I have told the story of my stroke so many times that it seems more and more rehearsed upon each recitation. Each time, I read the reaction on others’ faces and reassure them that “I’m fine now, no one ever notices my deficits!” The recipient of my story often gives me a pained look with the inevitable “ I am so glad that you are ok now!” Each time I deliver my story, I convince myself a little more that it was no. big. deal.
“Erica, get over it, it’s been ten years. No one cares, no one wants to hear it.” That is the dialogue that plays over and over again in my head. I tell myself that I need to let it go. I tell myself that it’s over now and that I need to move on with my life.
I think, in a way, as a stroke survivor, (or anyone who has undergone a major health event for that matter), it is important to recognize the shift in our mind-body connection. In the most basic of ways, we are experiencing a betrayal of the worst kind—a betrayal by our very own bodies.
As I go forth and tell you my story, I am dedicated in telling you an original-non rehearsed version. It is here, with each ounce of truth being told, that I may finally forgive my body and move on from the negative effects of this treason, and embrace the bountiful lessons to be learned from this journey.
How it all started…
My story begins in the Spring of 2005, when I was a freshman in college. As the end of the quarter approached, the stress and pressure of my impending exams and steady diet of junk food lead me to come down with a bad case of Strep Throat. I toughed out my finals and then collapsed into my bed for a few days of “The Price is Right” and Gatorade. When I was ready to rejoin the world, I noticed that my left ankle had become quite swollen. I returned to the doctor where they tried in vain to drain it and ultimately put me on crutches. After about a week of shuffling around campus, my entire left leg swelled up. My doctor from the local campus clinic sent me into the hospital to have an ultrasound of my leg done. This is a pretty routine procedure used to check for blood clots. I was reassured by my doctor that this was really only a precautionary test just to ensure that there were no serious underlying problems.
I hobbled across campus to the adjoining medical center where I had a doppler study done. As the ultrasound tech zeroed in onto one of the arteries in my left hip, she commented on how I had a large DVT. “What is that?” my 19 year old invincible self asked. She politely explained that a DVT is a Deep Vein Thrombosis, or more simply, a blood clot in a large vein or artery. She informed me that the results would be sent to my physician and that she would take the proper steps in treating me.
I remember vividly meeting my mom later that day. My mom, upon hearing that something was going on, hopped on a ferry to come and help me in whichever way that she could. I remember it being close to Mother’s day and I wanted to take her for a nice dinner. As we sat at dinner, she looked at me with tears in her eyes. I did my best to act like I wasn’t scared, and that everything was ok. Little did we know that less than a year later, everything would change, for good.
In the later part of the year, I began dating a friend of mine from high school, David, who was now in the Army. We began talking online as he was deployed to Iraq. Sparks flew and before long, he had planned to come and stay with me in Seattle when he returned to the States. We spent all of our free time together, and quickly became inseparable. But after a few weeks, we were forced to come back to reality. He had to return to his post in North Carolina, and I was to resume classes in Seattle. With an entire continent between us and a handful of promises to visit each other frequently; normal college life resumed.
A few days into the new year, with the excitement of visiting Dave on my next school break getting me through the pains of missing him; I made an appointment to see my doctor about my birth control options.
I remember being really nervous seeing the doctor, even though I had seen her many times before. I recall asking her if it was ok to take birth control pills after having a DVT (whatever that was) found in my leg. In the quick appointment, I was handed a card with all of the “pros” and “cons” of each birth control option and a short spiel about the possible side effects and asked to choose one. The doctor glossed over my medical history with a shrug, noting that on the estrogen-based oral contraceptive that I chose, that I may either “gain or lose five pounds.” That seemed to be her biggest concern.
I was finally on birth control pills. Equal to my peers. As cool as the other girls in my classes. Once I got home, I promptly ordered the coolest pill case I could find online and now I was set…or so I thought.
The next month brought me a few complications with the birth control pills, but nothing warranting too much concern. I began working as a temporary administrative assistant at a large office in downtown Seattle. I was very proud of myself as a 19 year old with her very own temporary office! Looking back, I am not sure how I juggled it all. Attending three classes at the University in the morning and in the afternoon, bussing to Downtown to work until early evening. I now envy my naive 19 year old self.
Thursday February 23, 2006. The day that changed everything
We hear it said so often, “ such and such day started like any other.’” But isn’t that the truth? We never know for sure what our future really holds. If we did, life really wouldn’t be any fun. But as it were, that Thursday began as any other. I woke up anticipating the same things; school in the morning and work in the afternoon and into the evening downtown in Seattle. I was really preoccupied that day, as my relationship with Dave was beginning to wane under the stress of a long-distance relationship.
I made it through my classes on that overcast Seattle day, and instead of driving down to work, I had a strange inkling and took the bus instead. This inkling was the first sign of my intuition beginning to warn me that something was about to happen.
As I sat in my office that afternoon, not wanting to actually focus on my work or acknowledge my responsibilities, I used my Motorola flip phone to text pictures back and forth with David (a really new technology to us back then!)
Being in three different classes, I recall being very stressed that afternoon. Knowing that I had several school assignments due, I had a blaring headache and was feeling really nauseous. Under the buzz of a triple tall latte, my body began to feel funny. Almost as if an electrical current was being pulsed through it.
