A Stroke Survivor’s Story

Joan Jackson
By Joan Jackson April 1, 2016 19:41


Stroke survivor Charlie Rioux shares her recovery experiences in a blog called “Single-handedly” at the Friends and Neighbors website. Find it in the Readers’ Journal section at seniorfan.com. To preserve her privacy, Charlie uses a pseudonym for this story and her blog. She hopes to return to work in the future but is concerned that her stroke experience will carry a stigma.  

On the day her life changed, Charlie Rioux was up at 5:30 as usual, getting ready for work while staying at her brother and sister-in-law’s house in San Mateo County.

Charlie, then 51, traveled weekly from her Angels Camp home to the Bay Area and her job as a senior manager, working 60-hour weeks at a high-tech firm.

As she stepped out of the bathroom on that July morning four and a half years ago, she suddenly fell backward.

Charlie had suffered an ischemic stroke; a clot had blocked a blood vessel in her brain.

Bewildered to find herself on the floor, she kept trying to get up, but her left leg and arm simply wouldn’t work. She had no idea she’d had a stroke.

“That’s the interesting thing about a stroke,” Charlie says. “It’s not a jolt.”

Fewer than 42 percent of stroke victims know they are having a stroke when one hits, a 2008 Mayo Clinic study found.

Her sister-in-law, concerned when Charlie didn’t show up for her usual morning cup of coffee, finally came looking for her. Alarmed at finding Charlie on the floor, dazed and struggling, she called 911. By this time, 90 minutes had passed.

Charlie’s stepson and nephew, both home at the time, called her husband and brother.

EMTs loaded Charlie in an ambulance and took her to Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City for a CT scan. By the time she was diagnosed, nearly six hours had passed. She was outside the three-hour window for administering tPA – tissue plasminogen activator, a drug that can dissolve clots and reduce brain damage.

Charlie remained at Sequoia for a week. Then she and her family faced a critical decision: Where should she go for the longer-term acute care she required?

They chose California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. She spent five weeks there, doing intensive physical, occupational and speech therapy, followed by daily support groups with other patients in the traumatic brain injury unit.

“The therapy team was amazing, and the support group was an amazing program,” Charlie says.

She was on her feet and walking with a cane within three weeks, but efforts to regain the use of her left arm and hand were and continue to be slow and difficult. She has some movement in her left arm, but because the arm hangs, she has had to deal with a gap in her shoulder socket.

Without her left arm and hand, many daily tasks are difficult or impossible for Charlie. “It’s hard to cook, lift a laundry basket or hook my bra,” she says.

Six weeks after the stroke, Charlie was able to return home to Angels Camp. She managed to get in-home physical, occupational and speech therapy and went to Sonora Regional Medical Center for rehab twice a month. There she met Anne Burleigh Jacobs, Ph.D., a physical therapist and expert on post-stroke recovery.

At Sonora Regional Charlie saw a new biofeedback device demonstrated, but her insurance company refused to pay for it. Noticing Charlie’s discouragement, Anne offered to work with her; perhaps they could get results a different way. They began meeting at a gym twice a month.

“Anne has taught me about problem-solving,” says Charlie. “She’s taught me how to take the time to figure out how to do things.” They take small steps toward retraining the brain to regain the use of her arm and hand. Because the brain is often building totally new pathways, the results can be startling.

“When I’m working with my left arm and hand, my left foot cramps,” says Charlie with a laugh. She has full sensation in her left hand, but still can’t grab things. Her left side is now more ticklish.

Her psychological journey has been even more arduous than the physical. From the beginning, Charlie has wrestled with questions and fears.

She worries about having another stroke, as about 25 percent of all strokes are recurrent. She battles high cholesterol, and her family has a history of heart disease.

The year before the stroke Charlie had gone to the ER unable to move the fingers on her left hand. A battery of tests, including an EKG, was negative. Function returned to her fingers, but she wonders if the episode was a precursor.

In the days and weeks before the stroke, she remembers an occasional “whooshing” in her ears. It wasn’t until afterward that a cardiac surgeon confirmed that sound can be a sign of impending stroke.

Charlie wondered if she would be able to go back to work. While her boss visited her in the hospital and was supportive, she found that the company had little in place to help her transition back into the workplace.

As a senior manager, Charlie was used to long hours and high stress, handling complex, high-profile projects. After weeks of therapy, she returned to work. “They reduced my responsibilities. I was doing more administrative work,” she says. After a few frustrating weeks, she took early retirement.

Part of Charlie’s therapy since has focused on restoring executive function impaired by the stroke, like decision-making and the concept of time, but both remain challenges for her. She uses a calendar and keeps clocks all around her house to stay on track.

Determined to move forward after retiring, Charlie began taking online classes and earned a bachelor’s degree in health-care administration. She hopes over time to bring her analytic, management and organizational skills to ineffective hospital processes she has seen firsthand.

Charlie and her husband were building a new home in Angels Camp before she fell ill. After the stroke, she worried about what would happen, but her husband has taken on many of her former responsibilities.

Among surprises in the wake of the stroke is the grief she still feels. “I am not the same anymore,” she says, taking a deep breath. “A part of me died.”

She has learned to rely more on the support of family and others. Charlie knows this is a journey where success will not come quickly or without help.

“Recovery is a marathon,” she says, “but it does get better. I just started driving again.”

 

Help for stroke survivors, families

REGIONAL

Columbia College Rehabilitation for Physically Limited, fitness training tailored to individuals, may repeat class. (209) 588-5187.

Gold Country Stroke Support Group Offers survivors and loved ones information, perspective and understanding, occasional guest speakers.  Meets 3-4:30pm first Thursday of month, Sutter Amador Hospital, 200 Mission Blvd., Jackson. Mike Hewitt, (209) 304-7212, shmhewitt@comcast.net.

Sonora Regional Medical Center Neurological Support Group For survivors of stroke or traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Guillain-Barre, etc. Meets 1-2pm first Wednesday of month. Caregivers, family and friends welcome. (209) 536-5046.

ONLINE

American Stroke Association strokeassociation.org

Brain Injury Support Centers (by county) braininjurysupportcenter.com/statewide-brain-injury-disability-research-resources

Center for Stroke Recovery stroke-network.com

National Institutes of Health Clinical Trails Registry clinicaltrials.gov

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke stroke.nih.gov

National Stroke Association stroke.org

Pacific Stroke Association pacificstrokeassociation.org

Copyright © 2016 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Joan Jackson
By Joan Jackson April 1, 2016 19:41
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