make change!" It was a statement of fact. It was my first statement of self-determination, like a Declaration of Independence. It was the realization that I could not change what had occurred but I was healing. I laughed for the first time in months.
All the while, I remained under the watchful eye of my neurologist who knew, as well as I, the unspoken alternative to not managing an independent lifestyle. My neurologist became my confidant and friend, allowing me as much freedom as I could safely handle.
Although my official therapy sessions had ended, I had not finished rehabilitation. I began classes at the local community college. I learned to tell time again and learned how to take the bus to and from school. I tape-recorded the few classes I attended and repeatedly listened to the lectures. I had all the time I needed to learn.
In 1995, I graduated from the community college, moved back to my hometown, and finished courses towards a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Minnesota Duluth campus. I enjoyed the exercise of walking to and from the campus. My textbooks were on tape and I studied before the classes began in order to place the needed information in long-term memory. In 1999, I graduated with honors in English and a minor in Communications and Professional Writing.
Over time, our children have grown. The adversity has tightened the bonds between us and rewarded us with a deep appreciation of the precious gift of life. While it is true that I missed out on some of their teen years, as a mother I have given them the gift of strength and courage to carry on no matter what stands in their way. They have also learned to adapt to life.
One of the highlights of our life is that I actually delivered my granddaughter. When my daughter was in labor, she requested that her mother, a former nurse, deliver her child. I had no idea of her request until the time came to welcome a new life into this world. The hospital nurses assisted me in the process and I will never forget the joy we experienced.
The story is far from over. In 2000 I began Peterson Press, a small business that supports others who are reaching out towards independence and adaptability while living with the effects of stroke. The Peterson Press provides speaking presentations to organizations regarding a stroke survivor's perspective of Life after Stroke. Also, we publish a humorous monthly newsletter entitled, The Ramblings.
The Ramblings is not only aimed at stroke survivors, but anyone and everyone who enjoys a bit of entertaining humor. Humor is extremely important to me. The ability to laugh at faux pas in life grounds me in reality. It indicates my growth in recovery.
Depression is a side effect of Stroke, as well as a high priority in this country from stress in the workplace to diseases caused by stress and long-term depression. If I can see the lighter side of life even though I have to deal with hard-hitting medical issues, I invoke hope to my readers and to my presentation audiences.
Hope is terribly important to hang on to. My readers and presentation audiences come from all walks of life but everyone needs a good dose of hope. Stroke, or any disease for that matter, is not a laughing matter. However, it is how we deal with the things that have happened to us that is either our making or breaking.
I have always kept a journal. I use my journal to gauge growth and the healing recovery of my spirit. I used some journal entries when I was in college writing short stories. Even though my intention was serious, the audience laughed until tears streamed down their cheeks. Everyone in class wanted another story, including my professors.
I had a choice. I could have been highly insulted at their misinterpretation or choose to hang on to it, perfect it, and use it as a skill in my arsenal of recovery. I chose to use it. The right sided stroke caused comprehension difficulties and verbosity. What a wonderful asset for a writer/speaker! It's a gift! And if you smile at that, you too comprehend a positive attitude.
For The Ramblings, I look for humor that is universal in it's approach. Subscribers can submit original humor and receive a byline with their city and state. By involving the reader, we return to a time of sharing stories around a potbelly stove. It's cathartic and wonderful.
I do not print articles that may cause pain to any religious, ethnic, or social group. Attacks are not humorous. But everyday living situations can be spun into tales of entertaining wisdom. I challenge the reader and my speaking audiences to take the negative and flip it to the positive. In the form of Garrison Keller and Erma Bombeck, I try to write about Midwestern values and being raised in a small town within my episodes of Flora and Fauna, Minnesota. Pretending is fun! It gets me back to seeing life through the eyes of a child again and knowing that child is still very much alive and well.
Audiences look forward to my stories and the hilarious antics they bring. Some of the most hilarious stories are those about my particular stroke recovery. A dating experience when my uncontrollable left hand wandered to an extremely embarrassing part of my dates anatomy. In the college classroom when my hand would raise, by itself, signaling the professor that I had a question, but when called on I had no idea what he wanted. Studying hard for exams only to forget where the classroom was located. Falling on the ice and ending up in the emergency room where the highest priority was my insurance card. Falling off a bike and breaking my affected left ankle, greeting the orthopedic surgeon like an old friend and asking for a reduced rate on anesthetic since I have no feeling in the ankle, gets the medical staff to laugh too. This is humor. This is hope!
Eight years after the strokes, I regained the ability to drive. So if you're out on the roadways watch for the Peripheral Visionary. She's the one who doesn't look like she's had a stroke.
--"The Greatest Strength Comes from Within" Presentation motto.
--"Where the Sixth Sense is a Sense of Humor" Newsletter motto