Concord stroke survivor Judy Varrill inspires hope by sharing her story

Survivor Judy Varrill spoke at the Go Red for Women Luncheon in Concord on February 15th. Judy was the definition of a healthy, active woman with a successful career and beautiful family. Her story reminds us that a stroke can happen to anyone, but her resilience can also offer hope and inspiration. Here is her story:

The picture of health and athleticism, Judy found time each day to exercise, while working full-time as a vice president of a compliance team. Once a competitive runner, she still jogged 15-20 miles per week, played tennis at least four days a week, and lifted weights three times per week. She also embraced the many activities New Hampshire living offers, such as skiing, snowmobiling, and snowshoeing in the winter and biking and paddle boarding in the summer. As she tells the story, Judy never stopped moving.

On April 26, 2021, Judy jogged two miles in a secluded wooded area, then drove to Bedford to close on a house, then was planning to travel to Laconia to have a birthday lunch with her mother and sister. But first she wanted to squeeze in her weight training for the day.

She went to the gym, into the bathroom to change, and collapsed. She couldn’t get up and she couldn’t understand why. Fortunately, a coach realized she had been in the rest room awhile. He knocked on the door to see if she was okay. She yelled, “No, Andy, I can’t get up!” The door was locked so he called 911 immediately.

Judy can’t remember anything after that. She was rushed to Concord Hospital, where they confirmed she had a stroke, caused by a blood clot that broke away from her carotid artery. The doctors told her husband she had a 50/50 chance of survival. They med-flighted her to Massachusetts General Hospital, and successfully removed the clot from her brain. She remained in Boston for a week before being transferred to Encompass Rehab in Concord.

While Judy was grateful for the successful surgery and incredible care, the next chapter of her journey was much bleaker.

Completely paralyzed on her left side, Judy was often sad and depressed. The stroke caused significant brain damage, so her left side had lost all connection to her brain. She could not walk or use her left arm at all.

Judy worked diligently with Encompass therapists daily to re-learn how to walk and gain some functionality with her arm. “I had some very dark moments,” Judy recalls. “But when I went there, I reminded myself of my village and how blessed I was to be alive.” Her days became very routine: breakfast, lunch, therapy, nap, dinner, and bedtime. Her roommate, now a forever friend, was a spark of joy and humor, even as Judy grieved the loss of her former self.

She transitioned home in a wheelchair, then progressed to a cane, while still continuing therapy. A very social person, Judy had many friends visit her at home. She also tried to venture out in a wheelchair, though it was always a challenge.

Nearly three years later, Judy has continued to do therapy and has become increasingly more self-sufficient. Her biggest accomplishments include:
• Walking unassisted outdoors
• Playing short games of tennis
• Driving to the store on her own and shopping by herself
• Playing corn hole (and kicking some butt)
• Riding an incumbent bike daily

Judy still struggles, but is starting to see glimpses of hope. She recently initiated an exercise group with three fellow stroke survivors. They call each other three times per week and work out together. She is also exploring other therapy options to help with her recovery.

Judy says she has learned to slow down and enjoy spending time with her family. She is also focused on being kind to her body with a balance of good diet and exercise. Most importantly, she is focused on not taking anything for granted.

Throughout the journey, Judy has never been one to give up, and she continues to have dreams and aspirations to get back to playing tennis, running, hiking, and biking. Her willingness to share her story, to work hard to heal, and to find strength and hope from her community epitomizes the definition of survivor.