Monday, July 17, 2017

When It Comes to Defeating the Enemy, Stroke, I Wrote the Book

A surgeon stepped into the waiting room, where 16 of your family members were quietly pacing and praying. "She is in critical condition. She appears to have had a seizure and she had heart failure. Her hemorrhage is massive. We are doing life-saving measures to evacuate the blood. If she makes it she'll most likely need reparative surgery once she has been stabilized."

“What do you mean 'if she makes it'? She is healthy, young, and strong." Your husband, Jim said incredulously.

“What I am saying is that she may not survive the operation. This procedure has a high mortality rate” the surgeon said solemnly.

During the surgery, I died on the operating table. My heart stopped beating. My lungs stopped breathing. My brain stopped functioning.

During the flat-lined period, I was climbing a ladder that had no beginning nor end, top and bottom faded into the clouds.  I thought, "Wow why do I have to climb, shouldn't I have the ability to float?"

Instinctively, I knew I had a choice.

Should I stay or Should I go now.

I chose to stay.

"Can I return as Beyonce?"

Someone is telling you to wake up. They sound dangerously, oddly happy; and it is obvious something has happened.

And you are not Beyonce.

This July 17 marks the 20th anniversary of the war on my body, where I had to battle against a massive hemorrhagic stroke.  It ravaged my body and killed a large portion of my brain. An MRI reveals this reality. The right side of my brain is over 60 % dead, the size of my fist. The large black spot on the scan is dead brain tissue. There's also a deep hole where the surgeons evacuated the blood during brain surgery. There was a time when speaking of something undesirable I would say, "I need that like a hole in the head! Now I add, “Wait, I already have a hole in my head.”

My brain injury may have claimed my limbs, but it did not capture my spirit. I fought off this enemy that rendered me disabled and nearly killed me, with humor, positive attitude, hope and faith. Stroke may have had its way with me, but it could not conquer the essence of me.

War is ugly and stroke recovery is not pretty. Fighting a war requires a unified front. I rallied my troops--my parents, brothers, friends, husband, and son--to help me through the darkest times of my battle. Initially, I felt that time was on my opponent's side, it ticked so slowly. Brain Injury recovery is measured in minutia. As time passed, however, it changed sides to become my ally. It was now like a time-release medication. As I looked back to the beginning of the assault, I realized that those small seemingly minor skirmishes were taking a toll on the enemy, the tide had turned. I had reclaimed significant territory since the battle lines were drawn. My horizon became brighter with each passing day.

Yes, twenty years ago, I escaped the Grim Reaper. Every year since that fateful day, I have marked July 17 as a “Homage to my Hemorrhage,” celebrating the gift of more time here on earth.  I had been thinking of my 20-year anniversary as marking a milestone, but upon reflection, I have come to realize that every day represents a milestone—another opportunity to make a positive difference in this world.

Although the course of my life as I had originally envisioned veered off course, I am brimming with gratitude for the incredible opportunities my stroke has given me.  I never felt like a victim of stroke, but always a survivor of life's happenstance.  Although some may cringe when I refer to my stroke as a gift, it has shaped my life in ways that are surprisingly full of wonderful possibilities, including the remarkable people I have met because of my stroke.  These folks have also educated me and left me in awe and inspired by the power of the human spirit.

No one escapes adversity, whether it be physical, emotional, financial, or some other setback. Mine happened to be a paralyzing stroke, but it has given me insight to what is important. My stroke, my educator, has schooled me well, and provided lessons that keep me grounded, fulfilled, and greeting each day with renewed hope. Thanks to my stroke, I've learned:
  • Life is about choice. Each choice is predicated on my prior choice.
  • Laughter truly is the best medicine for the mind, body and spirit. I must administer steady daily doses. Being able to laugh at myself induces more laughter with others, creating a cacophony of joy and positive connections.
  • No one is responsible for my happiness but me. It is an inside job that I must undertake and make a habit. Just by choosing it, though, doesn't make it inevitable, it takes hard work.
  •  Say goodbye to embarrassment. No one has the right to judge another. I learned that to feel embarrassed is what I am thinking others are thinking of me. The source is internal not external. It is how I talk to myself.
  •  I own my dignity. It is only lost if I give it away. Keep my head held high and my eyes on the prize--my quality of life.
  •  There will be obstacles to achieving goals. Overcoming an obstacle may require a detour, but this often exposes me to new revelations.
  • The proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” is visible only if I access the light switch within myself. The damage has already been done, now it’s up to me to deal with the aftermath of the wreckage.
Many folks ask why I would celebrate a date that has left me impaired and in this disabled state? Of course, it still engenders pain and distress at the memory, but it also shows how far I have come from that day when I thought I was going to die. Celebrating allows me to get the upper hand over my stroke (albeit the right hand only—my left hand is still good only for decorating). This is a day for reflecting and rejoicing at the opportunity to have had 20 more years of celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, weddings, and other special events with family and friends.

Twenty years ago, when we celebrated my son's third birthday, I didn't realize then that would be a memory that would sustain me five days later when I suffered my injury. Parents are proud and emotional at their children's accomplishments. It becomes especially apparent at graduations. I have been blessed to see both his high school and college graduations. I was overwhelmed that I lived to see these accomplishments. I was a blubbering mess--mostly tears of joy, but also tears of reflection. Yes, there have many occasions to celebrate over the past 20 years, as there have been trials of sadness and loss. This is the Yin and Yang of life.

I am not my stroke. Does it define me? In some ways, yes, but it is only layered on an already multifaceted Julia.  I am the victor of my stroke, I conquered the beast. As it attempts to raise its ugly head daily, I am battle ready. This enemy did not defeat me, it only made me stronger, wiser, more grateful, and happier. Yes, happier. I know up-close-and-personal that there are no guarantees in life and that every minute I’m alive is a gift.  

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