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Deb Theriault

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My name is Deb Theriault, and I�ll be managing the Member Story feature for StrokeNet, The Stroke Network newsletter. Since I�ll have the chance to work with many of you over the coming months, I thought it�s only fair for me to tell you a little about myself.

My story is very unconventional, to say the least. All of my adult life, I�ve had to deal with several autoimmune and collagen/vascular disorders. The autoimmune problems have affected my central nervous system, causing a variety of neurologic problems that I�ve had for more than 20 years


Despite these health issues, I managed to go to art school, then the University of Pittsburgh. Upon graduation from college, I worked for Westinghouse Corporation, in marketing. I�ve also worked in sales and in accounting, for other small and mid-sized businesses. In the early-90�s, I had to take a break from working outside the home to raise my two nephews. (Plus, my health was making it difficult for me to be a �reliable� employee, on a daily basis).

For more than 37 years, I�ve also participated in the sport of fencing. I�ve competed whenever I�ve felt up to it, but for some time now, I�ve been limiting myself to national-level �Veteran�s� events (for fencers over 40 years of age), and to �easier� local events in Pittsburgh, Pa., (where I live with my husband Dave, who is also a fencer).

This is where my story takes a strange turn. Back in 2006, I finally qualified to represent the U.S.A. in an international tournament (even if it was the "senior citizen" version): the 2006 Veteran�s World Championships, which were being held in Bath, England. It was the chance of a lifetime. However, in the weeks leading up to the event, I developed a bad flare of my long-standing neurologic problems, which include slurred speech, trouble with balance, difficulty swallowing, weakness, and an orthostatic tremor in both legs.

I checked with my PCP and my neurologist, but everyone, myself included, just thought that the warm summer months, and the stress of the upcoming Championships, were causing a resurgence of my same-old symptoms.


It was really hard to decide whether I should travel overseas, but after a lot of agonizing, I decided to �tough it out.�. I arrived in Bath, England, on the morning of August 31st. Although I was feeling poorly, I managed to participate in all of the �required� activities, right up to the day that I competed (Saturday). I had to move a lot more carefully, and talk more �deliberately�, so that I wouldn�t stagger or slur my speech, and make the wrong impression. But, I�d had symptoms like these for more than 20 years, so I knew a lot of �tricks� to �pass for normal� when having a flare.

Saturday morning I went to the tournament venue. Just as I was about to begin fencing, I started to get the strangest �ice pick� headache, a stabbing pain that kept �marching up� the back, left-side of my head. On it went, for the next couple of hours. I didn�t fall, or drop my equipment. I didn�t pass out. I just had neuro symptoms and this strange annoying headache! I dragged

myself through the competition and ended up placing 14th in my event.


It was only when I got back to my room, to pack and get ready to return to the States the next day, that I noticed something was really wrong. I couldn�t read my plane ticket. That is, the letters appeared to bounce around, making it hard for me to read the tiny print, or, for that matter, to look clearly at anything. I also felt like I was drunk. I had developed a different kind of �all over� headache, which got worse if I exerted myself. The nearest large hospital was a two hour drive away, through the English countryside. I didn�t know what else to do but hold on, and get back home.

I managed to get through the night, and returned to the US the next day, on Labor Day weekend. I felt marginally better by then, so, being stubborn, I didn�t go to the hospital, or call my doctor right away. But I finally gave in and called my PCP at the end of the week, late Friday afternoon. He immediately scheduled me for an MRI and MRA, which showed that I had experienced a hemorrhagic stroke. Then I had a cerebral angiogram, to see if I had any pending aneurisms or �leaks� (none were found).

My PCP, and neurologist, consulted with the Director of the Stroke Institute, at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who felt that it would be useless to hospitalize me, at that point. I was ambulatory (though moving very slowly), but I was mostly past the �crisis stage� and I had managed to survive. For whatever reason, although I had blood in my brain, I didn�t have a lot of brain swelling, or a large buildup of fluid, from my immune system. Over the next 10 weeks, I had two more MRIs to see whether I had a brain tumor that had bled, but the tests came back negative.

In the following months, things actually got worse rather than better, once the blood in my brain coalesced into one huge clot. I developed many new symptoms. If you write to me privately, I�d be happy to elaborate; I don�t want to bore everyone.

Still, I really lucked out. I ended up being one of the "walking wounded." Although I continue to have a lot of post-stroke symptoms, I don�t need to use a wheelchair or a walker, only a walking stick, or cane, on �bad-balance� days.

As for rehab, I spent more than 14 months recovering from the worst of my stroke. Although I should have requested physical therapy, I felt I could handle things on my own (did I mention I was stubborn?). Years ago, I also studied to be a personal trainer, so between what I had learned preparing for certification, as well as having gone through PT for other orthopedic problems, I was able to design my own �program� (with my doctor's blessing, I might add).

My �physical� rehab consisted of strength training (using bands and hand weights), aerobics (using steppers and walking), stretching, and balance training (using a "mini balance stepper" and a "Bosu ball"). For my �cognitive� rehab, I used a toy called �Simon�, to help my memory, and I read and did word puzzles for my word-related difficulties. I'm fairly disciplined, so these things worked for me�.up to a point. Like many stroke survivors, I'm still not back to the way I was before my "event," so I guess this is my "new normal."

Before my stroke, I taught tai chi for many years, but I've had to give up teaching, and concentrate on practicing tai chi on my own. My balance simply isn't strong enough for me to be a good example to my students. Still, tai chi was instrumental in my recovery. I�m convinced that it allowed me to improve my balance a lot quicker than I would have without it.

It�s been 20 months since my stroke. So, where am I now? Well, I�m still able to fence, to a limited degree. However, fencing is a part of my life in other ways. For one thing, I help my husband teach a recreational fencing course on Tuesday evenings. (We've taught for more than 20 years.) For another, I volunteer as Chair for the Western Pennsylvania Division, of the United States Fencing Association, the national governing body for the sport. By the way, if you�d like to know more about fencing, go to the USFA�s website at: http://www.usfencing.org/usfa/

As I did pre-stroke, I still donate my time, during the Spring and Summer months, as a community gardener for my neighborhood. I just take my time, doing what I can. I volunteer for the Stroke Network, by identifying and contacting potential sponsors, and writing for the newsletter. I�ve been a member of The Stroke Network for about a year.

I live in Pittsburgh, Pa., with my husband of 33 years, Dave, and our three dogs, Kitty, Lollipop and Max.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. Now, we need to get busy and tell your story.

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how do i send you the word document after ive filled it out

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Guest hbrumfield




Just now found and read your story. Quite amazing. Good for you. What I can't determine is whether I am wimping out or if I have done everything I can for myself. I do still do PT twice a week after 4 1/2 years, but when it's cold and my side is throbbing I stay home. It's much better in warmer weather, but you wonder if there is something MORE you should do that will eke out a bit more improvement.


But I can't complain. Life is pretty good. Like you say, the "new normal."



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Wow, you sure have been though enough! Your story was truly wonderful! I enjoyed reading it!




Bruce Schwentker (Hostbruce)

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Gosh Deb, what an inspirational story to read. I started therapy again last week and along with exercises my homework is beginning a new drawing journal, with my left hand. I use to be left handed, but started drawing with my right. I'm doing portraits now, but was thrilled to start using my left again.

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I found it, you too are amazing in your determination, I find that you and I do seem to have a lot in common, art and athletics. Its a long haul but we can do it. Penny

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