From accomplished, experienced equestrian to hemorrhagic stroke survivor, Penny Wohlford has been from one end of the spectrum to the other. She used her love and knowledge of horses to help her recover from the throes of a devastating hemorrhagic stroke and to regain a measure of her pre-stroke athletic self.
Her story begins one day in May of 2002. Penny was at an indoor arena taking a lesson in dressage (a competitive sport where a horse and rider perform a series of choreographed movements). Penny was trying to execute a routine when she noticed she had a dull headache, her throat was constricted and she couldn’t work her leg properly to cue her horse.
Puzzled, she rode over to her coach. Her horse took her there without being prompted, maybe sensing something wasn’t right. By then, Penny couldn’t speak properly and the left side of her face was drooping. Her coach recognized a problem, and Penny was rushed to a small emergency clinic nearby. After a CT scan, the attending physician said she had a problem they couldn’t handle there. It turned out she had a small bleed from an arterial venous malformation (AVM) in the right side of her brain.
Penny was rushed by ambulance to University Hospital, in Salt Lake City, where she received an MRI. But as the scan was finished, the AVM gave out completely. Penny’s brain was flooded with blood so badly that her brain stem herniated. After surgery to relieve pressure on her brain, and to repair the AVM, Penny was left fighting for her life and given little chance of a favorable outcome. But, she did survive, and when the dust settled, Penny had a paralyzed left side, impaired balance, and scrambled speech.
Penny remained in acute care for two weeks at University Hospital, and then she was transferred to the rehabilitation unit of the hospital for five weeks of physical, occupational, speech and balance therapies. She continued her therapeutic regimen on an out-patient basis for eighteen more months. But, out-patient therapy aside, once Penny was discharged from inpatient rehab at the hospital, her real rehabilitation program began.
Outside of the protective womb of the hospital setting, Penny was smacked with the reality that the fifty-two-year-old, independent, robust woman she once was had been replaced by a weakened, clumsy version of herself. Her coordination and strength were so diminished she couldn’t even mount one of her beloved horses. Penny knew her work was cut out for her, if she was to ever function normally again.
Since her two kids were grown and lived on their own, Penny relied upon her husband and pets to support her through her recovery process. Besides conventional PT, OT, speech and balance therapies, Penny received massage, Botox injections for spasticity, constraint therapy (to “re-engage” her affected left side), and Feldenkrais Therapy, all of which had varying results.
Penny’s two dogs were also instrumental in forcing her to get up and about. Their walking, feeding and grooming requirements kept her on her toes, plus they were a great source of psychological comfort when she needed it. But, it was her love of horses that played the most unusual, and pivotal, role in Penny’s struggle to regain her independence.
At the time of her stroke, Penny had been riding and caring for horses for twenty five plus years, so it was no wonder that horses became a form of therapy. Just grooming, and putting their saddles and bridle on them, forced Penny to work her affected left side. And, the hard labor of cleaning up after the horses strengthened her body overall. She did this for quite some time, and she got stronger and better coordinated.
Things are different now that her horses have passed on. Penny hasn’t obtained replacements, but says that she’s been able to ride her friend’s old horse, which provides her with a lot of pleasure. She’s also down to one dog now, but says that walking and caring for him is still therapeutic.
In the background through it all, Penny’s husband remained her pillar of strength. They’ve now been married 39 years. Every step of her recovery, he encouraged her to keep working at it. Though Penny sometimes felt he pushed her too hard, she says she’s where she’s at today because of his support and encouragement.
Prior to her stroke, Penny not only rode horses, but she made exercise and fitness a huge part of her life. Like many stroke survivors who were very athletic prior to their event, she continues to fill her days with a rich variety of physical activities. She tries to include some therapeutic activity for her left side nearly every day. Three days a week, she swims a half mile; on the other days she does a strengthening routine. She and her husband also walk a mile daily with their dog.
Her specialty exercises include using a Saebo® flex hand device a few days each week and participating in an e-stim program five days a week. She takes the weekend off from therapy, but still squeezes in some sort of activity. If that’s not enough to make one’s head spin, Penny says she also enjoys hiking, cross country skiing and gardening.
And, before her stroke, Penny wasn’t just an active athlete. She also painted using watercolors, and since she no longer participates in dressage competition, watercolor painting has become her new passion.
Thirteen years out from her stroke, Penny still can’t use her left arm and hand very well. She also has moderate spasticity on the left side, and lingering balance issues. But, even now, she considers recovery to be an ongoing process, somewhat like watching grass grow: so-o-o slow. She wants to remind new survivors that everyone has their challenges, some worse than others, but you have to deal with it and never give up.
Anyone who wishes to contact Penny can do so via the Stroke Network. Her user id is: Penny.