Stories of Hope: New Life After a Stroke

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People who suffer traumatic illnesses or injuries often exhibit some new and uncharacteristic behaviors afterward. Part of that may be due to the shock and strain of confronting a potentially life-threatening event, as well as the frustration of embarking on an often slow and painful process of rehabilitation. But there are also often physical and physiological reasons.

Those who suffer strokes, in which the flow of blood to the brain is suddenly stopped due to a blockage or hemorrhage, are especially prone to personality and behavior changes, as strokes cause damage to various parts of the brain. Depending on how and where the brain is injured, the stroke survivor may become vulnerable to temporary or lasting periods of depression, bouts of anger or agitation, unexplained mood swings, impulsive behavior, and memory problems. In some cases, a person who has had a stroke may show evidence of new psychiatric disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive behavior or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

That’s the downside of the reality. But the upside is that due to medical and technological advancements, strokes can now be treated—and in many cases, prevented.

And it’s also true that, using the sudden catalyst of a stroke as an impetus, some people are able to make profound and beneficial life changes.

While many people have memorialized personal accounts of their strokes and recoveries, a few stroke survivors, including the three described here, have recently come forward as ambassadors for how the whole experience helped them change and remake their lives. Coincidentally, two of them were doctors who focused on treating other people’s strokes before suffering debilitating strokes themselves. And contrary to medical urgings, none of the three received medical treatment until many hours after their strokes occurred.

A Stroke of Luck

Diane Barnes, a single mother, was driving one of her two young boys to summer camp when she was suddenly stricken by what she describes as “the worst headache of my life.” A radiologist practicing in northern California and charged with diagnosing others’ strokes by interpreting CT scans, Barnes was well aware of the signs of a stroke and the importance of getting medical help quickly. Still, she gamely continued the hours-long drive home from camp, then took a couple of Motrin and went to sleep, awakening to lasting and excruciating pain the next morning. It was 20 hours before she sought help at the hospital; she now puts the chances of her surviving for 24 hours at 50/50.

Fast forward to today—about a decade after the stroke: Barnes is the sole actor performing an 80-minute play she wrote titled “My Stroke of Luck” cataloguing her stroke, copious therapy, and slow recovery. In a particularly poignant part of the play, she describes her frustration about talking gibberish after the stroke, being unable to express her thoughts, having lapses such as forgetting to turn off the stove, needing to record her every move and appointment in a journal just to function through the day. “Mostly,” she says, “I wanted to be someone I recognized again.”

Barnes became that person, though noticeably changed, after doggedly pursuing a regimen of therapies. She now refers to her stroke as “a gift that keeps on giving.” The “stroke of luck” spurred her to reconnect with her two sons—and to make the brave leap of quitting her medical job and pursuing a later-in-life acting career.

“In losing so much of the analytic, precision ordered parts of my brain, I also lost the tendency to worry and have deep anxiety and depression,” she says now. “In losing the logical, orderly, scientific, show-me-the-evidence parts of my brain, I was open to serendipity, to sensing my way, to listening to and following my intuition.”

You can watch a brief trailer below in which Barnes answers the question often asked of her: How long did it take you to get back to being you?

A Stroke of Insight

Across the country in Boston, Jill Bolte Taylor was working as a neuroanatomist studying mental disorders when she experienced a “pounding, caustic pain” in her head—a symptom of a massive stroke caused by a blood vessel exploding in the left side of her brain. Unable to walk, talk, read, or write, she was still able to think and discern what was happening to her. “My brain said: ‘This is so cool. How many brain scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain from the inside out?’” Taylor says in a TED Talk that’s become one of the most popular in the series. She also says she felt a profound sense of euphoria as the injury to the left side of her brain allowed her to lose “a lifetime of emotional baggage.”

Taylor memorialized her experience and recovery process in a book, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. In it, she describes the stroke-induced “insight” she gained as feelings of compassion and joy in accessing her right brain. She still seems to think, and write, like a neuroanatomist: “From a neuroanatomical perspective, I gained access to the experience of deep inner peace in the consciousness of my right mind when the language and orientation association areas in the left hemisphere of my brain became nonfunctional,” she writes.

Taylor also recently founded Jill Bolte Taylor BRAINS, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing educational services and programs related to advancing brain awareness.

‘What Now?’ Instead of ‘Why Me?’

Aneu Gal was living a typical day back in August 2007, returning to work after a dental appointment when an aneurysm in her brain ruptured, leaving her immediately comatose. Her score on the Glascow Coma Scale—the 15-point system used to rate the severity of a coma—was a 3, indicating she was clinically dead. Revived through surgery on the right hemisphere of her brain, she was left with some challenging deficits that she refers to endearingly as “souvenirs”—some of which still exist to this day: weakness in the left side of her body, muscle spasms and contractions, an abnormal gait, distorted vision, slowed thinking, and limited short-term memory.

She maintains a blog detailing her onerous recovery process. But she also shares the wonder she feels, as well as practical and heartfelt observations on the importance of the support groups she attended and the family and friends who surrounded her. “It is important to realize that just being there is incredibly healing,” she writes. “While I was still in ICU, in and out of consciousness, I may not have remembered your visit but, I know you were there pulling for me.”

Gal also made a brief film (see below)  chronicling her experiences and the offering a hopeful conclusion: “Three great things happened from laying on death’s couch, and surviving,” she says. “I worry less. I’m easily amused. And I appreciate everything a lot more.”

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