A ‘perky’ woman accustomed to working hard and caring for her family recovers from a stroke with the support of her grown children
One night, after hosting a reunion for her son’s wounded veteran friends, Penny Santoro noticed her vision was blurred.
The problem had cropped up before, sending her to the emergency room, but it was attributed to migraine headaches. This time, it was much worse. Penny called her family doctor and was told to head to the hospital.
Penny felt frightened that day in August 2009, and her mind was jumbled. “It’s like you’re there, but it’s like you’re in an outer body experience,” she said.
She had paralysis in her left hand and leg. Her face was drooping. A friend noticed her speech sounded unusual over the phone.
An MRI determined that Penny had suffered ischemic strokes because of what is known as a right carotid artery dissection. A tear in the wall of this artery that delivers blood from the heart to the brain sometimes happens because of a car accident or other trauma, but in Penny’s case it was a spontaneous event.
Penny was moved from the hospital in her hometown of Doylestown, Pa., to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia for surgery to repair and place four stents in the damaged artery.
“The surgeon informed my family that I would have died in another 48 hours without it,” she said. “They saved my life.”
Penny was accustomed to an energetic life working at a property management company and cooking favorite meals at home. After her stroke the woman known as “perky Penny” was weak on one side, causing her not to be able to sit up straight in a wheelchair. For her safety she needed a restraining device wrapped around her waist.
Following her hospital stay, Penny spent seven weeks at Moss Rehab undergoing physical and occupational therapy. Fortunately, her speech resumed quickly. She worked to regain other basic skills like walking, showering and dressing.
“You can’t do the simple things you used to do, which is very frustrating,” she said.
Penny went from the wheelchair to using a walker and, eventually, a cane. She met others with severe challenges, like a woman who was struck by a car, and a musician who thought he would never play the saxophone again, but did.
“You see them making progress,” Penny said. “You say, ‘They’re doing it. I can do it.’”
Back at home, Penny found strength through the encouragement of her two grown children, Nicholas and Jessica.
Nicholas was wounded in Iraq in 2006 and suffered a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. He showed his mother coping skills he’d learned. He taught Penny to use multiple Post-it notes to keep track of tasks and to always place certain household items in the same spot.
Jessica, a special education teacher, urged Penny to focus on what she could do, not what she couldn’t do.
“Mom,” Jessica often said, “you’re not as bad as you think you are.”
Today, Penny has a slightly altered gait when walking and some cognitive difficulty with things like multi-tasking. After more than 30 years of marriage, she is going through a divorce.
Through it all, her outlook remains positive. Penny drives, works part-time at a general store and enjoys cooking again. She’s involved with ReMIND.org, the Bob Woodruff Foundation’s support organization for injured military members. She volunteers with a stroke survivors group that includes some people who are only in their 20s and have “a lot of spirit.”
Penny educates others about stroke warning signs and urges people to seek information on the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association websites. She wrote a first-person story for the Winter 2013 edition of Stroke Connection magazine; it is titled, “The Reinvention of Perky Penny.”
It took her about six weeks to complete the story. She used the writing and computer work as part of her rehabilitation. Her message is to never give up and “keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
“I’m thankful for each day,” she said. “I’m thankful for my friends. I’m thankful for my family.”
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