Anchorage, Alaska, resident Kim Rion woke up the morning of August 31, 2012 and started in on routine administrative work associated with settling her late father’s estate. Strangely, she couldn’t move her left arm, and she was dragging her left leg around, as she went about her business throughout the day. But, she was oddly indifferent to her serious symptoms.
When she arrived at her sister’s house to deliver estate-related paperwork, her sister became alarmed at the way Kim was moving. She insisted that Kim go to the hospital, which Kim did: she drove herself and her ischemic stroke all the way to Providence Medical Center, in Anchorage.
Kim was admitted to that facility and stayed for three days. Afterwards, she was discharged to her home, where she was left to navigate her post-stroke life on her own (she actually had to drive herself back to her house, and to rely on the kindness of a stranger to help her out of her van, because she was so weak on her left side). Seven months later, she finally began several months of out-patient physical therapy, a bit of occupational therapy, and some water therapy for her balance issues.
Immediately after her event, Kim was severely depressed. She was a fifty one year old who had no job and no insurance. She had been a bookkeeper for nearly thirty years but now, post-stroke, she had trouble processing information and understanding language (receptive aphasia). No longer able to work, she felt completely stripped of her identity.
Kim also had no husband, children or family that she could count on. Her depression persisted, and she was overwhelmed by feelings of sadness and isolation, so much so that she did the unthinkable: she attempted suicide in January of 2013. Thanks to a friend and caregiver Kim’s attempt failed. But, she felt emotionally raw after her suicide attempt, so she sought out a stroke support group. Much to her dismay, Kim learned there were no support groups in her area. In fact, at that time, there were no stroke support groups in Alaska at all.
Kim needed peer support, and, at the same time, she didn’t want other stroke survivors to feel as isolated and helpless as she did. So, with the help of a social worker Kim founded the Alaska Stroke Survivor Support Group. The group, which had its first meeting in January of this year, provides critical peer support to stroke survivors, caregivers and family members in Anchorage and the surrounding area. The group is also serving as a spring board for Kim to become a stroke advocate.
While the group has been satisfying to her soul, Kim still continues to struggle with physical and emotional stroke residuals. In addition to receptive aphasia, she has concentration and balance problems, depression and anxiety, numbness on the left side of her head and ear, and a mild stutter/expressive aphasia, accompanied by a head tic, when she’s in situations where she feels overwhelmed. Kim also says that she cries now more than she did before.
Her outlook has changed as well, both “plus and minus.” Kim says that she tends to see things in a more positive light now, but at the same time, she sometimes fixates on the things that she cannot do anymore. Still, Kim says that she no longer defines herself by her old bookkeeping job, which she held most of her adult life. Although her physical residuals and depression have taken a toll on her self-confidence, she’s discovered that she’s stronger than she thought.
Kim’s post-stroke journey has just begun to pick up steam, but like a “stroke veteran,” she’s already learned some important lessons. For one thing, friends who she thought she could count on faded away, but, women who were mere acquaintances stepped in and became the people that were there for her.
For another, she had to re-learn the importance of fun in her life. After her suicide attempt, she bought two Guinea pigs, that she named Petunia and Coco who, Kim says, bring her joy and make her laugh every day. Kim also finds enjoyment in a most unusual hobby: she’s a “wench” in the International Wenches Guild, which participates each year in the Three Barons Renaissance Fair in Anchorage. In addition, she sings karaoke and creates chain mail jewelry. These are two important pleasures that allow her to take a mental vacation from her post-stroke problems.
These days, Kim spends time managing her support group and maintaining its Facebook page, as well as working as a new member on the Board of the Disability Law Center, in Anchorage. She also tries to stay moderately active, and takes a walk every day, not only for needed exercise, but to keep her spirits up and to clear her mind.
Kim has some important advice for other stroke survivors: watch out for signs of depression; don’t isolate yourself; look “forward” instead of “backward”; and, last but not least, find a support group! When she started her own stroke support organization, Kim heard the same thing over and over from each new attendee: they felt totally alone until they found a support group.
Even if a survivor has a terrific family support system, it isn’t the same as the empathy one receives from other stroke survivors. Friends and family may say that they can imagine how it feels to survive a stroke, but they really can’t, unless they’ve gone through it themselves. Kim says to seek out people who have experienced stroke and the various stages of stroke recovery. It will make all the difference in the world.
The Facebook page for the Alaska Stroke Survivor Support Group can be found at:
Anyone who wishes to contact Kim Rion can do so via the Stroke Network. Her user ID is: Akgoddess39