On Nov. 2, 2008, I was taken to the emergency room of my local hospital for a headache, vomiting and nausea. I was given a CT scan and, after a few hours, was released with a diagnosis of vertigo.
(Days later, I learned I'd actually had five small strokes; four pinpoint strokes on the left hemisphere, and a mild one at the base of my cerebellum.)
Stroke and shock
On Nov. 6, I collapsed in the shower and was taken to the same hospital. I had suffered a massive stroke. My right brain was severely damaged and my left side was completely paralyzed. I was rushed out of the hospital, into an ambulance and taken to The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
I was in a state of disbelief until I was being moved to the ambulance; I was 14 years old and was being told I had suffered a stroke. That couldn’t possibly be right.
It wasn’t until a nurse held an outstretched arm in front of me and asked me whose arm it was. I replied it was hers. I heard her say to the doctor, “He thinks it’s mine,” which prompted me to follow the arm down to the elbow, where I saw it was my arm.
My world shattered.
As I lay on the stretcher, my only thought was that this was a nightmare; that I would wake up at any moment and all would be right with the world. Unfortunately, this was only a passing fantasy, as the realization that I was about to go through hell began to take hold.
In critical care at CHOP, I was subjected to all the tests — the MRIs, CT scans, TEEs and all the monitors. When all was said and done, the doctors gave my parents the prognosis: I would be hemiplegic (paralyzed on one side of my body) for the rest of my life.
According to all the data collected from prior patients, the neurological damage I'd suffered was too great to warrant any type of recovery.
What was worse was that the doctors were unable to find any reason why the stroke happened. It was natural, and they found what was believed to be a blood clot on the mitral valve in my heart. But any explanation as to where the clot came from or why the stroke happened was nonexistent.
There was something a little different, however. I could still smile.
In the hospital, I was constantly visited by my family. My parents never left my side, my brother and sister were always there, and aunts, uncles and cousins would visit me regularly. One aunt even spent an entire week with me during therapy.
When they came, I would make jokes, I would smile and I would laugh, sometimes so hard that I would stop breathing long enough to get the machine monitoring my respiration to page the nurse. Of course, this led to me holding my breath on purpose to mess with the nurses.
An unexpected miracle
About four or five days into my stay in critical care, a miracle happened: I could move my left leg. Not well, not far and not much, but I could move it.
This was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I was recovering!
Even better was that the head coach of my high school football team and the team’s unofficial photographer were coming, and I could show everyone that I was moving. A few days later, I was cleared to eat solid food and moved to the Seashore House for therapy.
Beginning physical therapy
At the Seashore House, another miracle happened. I met my physical therapist, who became my best friend and an honorary part of my family. She was just as happy as I was to be there trying to make me better and never stopped giving me things to work on.
I would go to therapy every day wanting only to work, to make myself better, to make this experience a distant memory as soon as possible. She was willing to work with me until I got there.
I never quit, and I never gave up, but there were days I didn’t work to my full potential. Some days I was afraid, for one reason or another about my future. This weighed heavily on me. But I could never carry this attitude into the gym, though. She never let me.
It wasn’t because she didn’t allow slacking (which she didn’t), but because I couldn’t give anything less than my all for someone who wanted nothing more than to make me better. Because of this, I could never do anything but smile around her.
I believe that having this mentality, knowing that people care about you and want to see you, is what got me through my three months at the hospital.
I left the hospital able to walk unaided, save for an ankle brace, and having control over all my arm and very slight control of my fingers.
I returned to school about a week after my release from the hospital, and I was accepted by my friends and classmates wholeheartedly. I continued my therapy at an outpatient facility, with some of the best OTs I know and some of the best PTs I’ve known (short of only my old PT, of course).
Experience has made me stronger
I have continued therapy there for about a year and a half. While I haven’t recovered completely, I continue making progress in my therapy and will not stop until I have recovered completely.
I will not say I want to be the person I was, because this has made me stronger than I could have ever been. It's taught me to handle adversity with a grin on my face. You will always get better, so long as you’re willing to work for it.
By Andrew, November 2010