‘At 36, I was nearly silenced after suffering a stroke’

A literacy leader shares how a health setback propelled her forward by Robin M. Wilson

"I would argue that nothing gives life more purpose than the realization that every moment of consciousness is a precious and fragile gift."- Steven Pinker

What would you do if you lost your ability to speak? Six months ago, this happened to me after I suffered a mini-stroke or what is known as a transient ischemic attack (TIA). According to Michigan Medicine, an online publication of the University of Michigan Hospital, this type of stroke happens when blood flow to parts of the brain have been blocked or reduced. The stroke impaired my expressive speech. I could barely tell the triage nurse my birthdate, which was alarming.

At 36, I was a non-smoker. I was in relatively good health. A vegan, who exercised regularly, I never had a reason to suspect that I was at risk for a stroke. Yet, one week before my birthday, I found myself hospitalized for three days after a blood clot traveled to my brain.

According to my doctors, swelling in my brain is what caused the impairment in my speech. While concerned, I never lost my mobility or my ability to read, write, or comprehend. These were reasons to be thankful.

My doctors gave me a medical binder with information on strokes. As I laid in my hospital bed, I read through the materials to educate myself on what I experienced. To some degree, being able to read and comprehend this information gave me a sense of comfort. I had built my life around words.

In my early 20’s, I founded and ran a successful literacy nonprofit organization after overcoming childhood reading challenges. My early life experiences of being a slow reader fueled my passion for literacy matters. It led to my current work as a literacy leader and teacher.

I am a published poet and children's author. For more than 10 years, I have been invited to speak to young people at schools, libraries, and nonprofit organizations. My message has focused consistently on the importance of reading and becoming a lifelong learner.

Yet, in a single moment, I was faced with the reality that my career as a teacher and my ability to pursue my passion of speaking could be over if my expressive speech did not return. I remember feeling my words were lost and trapped in my mind. For 48 hours, I struggled to get the right words to flow from my mouth. A speech therapist visited me daily. Over the course of two days, and with much prayer, my expressive speech returned to its baseline. Still, they continued to run tests to rule out other health factors.

On the second day, my doctor came to inform me that an echocardiogram showed a patent foramen ovale (PFO), a tiny hole in the heart. This hole is present during fetal development but it typically closes in infancy. According to the American Heart Association, more than a quarter of the population has a PFO and they are unaware. For most people, a PFO causes no adverse health effects. In my case, however, doctors believe the blood clot traveled to my brain through my PFO.

With no further signs of blood clots, doctors released me from the hospital. They gave me a temporary heart monitor to wear. Two months later, they scheduled me for two surgeries—one to check my stents from a previous procedure and the other to close the PFO. Doctors successfully completed the first procedure, but in attempting to close the hole in my heart, they discovered they could not find it.

Today, my doctors are not completely clear on why the blood clot traveled to my brain aside from the fact that I have a history of Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT). DVT is a condition that occurs when a blood clot forms in a vein deep within the body. Because of my medical history, I faithfully take my anticoagulant medications, eat a plant-based diet, and exercise regularly. In fact, these have been self-care practices of mine for quite some time. This regimen has also been found to reduce the risk of stroke. It is my hope that these same practices along with consistent monitoring from my doctors will lessen the likelihood of future strokes.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, someone in the United States has a stroke every 40 seconds. Every 4 minutes, someone dies of a stroke. It is estimated that about 87% of all strokes are a TIA, in which blood flow to the brain is blocked. In 2009, 34% of people hospitalized for stroke were less than 65 years old. An individual’s age, gender, race, and family medical history can contribute to stroke risk factors, but maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle can help prevent strokes.

I lived to celebrate 37 years of life. I have the ability to speak and I count my blessings. Two months after experiencing an ischemic stroke and one week before my surgeries, I successfully delivered a speech on literacy and on leaving a leadership legacy before a live audience.

For several years, organizational leaders have asked me to develop programs for youth and to give guidance on aspects of nonprofit leadership. I have steadfastly done this work while teaching full-time and working in other organizational positions. Thus, I came into this year determined to officially incorporate my educational consulting business. When I survived my stroke, I felt a sense of urgency to walk out the plans for my business, speaking, and writing career.

Following my release from the hospital, I took a two-week leave of absence from my teaching assignment. Still, my body would not allow me to do everything that I wanted to do. Instead of six hours of sleep per night, I needed close to nine. For me, this meant an earlier than usual bedtime. As a result, there were some things that had to wait for another day. Initially, this was hard to accept because of my “push through it” mentality. However, doctors assured me the tiredness was normal, and rest was the best way for my body to heal.

As my body continues to heal, I have managed to regain my energy. I have become smarter with my time. Rest is a must in order for me to complete tasks throughout my day. Still, I have maintained an active lifestyle and career. I speak, teach, and run my nonprofit consulting business. I am also preparing for the relaunch of my children’s book Mama Got Rhythm Daddy Got Rhyme on November 9, 2021.

The stroke did not silence me. Rather, it lit a fire in me to live more boldly and to appreciate each moment of my day. I am learning to give myself more grace. I am becoming better at prioritizing what is on my schedule. Self-preservation is at the top of my list.

For more information on strokes and prevention, visit Preventing Stroke: What You Can Do | cdc.gov.

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