Never Say Never

Eileen Stevenson pic

Eileen Stevenson is a survivor ambassador for the Northern NJ Go Red For Women Luncheon.

By Eileen Stevenson, Guest Blogger

I used to think I could “never” have a stroke because I didn’t have any of the risk factors…I had low blood pressure, good blood work numbers, exercised and was strong!  I would not permit it!!  Ha, such hubris!  Life has a way of humbling you, and I am certainly a humbler woman now.

In September of 2015, after a grueling year of medical challenges that I “conquered”, I began to resume my schedule of gentle aerobics, stretch and flex, senior fitness & spin class.  I was, (as our spin instructor told us), “fine, fit & fabulous “.  After my first class back to spin, I got off my bike and noticed a bit of dizziness. It wasn’t until I walked out to the car with my husband when I noticed that my left forearm felt numb.  It felt interesting to me but I attributed it to the fact that I was wearing a splint on my left forearm to brace my wrist that had been smashed 2 months earlier. The orthopedic doctor asked me frequently if I had any numbness, so I really didn’t think anything of it.  It was probably just positional numbness!  I was healthy, had low blood pressure and didn’t have any other health issues.  This too would pass, and I would conquer it!

Well, it didn’t!  I went on like that for two days, denying anything was amiss, until my son and his family made a short visit to our home.  After the visit, my son returned, by himself, sat down beside me and said, “Mom, I know you are a strong, stubborn woman, but something is wrong and I am afraid you are going to go to sleep and not wake up.  I want to take you to the hospital now.”

I didn’t want my son to worry, so I got up and my husband and son took me to the hospital.

I walked into the hospital and gave all the necessary info that is now required before becoming a patient. I waited in the triage room and was finally called in to be checked by the intake nurse.  When I gave my symptoms, the intake nurse said “you know, you could have had a stroke.”  I said “I don’t think so, I have low blood pressure, no headache, no problems with my speech, and no muscle weakness.”

When they took my blood pressure, sure enough, It was 104/68.  How could I have a stoke with a blood pressure like that!?  Maybe I had a brain tumor?  Again, the hubris! I thought brain tumor, but no stroke…give me a break!  Who did I think I was?  I’ll tell you who I thought I was… a strong, invincible woman.

They rushed me for scans and tests, and I went to sleep!  I figured, hey, I was now in the hospital and they would see I was ” perfectly fine”. Well that night, the diagnosis was confirmed.  I had had a large, right-sided stroke!  You could have knocked me over with a feather!

I stayed in the hospital for four days and had a huge number of tests that were trying to determine the type of stroke I had and why it happened.  Every doctor who walked in asked me to stick out my tongue, smile, raise my arms, lift my legs, repeat words and write my name, in addition to repeating numbers and putting my finger to my nose.  I could do it all, ha-ha!  I saw a hospitalist (a new type of Doctor to care for you while in the hospital), a cardiologist, neurologist, physical therapist, social worker and many others.  I have never had a need for so many specialists!  All of them were involved with my care, trying to solve the puzzle.  Me? All I did was sleep.

My husband called and notified friends and family, cards came in, flowers were sent and my children visited me as I continued to sleep, probably about 8 hours a day, and another 8 at night.  Nothing seemed to bother me, I just wanted to sleep.  I do remember that to lull myself to sleep I would simply repeat “in” “out” with every breath.  It calmed me down and permitted me to let everything go.  By the end of the hospital stay, I could say, “well, this is my new reality”, but it was still hard for me to comprehend the impact the stroke would have on my life.

I was still trying to understand how I had a stroke. Every doctor expressed the same thing, “yes you had a stroke but we don’t know why.  It might be that two of the medications that you were taking for arthritis and osteoporosis have stroke as a possible side effect, so we are taking you off that medication.”

I always thought that there were risks to living, but this was the outcome?

Were they sure?  Did I really have a stoke?

Once I got home I didn’t have a support system because I acted so normal, but what is normal and what was I now?  The only thing I knew was that I was no longer the same. In my head, I couldn’t stand noise.  My husband loves watching TV and listening to the radio, but it was too much noise for me.

Everything was bombarding me and I couldn’t decipher anything.   How could they have sent me home from the hospital like this?  I wasn’t the Eileen I knew, I was no longer me.  What was going on?  I was a Type A personality and now I was sleeping all the time!  I was scared and afraid.  Would I still be me?

I slept and slept.  I forced myself to do things but I wasn’t scheduled to see my neurologist until a month after the stroke and I was still afraid.  Not afraid that I would die, but that I was now a different person.  I had my husband call my cardiologist (I was too afraid) and got an appointment 2 weeks later.  I felt reassured.  When I saw him, he recommended speech/ cognitive therapy.  At least someone recognized I was not me! Thank God!

I started speech/ cognitive therapy.  My husband took me three times a week from October through December.  It was hard.  I hate working on the computer and I inherently dislike games.  I don’t like competition…especially when I possibly can’t win!  This therapy was challenging.  My therapist was very encouraging, young and compassionate.  Even when I was reluctant to participate, she encouraged me to push forward.  She constantly told me I was fortunate for the type of stroke I had, and that it was unusual to maintain certain skills. I looked around at the many people at therapy who were much more physically disabled than I was and began to realize how lucky I am.   My reality was very different from what it used to be but it was not insurmountable.

I had a huge number of friends from the gym who sent me notes of encouragement, prayers, food and home visits that almost overwhelmed me.  I absolutely loved my gym but had no idea how much they loved me!

My reality is now constant flux.  What I have come to understand is that life is constant change.

Join Eileen and other survivors at the American Heart Association Northern NJ Go Red For Women Luncheon on Thursday, February 23 in West Orange, NJ.  For tickets and more information, visit nnjgored.heart.org.

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