Growing Up in a Stroke Family
Ashley Park Pryor was five years old and her sister, Lisa, was three when their father, Steve Park, had a hemorrhagic stroke and brain surgery as the result of a ruptured AVM. Overnight, the Park family’s lives changed dramatically.
Sisters Lisa Park and Ashley Park Pryor
Studies show younger people are having strokes more often than even a generation ago. As a result, more children are being raised in stroke families. And we’ve talked to enough survivor and caregiver parents to know that they are concerned with how the stroke affects their children. With that in mind, we talked with two sisters about their experience growing up in a stroke family.
Ashley Park Pryor was five years old and her sister, Lisa, was three when their father, Steve Park, had a hemorrhagic stroke and brain surgery as the result of a ruptured AVM. Overnight, the Park family’s lives changed dramatically. Steve could no longer work in refrigeration and air conditioning repair, which had provided a comfortable life for his family. The girls’ mother, Charlene, who had been a stay-at-home mom, had to go to work to support the family. They went from enjoying a secure middle-class life to struggling to keep their house and car and even to put food on the table. “It was a lot of beans and potatoes and hamburger for the first couple of years,” Charlene said. It took nine months before they started receiving Social Security Disability benefits.
“I think Dad’s stroke changed my childhood completely,” said Ashley, who is now 27 and lives in North Texas with her husband. “When he went in for surgery to remove the AVM, I had to stay with friends of the family. It was the first time I had ever spent any significant time away from home, and I did not adjust well to it.” After Steve came home, the carpets were removed and toys had to be put away so he wouldn’t trip. Because of weakness on one side, he could no longer pick the girls up or chase them or do other “dad-things.”
“I feel that Lisa and I had to grow up faster than other kids our age,” Ashley said. “For instance, we immediately started doing our own laundry and other chores around the house. I’m pretty sure no other girls at my school were regularly mowing the lawn and helping with plumbing, air conditioning and car maintenance.”
A positive effect of their father’s stroke was that the girls got to see their father more. “Before the stroke, Dad worked pretty long hours,” said Lisa, now 25 and living in North Texas. “After the stroke, he was the stay-at-home parent. He was always there to help me with homework or anything else I needed.” The stroke happened so early in both girls’ childhood, it was just something that was part of him. Lisa has some fuzzy memories of the pre-stroke life, “but they’re really indistinct. In terms of actual distinct memories, this has always been the norm,” she said.
A different kind of education
The Park family
Despite his stroke, Steve still knew how to fix things, and Ashley became his “extra hand.” In the process, she became adept at auto and air conditioning repair as well as plumbing. “He still taught me things that dads teach,” she said. “He taught me to drive, change a tire, change the oil. Because of his lessons, I know how to parallel park in very tight conditions. He taught me how to fish, including gutting and cleaning what we caught.” Even though she’s married and no longer lives with her parents, she and Steve recently replaced the brakes of Charlene’s car.
Early on, living with a stroke survivor showed Ashley how much discrimination there is toward people who are different. Charlene recalled being at the grocery store with the girls and seeing a disabled person, and Lisa asked if he’d had a stroke. “I told her I didn’t know,” Charlene said. “And then she said, ‘We don’t want to stare.’ In school both girls gave up PE time to work with the developmentally disabled children.”
The family’s situation taught the daughters the value of determination. “I know my parents are really strong to have something so life-changing happen to both of them, and yet they worked with it. Neither of them ever gave up,” Ashley said.
When it became clear he could no longer work as a repairman, Steve went back to school. “Seeing Dad go back to school had a huge impact on how I view education,” Lisa said. “He was incredibly diligent and dedicated to his studies, so that was an inspiration for me to try as hard as I could, too.” Lisa recently graduated from Texas Women’s University.
The stroke affected the girls’ view on gender roles because their mother and father essentially switched places after the stroke: “Dad was home taking care of my sister and me and Mom was working. Before, it was the opposite.” Ashley said. “I think helping Dad with the cars, plumbing and air conditioning also impacted my views on what tasks are gender-segregated.”
“I’m pretty sure no other girls at my school were regularly mowing the lawn and helping with plumbing, air conditioning and car maintenance.”
Recently Ashley was diagnosed with asthma. “I like to think I follow Dad’s example of not focusing on or mourning all the things I can’t do now. Instead I try to focus on figuring out what all I can still do, despite the asthma.”
Another dad-thing Steve did for Ashley — walking her down the aisle when she got married a few years ago.
Advice for others
Charlene remembers how scared the girls were that they were going to lose their father, so she took them to the hospital after surgery, even though they could not go in the room. “My advice to parents is don’t hide anything from your children,” she said. “That is the worst thing you can do. I couldn’t believe the relief on their faces when they saw that Daddy was still alive.”
“When you’ve been through that kind of trauma,” Steve said, “everything else is secondary — bad grades, car wreck, losing a job. I think they learned that young and grew up with a strong set of values. I think we all learned that relationship matters more than things and money.”