Rebuilding, relearning after stroke
Anna Boelcskevy went to bed one night with a headache unlike any she’d ever had.
“It felt like a balloon being inflated inside a helmet,” Anna said, “except that helmet was my skull.”
The pain was so strong it woke her up. Anna, who was 24 years old at the time, fell while trying to get out of bed. When she tried shouting for help, “nothing was working. All I could get out was more like a whimper.”
Anna was having an ischemic stroke. A blood clot blocked the flow of blood to the right side of her brain, paralyzing her left side.
Anna was then living at her parents’ home in Needham, Mass. Luckily, her mom heard the fall, found her on the ground and immediately called 9-1-1.
“When the doctor told me I had a stroke, all I could think of was that I thought strokes were something your grandparents got a couple months before they died,” Anna said. “I thought I was going to die, and started thinking about all the things I’d never get a chance to do.”
Anna spent a week in the intensive care unit and another week undergoing in-patient rehabilitation therapy. She regained some motion three days after her stroke, but had a long recovery ahead.
Three months of challenging outpatient rehabilitation therapy helped her regain her ability to walk, communicate and conduct her daily life. It took two years for her speech to fully return.
There was an emotional component to her recovery, too. As she relearned how to use her body, she had to overcome a lack of confidence in her own abilities. Later, she endured a sense of “being in denial about what happened to me” as part of coming to grips with the trauma she’d been through and the new life she faced.
Anna considers herself lucky. Because she was so young when she had her stroke, her brain was better able to build new pathways around the injury and thus facilitating a better recovery. She returned to school and earned a Masters of Business Administration. Support from family and friends also made a big difference, as did getting to know other stroke survivors.
“Everyone really rallied around me,” Anna said.
Doctors aren’t certain what caused her stroke, although she’s learned several factors that increased her risk.
She was taking a particular prescription medication with blood clots as a potential side effect, and Anna may have added to her risk by sitting for much of a long flight from Ireland. She also had an undiagnosed heart defect. She’s since stopped taking that medication and undergone a procedure to repair her heart.
Now more than a decade removed from her stroke, Anna still has some issues on the left side of her body. She can’t lift her left arm over her head and has to be careful about lifting heavy things because of ligament damage caused by the paralysis. She also lacks some feeling on that side. She takes a high dose of aspirin and works to lower her risks through lifestyle changes, such as managing her cholesterol and blood pressure and watching her weight. She also wears compression socks whenever she flies and does foot and leg exercises during flights to increase her circulation.
Yet her life is full. Anna works as a staff accountant for Covidien, a leading global healthcare products company, and she is also involved in the stroke community. She helps raise awareness by supporting those who are dealing with their own recoveries.
“It’s hard to get back to who you were,” Anna said. “Do the work. It’s important to get as close as possible, but if you don’t get to 100 percent, just remember that you are alive.”
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