In the past three years, I have survived two strokes. The experience changed me in many ways, but it also gave me a new calling in life: connecting with other stroke survivors and caregivers to offer hope during difficult times.
One day in May 2015, I was sitting at my desk in my office working on my computer when I noticed that my typing seemed different. Words weren’t appearing on the screen like normal. I decided to print a copy of the text to compare what I thought was on the screen. As I entered the area where the printer was located, I found myself staggering and I walked into a wall instead of going to the printer. I laughed at the mistake, retrieved my copy and returned to my desk. The computer screen and my printed copy were the same. I knew I was in trouble. I called my daughter, Katie, and asked her to pick me up. Something was very wrong.
Katie drove me to Memorial Hermann Katy Hospital and I walked into the Emergency Center and explained my symptoms. I was immediately taken to an exam room and the nurse explained that she was going to announce a code and a lot of people would be coming into the room, but she was going to stay right by my side. That’s exactly what happened. Medical staff began filing into the room and in no time, a doctor was explaining to me that I would be spending the night at the hospital for more observation. I underwent an MRI and the next morning, Dr. Ankit Patel, a neurologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann Katy, told me I had a brain stem stroke. The doctors told me “I had dodged a bullet” because 98 percent of these kinds of strokes result in death. I knew God was in control and had different plans for me.
After months of rehabilitation, both physical and mental, I returned to work. A few months later, in November 2015, I had another stroke. This time it was an ischemic stroke that affected a different part of my brain. While I tried to return to my previous lifestyle, it became evident that I could no longer perform my job. I resigned and began looking for something new to occupy my time.
I remember praying about my situation and asking God to reveal to me a job where I could use the experiences I had gained from my strokes so I could continue making a living or be employed. A short time later, I awoke in the middle of the night with a thought: I needed to volunteer. I worked with Heather Rojas, Director of Volunteer Services, and Aaron Bayles, the stroke program coordinator at Memorial Hermann Katy, to develop a role where I could visit with patients to share my experiences, as well as explain the resources available to them for rehabilitation and recovery.
Since my first day working as a Stroke Support Volunteer on April 12, 2017, I have had the opportunity to visit with more than 60 stroke survivors and almost 100 family members or caregivers. When I walk into the patient’s room and share my story, we begin talking about what steps they need to recover. I explain to the caregivers how important their role is to push, pull, love and even sometimes demand more from their loved one who survived a stroke. They’re all lessons I learned from my daughters when they cared for me.
One of the biggest obstacles I had during rehabilitation was changing my lifestyle. I had always eaten what I wanted and never thought of the consequences. After my first stroke, my daughters walked into the kitchen and cleaned out all the food my physician told me I needed to cut out from my diet. They said, “You are going to start eating healthy and we’re going to give you a jumpstart!” They not only did that, but they made a trip to the grocery store and replaced all of the unhealthy food with nutritious choices.
Recovering from a stroke is difficult, but it can be done. The reality is everyone’s recovery process is different. Explaining this to the survivor and caregiver is sometimes the hardest thing for me to share. We talk about how the stroke has altered the brain’s ability to communicate with the rest of the body, what they can begin working on immediately, as well as what might take longer to recover. We talk about physical exercise, when the doctor says it’s OK, and how talking about your feelings with your caregiver can make a big improvement in how you feel as a survivor.
I remember the first four weeks I was home recovering, Katie would come over almost every day and sit with me. We would talk about my day and what I had been watching on TV. When you have a stroke, sometimes your brain just doesn’t want to cooperate. I began telling Katie what was happening on TV and I would forget the word I needed to say to describe what I was watching. The amount of frustration that you experience when something like that happens is unspeakable. You have the thought and it disappears in an instant. Katie would smile at me and tell me it was OK to just take my time. Caregivers can’t be taught that type of compassion and understanding. They need to live it and realize everything that they say or do to help a stroke survivor makes a difference.
For now, God has given me a new purpose in life that gives me strength and confidence when I visit with stroke survivors. From the time that I walk into their room until the time I leave, my goal is to comfort, communicate and give hope to people who feel all is lost.