I woke up at some point on September 19th, 2018 with my husband, Cam, on my right side thinking that I was in an airport. An announcement played repeatedly over the PA system: “Stroke alert, trauma team to emergency.” I had no idea where I was but I just remember it being very dark and thinking that I was in an airport but my head hurt so bad. I had no idea what happened. Having a history in martial arts, specifically Taekwondo and more recently in Muay Thai, for some reason had me thinking that I somehow got hit in the head by a spinning hook kick even though I knew I hadn’t been at the martial arts club recently. I looked over to my right and there was my husband explaining to me that I had a stroke. A stroke. What!? How is that possible? I was only 38 years old, I eat relatively well and exercise every single day.
I tried to remember what happened. All I could remember was waking up at 5 in the morning like I usually do and getting ready to go do my daily exercise routine in my basement gym. I got up and went to the washroom, bumping the toilet seat and knocking it down. It slammed so loudly and I remember thinking, shhh, because I didn’t want to wake up my husband.
He told me that the noise did indeed wake him up (good thing because it prompted him to check on me to see why I was taking so long) and when he saw me there he said half of my face was drooping and he knew immediately I was having a stroke. I recalled snapping out of the darkness that I was feeling in the washroom to hearing him talking on the phone to 911 and begging him not to call the ambulance because I didn’t want to be embarrassed. While he was on the phone he came over and performed some stroke tests. The 911 operator concluded that I was having a stroke and an ambulance was required. Somehow, I was able to walk into our bedroom and Cam went to find me some pants.
I tried to put them on but I fell over and nearly hit my head on the dresser. My husband was right behind me and managed to catch me before I hit the floor. In that moment, I still didn’t believe that I was having a stroke. I thought it was really strange that I had lost my balance because falling over like that had never happened to me before. I didn’t know what was happening, I thought Cam was overreacting. I was thinking, Just wait till I get to work and tell my friends that Cam called an ambulance thinking I was having a stroke but I wasn’t.
By the time my husband got to the hospital, they had already had me in surgery and were performing a thrombectomy, which is when the neurosurgeons insert some kind of medical device into the femoral artery and follow it all the way up to the brain to find and remove any clots. The hospital social worker came out and told my husband they had removed the clot and things were looking good but there were several smaller clots above this one which they could not remove. By the next day I was awake, but no one was sure how aware I actually was and that I was talking to Cam.
I’m not sure if it was at this point when I realized that I couldn’t move my left side or that I didn’t have any feeling on my left side. Quite honestly, I don’t really remember when I realized that I did not have any function on my left side anymore. Essentially, my left side became paralyzed due to the stroke – this is called is hemiplegia and is quite common with stroke patients. One side of the body becomes paralyzed depending on which side of the brain the stroke was on. Mine happened to be on the right side of my brain so my left side was primarily affected.
I wish I could remember the timelines of how things went. My husband has a hard time remembering as well; everything was a blur and he was in such emotional turmoil that it’s hard to remember the time frame of how everything unfolded. By the evening of my second day in the ICU, the brain damage inflicted from the stroke had caused my brain to swell, putting my life in danger. The neurosurgeons contacted my husband asking for consent to remove a portion of my skull roughly the size of my hand to ease the pressure on my brain.
No one knew what the end result would be. Would I survive or would I become brain dead? He provided consent and this surgery ultimately saved my life.
I spent 3 weeks in the ICU, unconscious, on breathing and feeding tubes. It was quite a while by the time they finally were able to remove my breathing tube. Once I was breathing and eating on my own, I was able to move into a new hospital where I would have rehab in the form of physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and psychology. When I first moved into that hospital, my room was right across from the dining room. I remember hearing someone making a noise and I thought it was someone choking. I asked my husband go look in the dining room make sure everybody’s okay. He came back and he told me it was a kid laughing, everyone’s fine and nothing is wrong. I didn’t know it at the time but this kid was one of the Humboldt Broncos hockey team members, a survivor of the massive and horrific accident between a semi truck and the Humboldt Broncos bus several months earlier. It happened near my hometown of Tisdale, Saskatchewan.
At the time, I had no idea that there were still Broncos in the hospital. My husband pointed the boy out to me while I was in physio. He was in the room next to me relearning how to walk as I was doing the same thing in my physio room. I could hear the cheers of his parents and physiotherapists as he took his steps.
At some point after my arrival at the rehab hospital, my husband gave me a Humboldt Broncos bracelet; he said it was from our sister-in-law. That bracelet became what I would use for motivation while I was learning to walk. As I was taking my steps and when things got hard, I would look down at it and think about what those boys had gone through and yet overcome. I saw on the news that some of them were even skating already! I was so amazed by them. I used them as my inspiration to get through the tough times.
Several months into my rehab, the boy who had been laughing in the dining room was discharged from the hospital – 333 days after the accident. That’s when I learned that his name was Morgan. Morgan had no idea that he and his teammates were a major source of inspiration for me and my recovery. The days of seeing Morgan and his parents in rehab or in the dining room were over. I was very happy for this kiddo – he had come so far even in just the time since I had been there. Though I had not talked to him, I felt a connection with him.
I could see his frustration at times and I understood it. Life is so unfair and I know it was hard to push forward when you are dealt an unfair hand, when recovery feels so slow and daunting.
A year later, I am still working on recovery. Still working on walking without assistance and moving my left arm. Even with only having one usable arm and leg, I really felt the need to get back to martial arts. I wasn’t going to let hemiplegia stop me even if I had to modify an insane amount just to be able to do some simple combos. I wasn’t going to lose my martial arts. I did go back to Muay Thai fairly quick but it was really hard walking back into the club even though I knew I had so much support behind me and a lot of people rallying to see me do well. I was walking in as a different person both mentally and physically. It was intimidating. Even now, a year later, I’m hesitant to go places in case someone who saw me as I was before sees me differently now. But I can’t let that stop me. I must go on and try to live my life anyway. I am frequently putting myself in scary situations to force myself to learn to live and love the new me that I have become.
It was very frustrating, but getting back to martial arts really did help me improve my balance, mental health and happiness. Just being in a room full of people who wanted to see me do well and had supported me throughout my illness and recovery was a huge boost to my confidence. Becoming hemiplegic changed my life forever, and it has certainly not been easy, but I can’t let it keep me down forever. I have to move on and do what I can when I can. Having been a very active person who had half her body become paralyzed has made it hard to trust my body again. Everyday I have to find ways to keep moving to rebuild the neural connections in my brain and hopefully one day I will overcome hemiplegia.
Overall this stroke may have been somewhat of a blessing in disguise. It brought me closer to friends and family and also allowed me to see how loved I really am. I found new friends in acquaintances as well as other patients. I’ve become a warrior. Without struggle is that even possible to say?