A few years ago I went a little too heavy while teaching a barbell class and wound up straining my pectoral. That night I experienced sharp pains in my chest every time I took a breath, so my husband urged me to go to the ER to make sure I wasn’t having a heart attack. I begrudgingly went, all the while knowing that a heart attack was unlikely based on my health and lack of heart issues.
The doctors ran tests and came back with the strained pectoral diagnosis and sent me on my way after telling me that my heart was “good and strong” based on all the tests they ran. I drove home thinking to myself, “Of course my heart’s good and strong – I’m a fitness instructor.”
Ah, the bliss of ignorance. What I didn’t know at the time – and apparently what none of the ER doctors’ tests had detected – was that I had gone my entire life thus far with at least two holes in my heart, seemingly having been born that way. What I also didn’t know was that I also had a genetic mutation that caused my blood to clot. I’d never been through genetic testing so it made sense that this perfect storm was brewing in my body without me ever knowing.
Combine holes in the heart and a blood clotting disorder and you’re bound to have a major stroke at some point, which is what happened to me last summer. While putting away groceries with my kids, I suddenly got very dizzy and more exhausted than I have ever been before. I went blind in one eye, I started drooling, I couldn’t form words and my left side gave out. It was as if someone had presented a checklist of stroke symptoms to me and I was marking every box.
So that’s why when it began, I thought to myself, “Crap; I’m having a stroke.” It was absurd and surreal, as a 41 year-old, healthy woman with no immediate family with heart issues, it made no sense that this would happen. As I collapsed on the floor while my daughter telephoned for help, I desperately tried to remember anything I knew about strokes. I knew the warning signs thanks to ad campaigns, yet I didn’t know what this meant for me. And remember that at this point I didn’t know about my heart issues or blood clotting disorder, so nothing made sense in this moment.
By the time the paramedics arrived I couldn’t even open my eyes. One of the first things one of them said was, “Yep, she’s drooling!” and I was embarrassed. At some point one of them asked me what day it was and I realized I had no idea. My solution was to reply with, “This is the day that the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it,” but it didn’t come out quite as elegantly as I’d hoped and the paramedic couldn’t understand what I was trying to say.
They loaded me into the ambulance and I distinctly remember being so profoundly tired – more tired than I had ever been – and what I thought was me falling asleep may very well have been me losing consciousness because the paramedic kept grabbing my arm and saying, “Stay with me, Tamsen!” That’s when I thought to myself, “Wait – am I dying?”
The next few hours were a blur, not only because of the frantic activity of the medical staff trying to save my life, but also because the stroke had affected my brain in a way to where I was only “with it” a small portion of the time. I remember hearing a physician tell my husband that they were going to transfer me to another hospital where I would be housed in the ICU. I started to worry about how much all of this was going to cost us when all was said and done and with good reason; when the medical bills later started rolling into our mailbox I was shocked to see that all told, my insurance company had been billed over $100,000 between my hospital stays and subsequent surgery to close the holes in my heart. We’re lucky that our portion turned out to only be several hundred dollars instead of thousands.
It was during my stay in the ICU that the realization dawned on me that (1) I’d lost all control over my left side and (2) my brain was fundamentally damaged. One medical person after another paraded through, asking me to squeeze their finger using my left hand, and what I thought was a hearty squeeze was actually barely noticeable, or at least, that’s what my husband told me later. The neurologist proved to be the most frustrating encounter when she presented me with drawings and asked me to tell her what I saw. I described the scene – a picture of a woman doing dishes at a kitchen sink and the water’s overflowing – and the neurologist frowned and said, “What else do you see?” All I could do was start a narrative about how the woman was obviously distressed about something, otherwise why would she allow the water to overflow? The neurologist said, “You don’t see the babies? What about the babies?” I searched the picture for hidden babies and eventually had to admit that no, I didn’t see the babies.
This was one of the most frustrating aspects of my stroke and it’s called hemispatial neglect. So while I could see things on my left, my brain wasn’t perceiving them. At a follow-up appointment weeks later the neurologist showed me the same picture and lo and behold, there were two young kids wrestling on the left. This hemispatial neglect would later cause me to walk into walls on the left and prohibit me from driving for months, understandably.
Here’s the thing; I had started that July day as a busy mom, fitness instructor, and professional writer. I ended that day as a woman who couldn’t walk, could hardly talk, and who couldn’t get my brain working enough to figure out how to use my cell phone to call my brother (true story). It was like I had traded bodies with someone else and it sure didn’t seem very fair.
I’m not generally accustomed to feeling helpless, but this was a very helpless time. My first triumph came when the occupational therapist walked into my room a couple days into my stay and asked me if I was ready to try to walk. If I could have leaped out of the bed in joy at that point I would have, but the therapist cautioned me that I may not actually be able to walk at all and not to expect too much in the beginning. He brought a walker around to my side of the bed and asked, “Ready?” I was terrified. What if I couldn’t walk? What if I never walked again? I pushed my doubts aside and instead focused on a class I’d taught the week before where I compelled my students to do more squats and wall-sits than they thought they could handle. I kept telling them, “Your legs are strong – so much stronger than you realize!” I decided right then that I was going to take my own advice and stand up and walk. So I stood up.
