Five Out of Six Ain’t Bad
Survivor Kristin Price and her husband Mike
Early evening, New Years’ Eve 2018
While taking a shower I thought to myself, “2018 has been great. Actually, 2017 has been also. I sure hope 2019 is great, too. Could I be lucky enough to keep the streak alive?”
The answer was no.
Later that evening, I was sipping a beer, watching a movie with my husband. I reached for my beer with my left hand and missed. I remember thinking, “why is this hard?” So, I tried again, swinging my arm haphazardly toward the beer. Eventually, I used two hands to try to take a sip of it and either missed my mouth or somehow just dumped the can on myself.
My nose felt runny. I yelled to my husband in the kitchen to bring me a tissue. I was slurring. I hadn’t finished that one beer; I wasn’t drunk. I concentrated and tried to speak more clearly. I felt successful. My husband yelled back that there were tissues in front of me. I spotted them and tried, unsuccessfully, to blow my nose. Why were easy things suddenly hard? I’m not coordinated, but this was bad, even for me.
When my husband returned, he looked at me and rushed over. He was very serious, kept saying my name and asking what was wrong. I had no idea what he was talking about. He said he was going to call 911. I began to panic. I didn’t know why he would be calling 911 or what he saw that was wrong. I heard the dispatcher through his cell phone. He told her he believed I was having a stroke. She told him to have me say a phrase, lift my arms, etc. I did all of these enthusiastically, letting adrenaline take over. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the left side of my face had been completely drooped, I was drooling, and I had lost feeling in the left side of my body.
10:20 p.m., New Year’s Eve
The five paramedics surrounding my living room coffee table said I should go to the hospital for tests. I agreed to go despite feeling fine. I tried, unsuccessfully, not to cry while I got my shoes on and walked myself into the ambulance. I was scared.
The next four days unfolded like a fog. I felt fine; acted fine; and overcompensated to prove to everyone how fine I was. I was not fine. I was not in denial. I was simply unaware of what was happening.
January 1, 2019
I was informed that I’d suffered an ischemic stroke. I am 38 years old. I don’t smoke, have normal blood pressure, low cholesterol and no known risk factors for stroke. The only factor they could identify was the hormonal birth control pill; a seemingly innocuous solution that can be associated with a greater risk for blood clots. Part of my brain had died when the middle cerebral artery in the right side of my brain was 100% closed. There are six major arteries in the brain. Now, only five functioned.
Over the next two months, I worked my way through therapies to regain my cognitive stamina and certain physical abilities. After a few days of uncoordinated physical efforts, my balance and abilities came back quickly and on their own. My fine motor skills came back slower, but also on their own. I was lucky to have never lost any speech or communication abilities. I resumed volunteering at our elementary school just days after being discharged.
As months passed, I realized that the tool I use to tell differences in my abilities or emotions — my brain — is the very thing that is broken. It is confusing to think I’m fine, that everything is normal, without the ability to realize it is not. When I couldn’t stabilize to walk in the hospital, I had no idea I was off balance. I didn’t know I was staggering around the hospital wing like a drunken sailor. People would ask me about things I’d do, “Would you normally have made that decision?” I think so, but, again, the tool I’d use to reason and recall that information is partially dead right now.
Now nearly five months out from this event, I am close to 100% normal. The left side of my body still has sensation deficiencies and is painful every day. I usually use this pain to remind myself how lucky I am. I have seen a number of people die from ischemic stroke the last couple of months. I have no idea why I was so lucky and they were not. I have days and weeks where I feel suddenly very different. I act different, taste different or just behave in a way that’s odd for me. It is so difficult to reconcile this on my journey because changes come without notice and are often hard to detect.
The reality is, I am a different person. I feel like half of myself stitched to half of this new person. The original me, and this “survivor”; these two different people, unaware of each other, are living side-by-side. Most of the time, I’m the old me. But inside, I know I am different. My life will never be the same. As a stroke survivor, I have become used to the standard questions and tests the physicians conduct. Do I feel depressed? Can I feel this? Or that? Can I push down evenly on both sides? Smile — do I look symmetrical?
I make jokes. It is how I heal and try to ease the discomfort as someone tries to study me to see how different I am. The way stroke affected me, it’s hard to tell by looking or talking to me that I’m different at all. It’s easy to joke that I didn’t need six working arteries and feel much more efficient with only five. It’s easy to make people laugh as I ease the tension.
But being a stroke survivor, even one with few lasting effects and a good sense of humor, is incredibly difficult. I panic when I get a headache. I am terrified of changing medications. When I get upset, I wonder if my brain is changing or if this is normal. I say dumb things periodically. Dumber than before the stroke? I have no idea because my brain isn’t fully functional.
When I mess something up and say something stupid, I don’t want to “play the stroke card” but I don’t often know what the hell is happening. I recently overstepped in a fairly new friendship. I got inside my own head and didn’t act the way I normally would. I didn’t feel how I normally feel. And when I emerged from the fog, I wondered what the hell had happened. I couldn’t forgive myself and didn’t understand why I would act the way I had acted. I was afraid I had ruined a friendship and couldn’t seem to get out of my own way. These are small things in the grand scheme of many stroke survivors’ challenges to overcome, but they can be incredibly isolating. If I can’t always understand myself, how can I be close to anyone else?
Being a stroke survivor at such a young age is not for the faint of heart. Literally or figuratively. I don’t know if there will be a happy ending for me. I only have five months of varying success and failures to measure. Something I tried to respect before I had a stroke was that I don’t know what I don’t know. Since having a stroke, this has never been more important. I don’t know what I don’t know. And that is ok.
My brain contains dead tissue. I only have five working arteries in my brain. But five out of six ain’t bad. I will take what I’ve got and I will continue to work with it for as many days as I have on this Earth. I owe this to my children and to my family. I will make inappropriate stroke jokes that help bring levity to such a difficult subject for me. I will continue to introspect on my journey and hope to find more stable footing as the years go by. The new me will be better than the old me. I wear my years and scars like badges. I will use this opportunity for a fresh start with the gift of still having so much of myself from before intact. I will not let “cryptogenic, ischemic stroke” define me. I will stay strong.