In crucial ways, she was like an infant. She couldn't talk, had forgotten how to walk. Math and reading were gone. Someone gave her the pieces of a baby's puzzle and she stared at them dully, perplexed. But her mother had struggled in vain to pull one child from the vortex and she wasn't going to let this one go. Words had been wiped out? She'd help her relearn them. "When she'd feed me, my mom would never ask a yes or no question. She'd say, 'You can have soup, or you can have grilled cheese, or you can have tuna. Which do you want?' I would go, 'Soup? Soup?' then remember 'Soup!' She opened mental files for me." Slowly, word by hard-fought word, they brought her vocabulary back.
With Kelly, she worked on relearning to walk. At first she could only totter, but they practiced at a nearby old people's home over and over till she was ready for a wooded park she loved, a place where she'd felt her spirit soar. Going slowly, they'd walk the lake, admiring the trees and rocks. Then one day, Kelly helped her up on the rocks and "I knew I was going to be okay," Jill says. "I was back. My spirit was strong enough. I could face whatever came."
The first choice she had to make was whether to leave the Boston area. For a long time she'd hated being so far from her family. Now she realized she didn't have to be. She found a house in Bloomington, took a job teaching college anatomy in order to relearn anatomy, and waited to see who she'd become.
Five years after the stroke, she can say for sure who she's not anymore: a workaholic. Afternoons she knocks off to walk four miles, past sun-dappled cornfields near her house. At night she sleeps as much as she needs to, which is a lot—9 to 11 hours, one of the few indications her body's still slightly fragile. If she gets tired, part of her face droops. She can confuse words.
Physically, the stroke's lasting changes weren't extreme. Her math isn't as fast. She has some trouble with sensory stimulation: "I don't like crowds. You can't get me to a movie. When I sit in an airport, I put on sunglasses." Spiritually, the changes were profound. Every day she prays, "just to stay hooked to God. When I go to sleep, I wrap one hand around the other to feel like I'm holding God's, and say thank you for all the blessings of my life."
She's become "a right brain, converted left"—less overanalytical, less intellectually inhibited. "I got a rich new world," she says. "My art and my music have flourished."
Her time now is spent writing and lecturing. She's at work on a book about her experience, has published several articles. Recently, she recorded some Singing Scientist radio spots for the American Heart Association on the warning signs of stroke: sudden loss of vision or speech; sudden headache; weakness or tingling in the face, arms, or legs; sudden or unusual falls. She still addresses families of schizophrenics, and lately she's added a second audience: school kids, who are usually rapt, not just because she brings specimens but because she's exhilarating on complexities—of the brain and of life.
"I tell them how when we are born, 50 percent of the nerve cells die almost immediately. Fifty percent of 'em! I say that at puberty, 40 to 60 percent of dendritic connections disappear. The connections are pruned. I tell them whatever they like to do now they need to do a lot of, because pathways are getting laid down. I say, 'Tell your brain, "I like football, I like art, I want to do music." Encourage yourself. Don't be mean to yourself. And don't let other people be mean to you. They don't have the right. They can't take you away from you. You are here to show up. Show up! It's your life.'"
From the October 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
We Hear You!