How I Have Moved Forward



Survivor Kayla Ahroon shows off the dress inspired by her recovery

Ten years ago, I was a junior sociology major at The University of Texas at Austin. My life was wonderful I was thriving academically, happy, healthy and an avid runner. Little did I know things were about to take an unexpected turn that would change my life forever.

The symptoms began one night when I was out with friends. I was trying to type a text message but having great difficulty. I started to feel off balance and then a knife of a headache hit me. I went home, thinking I just needed some sleep.

The next morning things hadn’t gotten any better. I went to class, but when I began writing diagonally, I knew something was really wrong. I didn’t have a clue what it could be nor could I have imagined what it actually was. My roommate took me to the emergency room where I was diagnosed with a migraine, but surprisingly no tests were taken. I required supervision, and luckily my parents lived in the same city. Over the next couple of days, my cognitive deficits got worse and the headache wasn’t subsiding. My general practitioner sent me in for an MRI where they found the bleed in my brain. I was immediately admitted to the hospital but already had lost the ability to read, write and walk. Upon being admitted I was told I was experiencing a hemorrhagic stroke.

I had never heard that term. I was only 21 and I had questions: How could this be happening? What is happening? Am I going to make it through this? What is going to happen? Why me?

Extreme anxiety began to wash over me, and I could feel the fear and worry start to take hold. I felt intense anxiety and panic attacks, which were something I would deal with and have to learn to manage for many years after the stroke. I was taken to my room where things started to sink in and become ‘real.’ Besides random trips in my wheelchair around the hospital, or attending therapy, that bed would be my safe place to begin the healing process.

While in the hospital I began speech, occupational and physical rehabilitation. During therapy I was aware that I knew how to do what my therapists were asking, but I couldn’t get my mind to connect the dots. I knew that I knew how to walk, even run, but I couldn’t get my mind to make my legs move properly. Looking at the words in a book, I, once again, knew I knew how to read but I just couldn’t — plain and simple. This caused frustration and at times even doubt of whether I would be able to return to the life I once knew. I was constantly weak and exhausted with an extreme sharp pain that was only relieved with strong painkillers. However, a voice within kept telling me to keep moving forward.

Then something rather interesting began to happen.

The bleed occurred in the left hemisphere of my brain affecting my analytical side, making mundane tasks like counting coins near impossible. As a result, the right side of my brain, the creative side, took over — almost in overdrive mode. My creativity spiked: While in the hospital I began to have ideas of clothing designs.

My occupational therapist decided to take advantage of this and gave me a project using my newly developed creativity. They had me work on my eye-hand coordination, analytical skills and more by learning how to sew. At that time, I wasn’t capable of doing simple tasks such as bathing myself and blow drying my hair. So, learning to sew was quite a process, but slowly and surely it helped me fine tune the skills I needed to once again do simple tasks.

I decided to make a dress I could wear to college football games. I was determined to walk again and live an independent life. The dress was a visual representation of me getting back to my “normal” life and of me being a fighter and a stroke survivor. I made the conscious decision that I wasn’t going to be a victim.

My dad took me to the first football game I could attend where I wore my dress with pride and saw it as proof that I was moving forward. I wasn’t going to let the stroke win. During the football game people kept stopping and asking me where I got my dress. I was flattered and thought maybe I could make more. Making the dresses wasn’t easy, each dress was a challenge, but with the help and support of others, I made it happen. I sold several dresses and a local store even picked them up. My dresses weren’t a big business, but they were an incredibly special endeavor to me that illustrated progress and resilience.

The dresses are still imprinted within me. When I was in that hospital bed, even though we didn’t know the cause of the stroke, I knew I was meant to do something big and influential with my experience, and in time it would be revealed. The dresses showed me an entrepreneurial spirit to create things that bring other people joy. To this day I still strive to do this. It is what helps me stay focused on being a survivor and not a victim. Even if one project doesn’t work, I refuse to be defeated, just like I still refuse to let the stroke defeat me. Instead I seek out that little spark that revealed itself during my recovery.

The stroke taught me that life is not only fragile but an extraordinary blessing. We should live every moment to our utmost capability. That we should honor what little fire is within us and when fear starts to creep in, do our best to fight it with complete faith in ourselves.

It took me several years to regain my cognition completely and for the pain to subside. I still have a seizure disorder from the stroke that requires me to be on medications, most likely for the rest of my life. I’m beyond blessed that that’s all I have today. I’m now married to a wonderful man, have a healthy and happy little boy and am living my life day by day. I had always wanted a family but was afraid that with my medical history it would be too difficult for me. However, with the support of family and a wonderful team of doctors, my ‘high-risk pregnancy’ went smoothly, and my son was born completely healthy. He’s a daily reminder of the miracle of life.

Here’s what I would like others to take from my story: Through dedication, hard work, acceptance of the ups and downs and patience, they too can be a survivor.

image of Kayla Ahroon, husband Erik and their son Gustaf
Survivor Kayla Ahroon with husband Erik and their son Gustaf

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