Wednesday, July 22 wasn’t supposed to be an extraordinary day by any stretch of the imagination. All I had planned was a quick trip to the grocery store with my kids in tow followed by dropping lunch off at my husband’s office and then that night I was scheduled to teach a strength and conditioning class at a local gym. It was supposed to be a pretty typical summer day for the kids and me.
Things went awry at home during the process of putting the groceries away. My right eye stopped working and my head started hurting. I had the intense desire to sit down on the kitchen floor and asked my kids to grab me a pillow so I could lie down comfortably.
My 11 year-old daughter stood over me and said, “I’m going to call Daddy.” What I tried to say in response was, “I’m alright. I’m OK,” but it came out as moans instead. I realized I was drooling and as my kids became more panicked I thought to myself, “Crap – I’m having a stroke.” I then dismissed the thought as stupid considering I’m a healthy 41 year-old woman with no medical history of anything other than occasional migraines and some lower back issues.
Everything in these moments seemed so surreal, as though I was experiencing something on someone else’s behalf. My daughter continued to stand over me, now with her hands on her hips, scolding me. “Momma, you’re not OK and you’re not alright.” She grabbed my phone and dialed my husband’s number. I began to fall asleep on the floor while I listened to her beg him to come home.
My husband arrived home quickly. He tried to help me stand up but my left side gave out. He called 911 and they gave him a series of tests to give me ranging from putting my hands above my head, which I couldn’t do, and then they had him ask me questions including what day it was and my name. I was frustrated because my voice sounded like it was in slow motion and I could tell my husband was starting to panic. It wasn’t long before he told me an ambulance was on its way, and I soon heard the sirens.
The first thing I heard the paramedic say when he walked in was him commenting on my drooling, and I was slightly mortified. At one point one of the paramedics asked me, “What day is it, dear? Can you tell me what day it is?” I couldn’t remember offhand, so I tried to respond with, “This is the day that The Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it.” The paramedic couldn’t understand me so I looked over at my husband and tried to implore him with my eyes to translate on my behalf, but he couldn’t understand me either.
In the ambulance, one of the paramedics kept grabbing my arm saying, “Stay with us, Tamsen!” I just wanted them to let me sleep and started to wonder if they thought I was dying instead of sleeping. It was the first moment I wondered if I was indeed dying. I was upset with myself for not reminding my husband which company carried my life insurance policy before leaving the house.
When I was rolled into the hospital, various medical personnel started barraging me with questions. “Do you do drugs? Do you have diabetes? Do you smoke?” I kept repeating the same response as loudly and emphatically as I could: “NO! I’m very healthy! I’m healthy!” I think at one point I started saying, “I’m a fitness instructor! I’m healthy!” to anyone who would listen. As if by revealing my gym rat status they would let me go home.
I remember hearing my husband’s voice as he tried to answer questions on my behalf. The doctor urged my husband to consent to give me tPA, which is known as a “blood clot blaster.” My husband immediately agreed, eager to do whatever he could to save the mother of his children. Everyone assured my husband that tPA was the best course of action.
At some point they were wheeling me along to somewhere else in the hospital and I realized I was going to throw up. I couldn’t figure out how to form the words to warn the medical staff that I was going to be sick, so I started patting my stomach and tried to look the nurse in the eyes to let her know something was wrong. I felt intensely helpless in this moment. Most of my friends will argue that I never stop talking, so to suddenly lose the ability to talk was frightening. After a loud belch escaped my lips, the nurse looked down at me and asked if I was going to be sick. I nodded my head and she grabbed a bag for me just in time.
My words did come back to me after they administered the tPA. Later while having a consultation with a speech pathologist, I managed to insist, “I’m usually very eloquent!” I then realized that I was spending a lot of energy making sure everyone who encountered me didn’t think this was the “real me.” The real me is healthy and eloquent, and certainly not helpless. And to tell you the truth, I couldn’t help but think that healthy, eloquent me didn’t deserve any of this.
After a battery of various tests the doctors announced that I had a large hole in my heart, which allowed a blood clot a direct pathway to my brain, causing the stroke. I never knew I had a hole in my heart, and apparently it’s fairly common, but it was sure a jolting realization. Earlier that day I was in the grocery store, and now, here I was, in the ICU being told my heart is messed up.
Later, the occupational therapists assigned to me visited my room and asked if I was ready to try to walk. I thought about all the times I’d encouraged the people in my exercise classes to do just one more squat, and I thought about how strong my legs were, and I visualized myself standing up. I didn’t give myself the option of being scared to try to stand. I was able to stand with help, but walking was another story. The therapists literally had to teach me how to walk again. As I shuffled around the ICU with help, one of the nurses started applauding me. I joked with the therapist that I couldn’t remember the last time someone applauded me for walking.
It was later that night when I tried to call my brother but couldn’t figure out how to use my cell phone that I knew the stroke had affected my brain.
It affected my emotions too. A week or so after the stroke a friend texted me a photo of her toddler running through a splash pad. It happened to be the same splash pad that a couple weeks before the stroke I had visited with my kids and had a great time. The picture made me sob as I mourned not being the mom I was before the stroke anymore.
Basically, I’d spent the past few weeks mourning my own death. The person I was before the stroke isn’t who I am now and it’s painfully apparent. Every day I’m reminded of something I can’t do as easily anymore.
It’s not likely that I will soon drive to a meeting across town and confidently strive into the conference room with the swagger of a subject matter expert. I won’t soon throw my son over my shoulder and run through a splash pad while he shrieks in glee. Pre-stroke me didn’t have a month’s worth of medical appointments on the calendar already.
But here’s the happy ending: I’m alive. The stroke didn’t end me, although it certainly could have. As my family and I strive to figure out our new “normal” I can’t help but count my many blessings. I’ve relearned how to walk, talk, and even type and I fully expect to be back teaching fitness classes eventually.
The Stromies are a group of three women who were fortunate enough to have met through The American Heart and Stroke Association of Nebraska at the beginning of 2018. They live in Omaha, Nebraska and run a blog to support fellow stroke survivors. Stromies means homies who have had strokes. Social media has connected them with other stroke survivors from all over the world. Every stroke survivor that they have gotten to know shares one big thing: hope.