Reclaiming My Life: The People and Technology that Brought Me Back from a Stroke
My journey to healing and wellness began on the sickest day of my life, August 19, 2014. That was the day that I wandered through IKEA not knowing what I was doing there. It was the day that I couldn't find the words "happy meal" in the McDonald's drive-thru, or any other word for that matter. It was the day the arteries to my brain shriveled up, and when they reopened, three large blood clots landed on the front left part of my brain. August 19, 2014, was the day I had a stroke.
With my two-year-old strapped into the backseat of the car and a baby in my belly, I left McDonalds and got on the interstate to head home, but nothing looked familiar except a mountain peak. I called my husband. No answer. I called my dad. He answered, but I couldn't say anything to him. In fifteen minutes on the phone I got out only four words, one of which was "point"—an obscure reference to the mountain I was passing. With that one word and the help of angels no doubt, my dad figured out where I was and encouraged me to get off of the road. My daughter was crying. I was sobbing. I remember my brother and a friend finding me in a parking lot on the side of the road. From there it’s all a fog, until I woke up in the hospital.
Over days I went in and out of a deep sleep. Every time I was awake I saw people I knew, but I couldn't say anything to them—not “Hi” or “Thanks for being here,” or “Where is my daughter?,” or the most excruciating question, “Am I still pregnant?” I could just look at them and try to piece together where they fit in my life. But one thing seemed to stand out—every time I was awake, I noticed that everyone seemed to be on their computers and phones. Months later, I asked about this. My husband, with tears in his eyes, said, "I was trying to figure out how to bring you back." That's what they were all doing.
Digital technology in the hands of ordinary, loving people is a miracle. This was my miracle, enabling my complete recovery. And it began in that hospital emergency room when my family was told that there was nothing wrong with me and that I should be taken home to "sleep it off." They wouldn't accept that answer. They pulled out their smartphones and got busy calling doctor friends, Googling symptoms, sending Facebook messages and texts, begging for prayers from friends and family.
On day two they finally persuaded my caretakers to perform an MRI. It seems unthinkable in hindsight that it took that long, but healthy 28-year-old stroke victims are not common. The MRI showed that three parts of my brain were already dead. Immediately they gave me a shot of blood thinner to begin dissipating the blood clots and then rushed me to the nearest stroke unit at a neighboring hospital. It had been a full 24 hours since my initial stroke. My family, technology in tow, had saved my life in their search for answers. They simply would not rest until they had some.
On day three I opened my eyes and very slowly, tripping over every word, said "W-w-w-wwhere th-th-th-th-th-they c-c-c-c-c-c-com-m-me f-f-f-rommm?," motioning to some flowers by my side. The neurologist was shocked. My family was ecstatic. None of them had been sure that I would ever speak again. I was just grateful, but very confused about why it was so hard to get words out.
Once I showed signs of speaking, I began all kinds of therapy—physical, speech, occupational—all of which brought humiliation and frustration. I remember being asked to name ten fruits. I couldn't remember more than three, and remembering those three took far longer than I was comfortable with. Upon leaving the hospital, I told my therapists that I wouldn't be continuing therapy. I needed it desperately. But right then what I felt I needed most was time to get used to my new brain.
Once home, my husband and mom became my therapists, caretakers, and healers. My mom made me go out on walks. After a hundred yards I would need a nap. My husband would give me blood thinner shots twice a day. In his downtime he would seek out and download apps to help me challenge my brain--the Elevate brain training app was especially helpful. I learned the amazing truth that there really is “an app for that” – even for healing from the dire consequences of a major stroke, and my smart phone became a key to opening the door to my health and wellness. Here are some apps and online communities that helped me:
The stroke affected my language center, wiping clean all of my language abilities. My native language, English, started to come back after three days, but what little I had of a second language—the Spanish my husband had helped me learn so I could communicate with his family—was gone completely. I was heartbroken when I discovered this loss as he spoke with his parents in the hospital on speakerphone, and I realized I couldn’t understand a word. So we downloaded DuoLingo, a language learning app, to help me regain what I’d lost. It’s been a struggle, but I’m determined to keep at it.
After the stroke I developed debilitating migraines. My neurologist recommended that I quit drinking soda and eating sugar. "Great," I thought. "My two main food groups." I clicked open my Pinterest app and very reluctantly deleted my dessert board, my treat board, and my soda concoctions board, and in their place I started building clean eating boards. I honestly don't know if I could have quit sugar and soda without the clean eating community and their beautiful photography of whole foods to pull me through.
It’s been proven that, after a stroke, the earlier you begin to mobilize, the better you’ll do in recovery. That’s why my mom wanted me to get out walking as soon as possible after the incident. Today, to maintain my health, I exercise with the Sweat app on my phone and interact with other women who do the same. I’m currently working through a yoga challenge with friends on Instagram who cheer me on. My Fitbit fitness tracker syncs to my phone and I earn badges for taking a certain number of steps each day. By now, I go much farther than the 100 yards I was limited to a few years ago.
Continuing to find mental clarity is a daily challenge, so Insight Timer, a meditation app, helps me slow down and clear my head. The app syncs up with fellow meditators all over the world. We encourage each other to take time every day to be still. Even three years after the stroke, I still really need this, and I appreciate the opportunity to interact with others.
Finally, I recently rallied the courage to begin interacting with an association of fellow stroke survivors, a community that stood by my side throughout my recovery: the Utah Valley Stroke Association. When I looked them up, I was shocked to find a picture of me on the Facebook page cover photo. Cue the tears. When I interact with these people, the gift I’ve received of a full recovery sometimes makes me feel uncomfortable. It seems unfair. But they remind me that a survivor is a survivor, no matter the outcome. I am so grateful for this virtual community—people who understand a part of me that even my closest family members can’t, and hopefully never will.
When I think back on what happened three years ago, I’m amazed. Textbooks say I should have been brain dead or completely dead by the time I had that MRI. Undoubtedly I would have been, had I gone home and "slept it off." But loved ones intervened. I credit my full recovery to God who saw fit to give me another chance, to my family who helped me find a path to healing and wellness, and to hundreds more I still connect with today through technology. Their love and support have kept me going.
August 19, 2014, was not only the sickest day of my life. It was the day I learned a cherished lesson: my life is of deep value to others. The miracle of living in our time is that we don’t have to be just patients. With love as the drive and digital technology as the power, we and our loved ones can be true partners in our collective health and well-being.
Annalece Misiego is the creator of Famology, an inspiring Instagram channel dedicated to supporting families of all shapes and sizes. For incredible, diverse stories of what family is all about, follow them @famology.