A Memorable Beginning
Survivor Deborah Nealon hikes Paintbrush Divide in the Grand Teton range.
This slice of my life has been offered for public consumption before; only now I serve it as an appetizer, not the main course.
At 5:30, my morning began as normal. It was the start of Memorial Day weekend 2005. It was as normal as any other morning except I noticed my right hand was not helping my left to shampoo my hair. It felt weak and tingly. As I dressed, my right hand did not participate again. Although my hand appeared fine, it was acting as if it were an inflated latex glove, exaggerated and numb.
A couple of hours later, I sat in a diner wanting breakfast when another unusual event occurred. A waitress approached the table to take my order, and I could not express that I wanted bacon alongside my scrambled eggs unless I used the word “with” because I was unable to say the word “and.” “Wow, I need breakfast,” I thought. I ate as a lefty because the fork anchored my right hand to the table. After eating, I thought I was ready to get on with the day, so I paid the tab, left the diner and headed for my car. But I only made it to the curb.
I caught a glimpse of someone’s watch as I arrived at the emergency room. It was almost 1:00 p.m. My recollection of my transport to the hospital is a blur. When I was in the emergency room, I got progressively worse and started to lose more and more of my abilities. I became paralyzed on my right side. I was frightened, not knowing what to expect.
Once the hospital paperwork was processed, the staff assessed me, disrobed me and prepared me for an MRI. I couldn’t even sign my name, and while I may not have been able to ambulate or speak well, I could hear just fine. The MRI machine was loud and frightening. When the noise stopped, a nurse took me back to my curtained cubicle on a gurney via a bright, busy hallway. I lay there acutely aware of every sound, waiting in a sub-comfortable temperature for the results.
As time ticked by, I grew anxious and bored. Then I realized I was learning a lot about my surroundings without physical exploration. The gruff voice coming from behind the curtain on the right was that of a woman. The smell of cigarettes permeated that side of the room, and I pictured a 40-plus-year smoker as she requested some water. There was snoring behind the left-side curtain, so I thought that must be a man.
Just as I began to relax, a physician yanked open my cubicle curtain to inform me that I had had a stroke. What? Did he see my D.O.B.? I was only 35 years old. My knowledge of stroke was very limited. I think the common perception is that stroke happens to elderly people — at least that was my perception and I’m even in health care.
The doctor went on to explain what caused my stroke — hyperthyroidism caused by Graves’ disease. This condition made my heart beat fast and irregular which allowed a clot to form which blocked an artery restricting the oxygen to my brain. I have since learned about Graves’ disease and how to control it. Graves’ disease can go dormant. That’s where I am now — off medication and aware of the signs and symptoms of Graves’ disease. (See sidebar About Graves’ Disease.) I do blood work periodically just to make sure it’s in check.
After I was admitted to the hospital, I would learn that it is not shocking for a person to have a stroke at 35. Even fetuses still in the womb have been known to have strokes. So, strokes occurring in young people are not unique. What is unique is the way a stroke affects each person. Some people barely notice that they’ve had a stroke, while others are devastated.
The first night in the hospital, I felt alone after everyone went home. I remember being afraid to go to sleep because I wasn’t sure if I would wake up or what other deficits I would have when I woke up the next morning.
My stroke made the right side of my body inept and rendered me verbally useless. Since I’m right-handed, my attempts at communication were exhausting and ended in failure. Any letters I tried to scribe with my left hand were not legible. The seal-like sounds that came from my mouth were indecipherable, too. Meanwhile, my brain was secretly hard at work reorganizing to restore my function.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Six days after my stroke, I was released from the hospital. I had recovered quickly and was able to walk, talk and write. I felt like a butterfly freshly emerged from a cocoon. With eternal gratitude, I immediately began to create a whole new life.
I was back at work in health care in less than two weeks, because when you have financial need, you can’t wait to go back to work. I had to be picked up and dropped off before being cleared to drive six weeks later. They said my recovery was most likely attributable to my age and being in good health.
A year after my stroke, I taught my youngest daughter how to drive. I watched with pride as she became a college freshman. It was traumatic for her to witness my stroke, but that’s what gives you motivation to keep going. You want to give your children comfort and security and let them know they can depend on you.
I took up running, which helped me with my gait. It was awkward at first, but I would go on to do three marathons. The first one was in 2009, four years after my stroke. I have also learned how to mountain bike and even had a brief opportunity to showcase my skills on a local television show about women taking up mountain biking. Surprisingly, I discovered I love mountaineering despite being afraid of heights before. In the past several years, I have climbed many mountains.
I went on to complete a graduate degree in health administration. At the time of my stroke, my specialty was podiatry. Today, it is vascular. So now I’m closer to patients who have had strokes.
So much has happened since my stroke more than a decade ago that has helped me put it into perspective. In the beginning when I would introduce myself, it was almost always, “Hi, I’m Deborah Nealon and I had a stroke.” because it was so much at the forefront of my mind. But as time passed, my stroke became a small part of my life because I feel I have overcome most of the deficits and have also overcome the fear and emotions that go with such a traumatic event.
I now understand my stroke is what started this story, but it is the beginning portion, not the main course. It no longer defines me. However, I acknowledge that the healthy and satisfying life I’m now enjoying would not have begun without it.
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