It’s weird relearning how to walk after you’ve done it seamlessly for over 40 years. The therapist had to coach me in the proper technique and I really relied on the walker (especially when I kept walking into things on my left that I couldn’t detect) and at one point a nurse peeked his head out of another room and saw me shuffling down the hallway and started clapping for me. I felt proud, but I also felt ridiculous for earning applause by putting one foot in front of another. Was this my new normal – having to work so hard to just do everyday things?
It turns out this was indeed my new normal. When I was discharged they gave me a handicapped parking permit and a walker and sent me on my way. They wanted to send me to a rehab center but I begged my husband to not let them do that; I wanted to go home. My family was excited to have me home and I was thrilled to be out of the hospital, but nobody could tell us when I would be back to the old me. Most estimates were somewhere along the lines of, “Months…years…maybe never.” The Internet was no help as it was mostly just alarming stories about people having follow-up strokes that either killed them or paralyzed them for good.
A stoke is sometimes called a “brain attack,” and with good reason. It messed up so much of my brain not only in my ability to process information but in how I dealt with my emotions. Post-stroke depression and anxiety is common and I can attest to how horrible they both are. My first night home I was lying in bed when my husband came in and collapsed onto the bed, letting out a huge sigh. He was understandably exhausted and overwhelmed by everything. That’s when the first dark thought entered my head; it was as if I was speaking to myself, not in a menacing way, but in more of a matter-of-fact way. “It would have been better for everyone if you had died,” my mind told me. I was jostled by the thought and disturbed that it had entered my mind.
There was more to come. As the days went on and I saw how hard everyone in the family had to work to take care of me and everything I used to do – the cooking, the cleaning, the errand running – the dark thoughts intensified. “What good are you? You’re useless in this family. Just die already. Nobody would blame you if you gave up, because look at you; you’re an invalid.”
The closest I came to admitting these thoughts to anyone was to my neurologist; I told her I was “having trouble regulating my emotions,” so she promptly handed me a prescription for Zoloft and sent me on my merry way. The medicine did help quiet the thoughts but made me dizzy every time I stood up. For someone who’s first indication that a stroke was happening was a dizzy spell, this new side effect was pretty alarming. Every time I stood up and got dizzy I wondered if it was another stroke and if I was going to die this time.
I did admit to a group of friends that I was having trouble with “dark thoughts” and asked them to pray for me. Nobody ever pressed me for any more information so I didn’t elaborate. One night when my husband was out with friends at a movie I was overcome by my dark thoughts. “Just get in the car and drive away,” is what my mind urged me to do. “You can’t see left so you’ll probably wind up slamming into a bridge and that will be that.” I decided that enough was enough with my dark thoughts and I thought back to my college studies where I majored in psychology. What would a therapist tell me, I thought. I decided then and there that whenever a dark thought popped into my head I would replace it with something better. So “You’re a waste of space” became, “I am God’s creation.” I repeated it often in my head and eventually it quieted the bad stuff.
Looking back on it now, overcoming my brain deficiencies has proved ten times harder than the physical deficiencies. For whatever reason, I’ve been able to force my body to do what I want it to do. I was back with a personal trainer once I had permission from my cardiologist to resume exercise. I chose my friend Louie King, who happens to also be a heart patient because I knew if I tried to use the stroke as an excuse he’d tell me to stop feeling sorry for myself.
A pivotal moment with Louie happened when he had me doing wheel barrels and I couldn’t get my left hand to cooperate. It just dragged along, drooping and weak. I was overcome with emotion and started crying. Instead of coddling me, Louie stood over me and commanded, “Come on, Tam! Move that left hand!” He said it with such authority I just assumed that I could do it, and I did. That’s when I realized I could force my body back into shape if I just didn’t doubt myself.
Now I realize this strategy doesn’t work for everyone, and I know that I’m really fortunate to have regained use of my left side even though it’s still markedly weaker than my right. I can hide my physical deficits for the most part and I still have to concentrate on making my left side work when I teach classes at the gym nowadays. My first class back was three months to the day after my stroke. I had to modify a bunch of my movements and the couple times my left side gave out on me during a plank were thankfully not noticed by the class, and if it was, they didn’t say anything about it. I felt a little ridiculous going back to teaching before I was 100% ready, but I felt empowered too. It helped my emotions much more than the Zoloft ever did.
I actually teach more weekly classes now than I did before the stroke. I consider every opportunity to get into the gym to be a triumph, so I crave my gym time more than I crave down time. My doctor and physical therapist credit my fitness before the stroke as the reason why I’ve recovered so well, so fitness isn’t something I take for granted nowadays. One friend asked me recently, “Do you seriously work out every day?!” and I answered with a shrug, “Yeah, but let’s face it; I’m fighting for my life here.”
So let’s face it indeed; we’re all kind of fighting for our lives when we pursue a fit lifestyle. And when you don’t treat your body well, you’re setting yourself up for a more difficult recovery if something happens to you down the road. Whether it’s a stroke like mine or a broken ankle or whatever, a fit body’s going to bounce back quicker. That’s why I shuffled up and down the street with a walker when that’s all I could do and that’s why I’m continually beast-moding it in my workouts now that I can. Nothing’s going to stop me from living my active life – not physical or mental deficiencies. My “normal” is different now, but I still love it.