Sunday, October 28, 2012

Stroke of [some sort of] Luck

I had a stroke, I'm only 56 years old, and I’m gonna tell you about it.

It started last Sunday, October 21. I had graded and updated grade books for about 10 hours on Saturday, and I was feeling great to have gotten so much done. I was up in my greenhouse office, answering emails, when suddenly, I was dizzy, I had a headache, and I couldn’t make my hand work—it was “floppy” and unresponsive. I could feel it—it wasn’t paralyzed or numb—I just couldn’t make it do what I wanted it to. My overly analytical brain immediately said, “You could be having a stroke! Take an inventory!” So, I methodically went through the steps: Hold your arms over your head and leave them up for minute to see if one “drifts;” smile, to see if the two sides of your mouth go up the symmetrically; remember and repeat back several small sentences. By the time I got through the inventory, the dizziness had passed, and my hand was cooperating again.

I came downstairs and took my blood pressure. It was 188/127, which I immediately wrote off to old batteries in the apparatus, because I’m a total pro at rationalizing. I went in the bathroom, where I had another “spell” just like the first. When it passed—they lasted about a minute each--I sat down and had a little wine (as one does), then took my blood pressure again. It was 137/120 now, so I figured the freak show was over. I went to Susan Osborn’s “Singing and Silence” workshop (, which was wonderful, and the rest of the day was normal.

On Monday morning, I called and made a doctor appointment to deal with the blood pressure. Then, when I walked into my 11:00 class, I had another “spell.” It passed and I got through class, so I headed to Mom’s to wait for the doc apt. I had another little “spell” at Mom’s. The doc did a once-over, a CT scan of my head (which looked normal), and put me on blood pressure medicine and a blood thinner, then scheduled more tests for Wednesday, when the MRI truck came to town. She wanted me to see a neurologist, too, and they would call me soon with an appointment time.

During the night, maybe 3 a.m., I woke up and thought my hand felt funny…heavy…slow. But I didn’t have a headache and I wasn’t dizzy, so of course, I went back to sleep. Then, when I got out of bed Tuesday morning, I had trouble getting down the stairs and making coffee. Since the neuro folks hadn’t called back yet, we opted for ER in Sioux Falls, which seems to be the ONLY way to get a neurologist to see you.

Soooo…an MRI, MRA, CT scan, echocardiogram & bubble test, carotid Doppler ultrasound and 3 days in the neuro/stroke ICU later, I know that what I had is a small ischemic stroke in the PONS structure of my brain ( 

The stroke educator told me the little "spells" are called TIA's--"mini strokes" that can warn of a bigger one coming--but I didn't know that then. I also didn't know then that in spite of a relatively healthy body & lifestyle, I had the stroke precursor quadrifecta: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, and stress. Woops. She told me the pons is the “Manhattan” of the brain. I’ve also seen it described as the brain’s “junction box.” Either way, it’s a very busy place, and damage there can really muck up the whole system. So I got off relatively easy; I can’t use my left hand much, and walking is tricky, since my left knee doesn’t seem to know if it should lock or not, but my thinking, speech, vision, hearing (all things that can be affected by pons damage) are intact. 

I'm home, and for now, I can’t go for more than a few minutes at anything without resting, work is out for the remainder of this semester at least, and I look like a drunk zombie when I walk. I burst into tears occasionally (the brain stem also coordinates emotions), I have to wallow in self pity now & then, and I don’t want to see or talk to anyone who knew the “old me.”

Oh, and the neurologist finally called. They can squeeze me in December 4. Hehe. Ah, the efficient American health care system...

Ram Dass, a stroke survivor (, says that you have think of yourself as having two lives: the you before the stroke, and the new post-stroke you. He says there’s real danger in comparing the two, because then you focus on what you CAN’T do anymore. For example, the old me liked to play guitar and dance and knit and cook. The new me likes to button my own shirt and wipe my own arse. See how that kind of comparing might not be productive? Anyway, the docs say I could get a lot of this function back. In the meantime, just know that the new me is here, brain sparking out new neural pathways, and who knows what I’ll be when all this is done?

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