What It's Like to Recover From a Stroke—at 38
The last time I'd talked with my son, hardly 24 hours earlier, I was driving from the Boston airport to the Berkshires, where my best friend was getting married. As soon as we hung up, I dialed into a conference call. I'm a sports publicist, and my cell phone is like an appendage.
The wedding was picture-perfect. I gave the speech I'd memorized between calls in the car, and Mark and I danced our feet off. By the time we got back to our hotel, I was looking forward to spending the next day in bed reading the Sunday Times. And that's when my world imploded. A strange ticklish feeling came over me—as though I'd pushed a dandelion up my nose—and then everything went black. I could hear, but I couldn't see.
Mark says I started to flop around like a fish on dry land. I felt like I was underwater, trying to scream. My mind was telling me to move my feet or start crying, but my body couldn't comply. My words came out as grunts. I heard Mark call the front desk: "We need an ambulance. I think my wife is having a stroke."
The ER team confirmed his suspicion and gave me an anticoagulant to break up the blood clot and get oxygen to my brain. If you speak medicalese, I'd suffered an acute right middle cerebral artery ischemic stroke; in other words, a big piece of my right brain had died. The doctor told Mark that if I survived, I'd never be able to use my left side again—to walk, talk, or lift my arm.
But I was young! And I didn't have a family history of strokes, although I've since learned that I do have a patent foramen ovale, a small hole between two chambers of my heart, which is more common among people around my age who have strokes. My doctors have never pinpointed exactly why the stroke occurred, though they've speculated that birth control pills and frequent flying may have contributed.
After a few weeks in the neurology ICU, I came home from the hospital. I knew it was a miracle that I'd defied my doctors' expectations (just call me Miracle Mer), but I had a long road to recovery ahead: I could walk, but I was practically dragging my left leg behind me. My whole left side felt numb. I worked with occupational and physical therapists to try to get my strength and balance back, doing lunges across the floor to rebuild my left leg muscles and bouncing a small rubber ball to work my left arm, with mixed success. To this day I still can't feel my left arm or hand.
But the changes went even deeper. Before, I'd been such a type A go-getter. Now I just wanted to sleep. I had lost my sense of time—I couldn't tell the difference between five minutes and two hours. My mouth drooped, and my words sounded jumbled, even to me. I couldn't participate in my own life.
One day in February, four months after the stroke, I met Colin's school bus at the end of our driveway. I thought his face would light up at the sight of me, but when he got off, he burst into tears. The kids on the bus had teased him. "You're still sick!" he said. I told him I was fine. "No, Mommy, you're not." I took a breath. "What's it going to take for you to believe that I am?" "I want it to be like before, when we'd play catch and ride our bikes together," Colin said. "I want you to run, Mom!"
Before the stroke, I'd run eight miles a day, but now the very idea seemed laughable—even insane. I'd struggled to muster enough energy just to get out of bed and down the driveway. And it felt selfish to add one more priority to my list when Mark was already taking care of the three of us and working full-time. But resisting Colin was impossible. And clearly the driven person I used to be was still somewhere inside me, because I decided that not only was I going to run again, I was going to check an item off my bucket list: run the New York City Marathon.
Training started the next day with a slow walk to the mailbox and back. I felt like I was dragging my feet through mud. I may have looked like I was taking a leisurely stroll, but there was nothing leisurely about it.
My doctors and physical therapists were on board with my plan. And my neurologist told me it was a good idea: Running increases blood flow to the brain, which could help speed my recovery. She said to make sure I ate plenty of protein and suggested I try fortified gelato. (Yum. I still eat it most days for breakfast.) But before I could graduate from walking to jogging, I had to relearn how to really pick up my legs and feet. That meant skipping across the room in physical therapy, even though my body felt like lead.
In April, I flew to Italy to celebrate my dad's 70th birthday. I wore compression tights on the plane and set an alarm to stand up every three hours because I was so nervous about having another blood clot. But while we were there, I managed my first slow and steady jog: 20 minutes up the driveway of the house we were staying in.
Encouraged, I started trying to jog my old two-mile route at home. Every single step was a challenge, with my legs and lungs burning and my left arm hanging at my side like a log. (Most runners gain balance and speed by pumping their arms—that's not an option for me.) One morning I couldn't tie my shoes, so I just punched the floor and screamed.
But the stroke wasn't going to break me: I'd done this before, and I could do it again. Eventually, a quarter mile turned into a mile, which turned into three. Then five. Then eight. Ironically, in some ways, my condition made training easier. Because I had no sense of time, I could measure my progress only by distance; I might be out for two hours without even noticing. I just put one foot in front of the other, logging the miles on an app. By August—many blisters and black toenails later—I was going for ten-mile runs. When I did my first 20-miler, I knew I'd be able to race. And on November 1, 2015, a year to the day after the doctors decided I was a goner, I was at the starting line in Staten Island, ready to make a run for it.
When the first people finished, I was still in Brooklyn with at least 15 miles to go. Mark was by my side. He'd signed up for the race along with me. He hadn't trained, but it wasn't too challenging to keep up with my turtlelike pace. Even the walkers were passing me. Yet I felt so energized: The streets were lined with cheering people, and I'd made myself a victory playlist stocked with U2 and songs from the Rocky movies. During mile 23, my phone died, and I had to get through those last three hard miles without "No Easy Way Out" to push me. But I knew that the people who'd gathered around my bed the year before, praying I'd pull through, were waiting up ahead. I held Mark's hand as I crossed the finish line in Central Park and gave Colin and my parents, wearing their I BELIEVE IN MERACLES T-shirts, a huge, sweaty hug.
I'm still running, but these days I'm listening to a lot of Eric Clapton, my dad's favorite. Nineteen days after the race, he went into cardiac arrest and had a stroke with multiple infarctions. I've gone from being a stroke survivor to being a stroke caregiver. I'm training for this year's marathon, which is somehow even tougher now that I'm back at work and busy helping my mom. Every time I feel unmotivated, though, I think about my dad, who sat with me for hours while I was recovering. I can't wait to see him at the finish line again.
Did You Know? If one of your parents had an ischemic stroke before age 65, you're three times more likely to have one than someone without a family history, according to the American Stroke Association. The number one thing you can do to reduce your risk? Maintain healthy blood pressure.
By the Numbers: Strokes among young people may not be as rare as you think: According to a recent study in the Journal of the American Heart Association, between 2000 and 2010, there was a 44 percent rise in hospitalization rates among people ages 25 to 44 for ischemic strokes, despite a drop in the number of hospitalizations overall. Why? The reasons vary, but doctors suggest that increases in obesity, diabetes, and high cholesterol among young people may play a role.