As I sat up in my chair, something happened with my vision. Everything was now blurry. Honestly thinking that I was just overreacting, I called my mom anyway.
“Mom, something is wrong, I can’t see.” Knowing that this was a dramatic introduction to a phone conversation, I knew that I had captured her sometimes elusive attention.
“What do you mean that you can’t see?” She replied with a tone that would almost always be accompanied with an eye roll.
I was silent.
“Where are you?” her attention now perked and a slight irritation in her voice.
“You are probably just stressed out. Go to the bathroom, splash some water on your face and call me back.”
I closed my fancy little phone. I got up from my desk, and walked out into the main office. With that ‘electric’ feeling even more intense, a slight upset to my stomach and vision that can best be described as looking through a fish tank to the other side, I made my way to the bathroom outside of our office. I’ll never forget the fluorescent lighting and the green hue to the countertops. I stood there and stared at myself in the mirror. I began to not recognize myself. I splashed water onto my face.
“Peter Piper Picked A Peck of Pickled Peppers” is what I tried to say. As far as I knew, it was not what was coming out of my mouth. With my anxiety rising, I returned back to my office.
I intuitively knew that something was wrong. The electric current was now a full fledged vibration. I somehow managed to call my mom back.
“Erica, are there people there with you? Go out and hand them your phone.”
Embarrassed and not wanting to draw attention to a potentially humiliating situation, I did my best to object, but I was unable to make sense of anything, so I obliged.
I walked out of my office and up to two older (than me) men who were talking. I interrupted them and handed over my phone. Their look of concern was one I’ll never forget. The unease on their faces reflected my deepest fears, something was really, truly wrong.
My mother said something to them and they immediately jumped into action. I was terrified, but more so dreading all of the attention I was about to receive.
They had me take a seat and as one called 911, the other doted over me. I recall hearing the wail of the sirens as the ambulance arrived. At that moment all I could think was “oh my God, I hope they don’t bring up a stretcher.”
Before long, several paramedics were rushing around me giving me a total examination. With my father (a captain in the fire department) on the phone speaking paramedic language with the ones with me, I felt my heart racing. A tornado of activity was happening around me: “She’s tachycardic…..well, we COULD transport her to the University Hospital, but I’m pretty sure she’s just having a panic attack…her blood pressure is severely hypotensive… I don’t think the ER is really necessary….?, The paramedics bantered. As my coworkers looked on in what must have been genuine concern from them, but sheer embarrassment for me, they ultimately (begrudgingly) decided to transport me to the University Hospital.
The next several hours were a blur. The ten mile ambulance ride was nauseating. Feeling relief when I arrived at the hospital, the kindness of the nurse put me at ease in the midst of a very scary situation.
I was given a work up at the hospital, which meant two urine analysis tests (one for pregnancy (definitely wasn’t pregnant) and one for drug use (definitely none of that either.) A botched lumbar puncture, unread CT scan and and useless labs later, I was discharged with the diagnosis of an “anxiety attack.”
I was unable to dress myself from my hospital gown back into my clothes, and I have small blips of memory of my mother helping me. She decided to take me back to our family home in Poulsbo, and not back to my apartment (a decision that would ultimately save my life).
I remember sleeping in the car. Darkness with only the fluorescent lights of the ferry dock illuminating the inside of my mother’s dark green Volvo, a serene silence accompanying it. I heard bits and pieces of an exhausted recount of the activity at the hospital from my mother to my father on the phone. We had missed the last ferry of the evening and were forced to wait until dawn for the next.
I woke up back in Poulsbo, my body plagued by a fatigue it had never felt before. Every fiber of myself begging for sleep. Pleading for just one more moment of that sweet rest.
I woke up on the ground in the garage. I could see the blurry outline of my mother, and hear her irritated voice telling me to get off of the floor.
I woke up in her California king size bed, my cell phone ringing. I opened it and closed it.
I woke up to my father returning home from his shift at the fire department. He asked repeatedly what drugs I was on. I told him none. He performed basic neurological tests and ordered me back to bed.
I woke up, what must have been hours later, my phone, (which had not stopped ringing) was finally answered. A woman was on the line, but I could not understand what she was saying. With sleep still heavy upon me, I handed the phone to my mother.
Mom startled awake. Whatever was happening on the other line was important. I was told to get dressed, but I couldn’t without help. My mom frantically reaching for whatever paper she could find to test my sight and reading skills.
I woke up on the ferry, my peaceful sleep interrupted with an offer for clam chowder, but the sweet lull of sleep was too much to overcome.
I woke up staring through the fish tank in the radiology department of the University Hospital.
I woke up again with my mom trying desperately to remove my lip ring and my nose ring so that I could have an MRI performed.
I woke up leaving the MRI, and to this day, I will never forget the look on the face of the man who performed the test. It was a look of shock. He stumbled over himself helping me out of the room.
I woke up again in a waiting room, the doctor who had called my phone (and, ultimately, me back to the hospital) had joined my parents and I, there.
Her words were simple, her tone kind, but her message, harsh.
“You’ve had a stroke.”