What It's Like To Have a Stroke
Meetings drive me crazy. I manage a busy national cooking school based in Milwaukee, and there are never enough hours to do my job -- you know, the one where I actually run a cooking school instead of sitting in a conference room. I can't count the number of times I've said, "If someone schedules another premeeting to have a meeting to plan for another meeting, I'm going to freaking cry." I didn't mean it literally, though, until May 23, 2012.
There was nothing unusual about it: just some minor administrative matters I needed to go over with a colleague. I walked in at 11:30, sat down, and we turned to the business at hand. In the middle of it I started crying. And then I was sobbing and couldn't stop. I know the woman I was with well, both professionally and personally. And she was like, "Whoa, what's going on? Where's this coming from?"
"I don't know," I told her. And I didn't. It was just so totally out of character for me. I'm normally cooler than the cucumbers in our kitchen's commercial refrigerators and I rely on my sense of humor when things get too serious. Crying? What was that all about?
And that was how, at the age of 41, I started to have a stroke. There were none of the typical warning signs, no numbness or weakness on one side, no difficulty speaking, no sudden headache, no pain at all for that matter -- just tears out of nowhere. I didn't know it then, but a blood vessel had burst in the left frontal lobe of my brain and blood was pouring into the space between my brain and the thin tissues that cover it. The crying jag, I later learned, was triggered by pressure building up in the areas of my brain that control emotion. We somehow wrapped up the meeting and, at 12:15, I hurried back up to my office to get my purse and keys to make an appointment. I was rushing because it was across town and if there was traffic I was going to be late.
I hurried across the lot, talking on my cell phone to one of my staff members as I headed for my car. It's a long walk. I work with many Midwestern early birds, and if I arrive at work after 8 A.M., all the best parking spots are taken. About 20 feet from my car, I stopped the conversation. "Something's not right," I said. "I have to go."
People talk about an instant as if it's a fleeting thing. This instant was not. It felt like the longest period of time ever created. It's really, really hard to come up with the words to describe what happened, but I'll try. Everything, the entirety of my life, all I knew, or would ever know, simply started going away. I understood there was nothing I could do to stop the overwhelming force that was descending on me. I knew everything was about to go black and I knew not to bother asking, "Why me?" And because I realized I could do nothing about any of it, I drifted into a feeling of calm and peace.
I was dying. And everything did go black. Then there were a few flashes of things, just impressions -- I don't know whether you can call them memories or whether they're simply what happens when a life turns off. I'm sure I felt my late Grandma Dot's hand -- the distinct it-could-only-be-hers sensation of her soft fingers. I know that sounds like a scene from every Hallmark Channel movie ever made, but what if it really happened?
I could see myself being loaded into the ambulance. I could see its colors: red, blue, white, metallic silver. I could see someone talking on a phone. Then I don't remember much of anything. For a little over a week I was in and out of a coma. During my moments of consciousness in the hospital, I began to find out what happened: that someone -- I don't know who to this day -- found me collapsed near my car and called an ambulance. That I had suffered two strokes, a hemorrhagic followed by an ischemic (see "A Few Words From Erin's Doctor" on page three for more info). That neurologists had been able to do lifesaving procedures on my brain internally, without cutting my head open or even shaving off my hair. God help 'em if they had shaved my hair -- I'd rather have been left in the parking lot. That one doctor especially, the blessed and heroic John Lynch, M.D., did amazing things to save me, given how much blood I'd lost and how much brain area had been affected. That I had forever been split into two different people: pre-stroke Erin and post-stroke Erin.