Massachusetts teen pens essay reflecting on father’s stroke

The following essay was written by Julia Austin Spanek after her father, Mark Spanek, had a stroke in 2018. Julia, who was 13 when she authored this piece, is now 15 and a sophomore at Franklin High School.

Mark Spanek, a Stroke Ambassador for the American Heart Association in Boston, credits his stroke for being the “wake up call” that made him realize he needed to make lifestyle changes. Since then, he has lost 60 pounds and plans to lose even more weight. Mark, 60, also credits getting treated quickly following his stroke, as well as the time he spent in rehabilitation, for his recovery. He has since returned to work and experiences minimal effects from his stroke.

 “I Won’t Cry”

By Julia Austin Spanek

The heat was unbearable despite the fact the sun began to set. I had been out all day in scorching summer heat and longed for a moment of relief. The humidity pressed down on my lungs as my legs started to quiver and shake with exhaustion. As I stepped inside, my hope for a colder indoors dimmed due to our lack of air conditioning. My growing thirst steered me to the kitchen and led me past my mom who worked busily on her schedule.

“Do you want anything to eat?” my dad asked, as he strolled into the kitchen. For once, I wasn’t hungry.

“Not right now, but maybe later. Thanks, though,” I replied between gulps of ice-cold water. My family all separated into different parts of the house. The closer we were to each other, the stickier the house felt.

The basement was the coolest place in the house at that moment, so I grabbed a book, headed downstairs and wiped sweat from my brow. My book started to get interesting when I heard commotion upstairs.  I was confused. Why is my mom speaking so loudly? Why is my dad’s voice so muffled? I set my book down and climbed the stairs step by step. My feet gradually carried me down the hallway until I reached the bedroom door. My dad, one of the strongest people I knew, lay on the floor in a heavy sweat. He looked feeble and weak. What’s wrong? The question was exchanged silently between me and my mom in our brief second of eye contact.

My mom rushed out of the room to grab the phone. I could hear the beep of each number dialed as I crouched on the ground. The small and cramped bedroom made my body slick with sweat. The heat gave me a headache. I couldn’t afford to worry about myself. So many ideas raced through my head. I tried to keep my thoughts positive but couldn’t help think about the worst-case scenario. I held my dad’s hand and talked to him like everything was normal, despite the fact that the situation was far from normal. Minutes later, the ambulance pulled up outside our house and the paramedics knocked on the door. Maybe he’s okay? Maybe it’s because of the heat? Why did I want to cry when I wasn’t 100% sure what was really going on? I had so many questions I needed to be answered, but I didn’t want them answered. I needed to accept what was happening, what I knew the minute my dad couldn’t move his arm – my dad was having a stroke.

The ambulance transported my dad to Milford Regional Hospital while my mom and I drove to meet him. I texted my sister, Sarah, to explain what happened. I told her not to worry. Sarah was out and would have to drive to the hospital. The last thing mom and I wanted was a family member in the hospital due to a car accident.

mom and I sat in a small, dark secluded room to wait for what felt like hours. I felt trapped, but I knew I just had to breathe. I had watched medical shows on television and saw the nitty-gritty aspects of a hospital. I had seen open-heart surgeries occur and the drama between doctors build. Patients in medical shows are in life-threatening situations. The shows either have a sad or happy ending. Their families have no control over what happens. I thought I knew what the feeling was like. I was wrong.

The wait time seemed like an eternity, but the doctors finally let us see my dad and talk about what happened. I restrained myself from crying when I heard possibly the worst news of my life.

“Mrs. Spanek, your husband has a blood clot blocking blood flow to the right side of his brain. If not treated within the next two hours, the blood clot could cause permanent paralysis on the left side of his body.”

The doctor spoke the words as if he had said them a thousand times before. My mom was close to tears, as was I, but she needed to be strong as much as I needed her to be strong.

Sarah came in about ten minutes later. When I explained what happened, Sarah broke down into tears. As she wept beside me, I struggled to prevent the welled-up tears in my own eyes from falling.

I watched the minutes tick by as Sarah drove me home. The house felt empty when we got there. An hour later, my mom came in the door and said she was going to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston to meet dad, who was being flown there via helicopter for treatment. I refused to stay at home.

There we were, Sarah, my mom, and I, driving into Boston in the darkness and shadows of the night. I had packed a bag; I had prepared to stay the night even though I had a dress rehearsal for a performance two days away.

“mom, I can miss the rehearsal tomorrow if you can’t get me there,” I muttered groggily, my eyes half closed.

“I’ll figure something out, honey,” she whispered, masking her emotions. Of course, mom would figure something out. She always does.

Sarah, my mom and I sat in the almost-empty lobby of the massive hospital eating cafeteria baked goods. The three of us waited there until we moved to the ICU on floor ten. We ended up sitting in a waiting room for the second time that night. Another doctor came in and spoke to us about my father.

The doctor told us she removed the blood clot from my dad’s brain thus removing the threat of paralysis. He was still in a fragile state and would need to remain in the ICU and into a general room soon.

I felt I could breathe again. It had felt like a heavy rock restricted me, leaving me frozen and immobile. When the rock had been removed, I was able to breathe. I hadn’t realized I had been holding my breath, but I guess I was so focused on the problem, I forgot how to breathe. At first, I had been picturing a world without my dad. All the Dunkin’ Donuts runs before volleyball and the late Friday nights watching MacGyver wouldn’t exist. All the emotional pep talks he gave me wouldn’t happen anymore. Then, the picture changed to my dad in a wheelchair. Somehow, this idea hurt even more.

My dad is on his way to a complete recovery. I know now why I refused to cry. Crying would have been the equivalent of throwing in the towel. Crying would’ve been like saying, “there’s nothing left to do now but give up.” I was battered and bruised. I was tired and ready to give in. I felt like I was about to lose my light in the dark. My dad is one of the reasons for living, but he is also someone I’d die for. I would do anything to save the people I love. I won’t admit defeat if a loved one’s life is on the line. Crying meant giving up hope, and that is something I will never, ever do.