Back in 2003, Virginia Garlitz was the head of the foreign languages department, and a tenured professor teaching Spanish language, culture and literature, at Plymouth State College, in New Hampshire. She had been working there since 1972, and she enjoyed a rich academic life, sharing with others her knowledge and passion for the things that she loved.
But, one day in February 2003, Virginia’s life took a disturbing turn. She was sitting in her office, talking to a student, when she suddenly became paralyzed on her left side. As she started to lose consciousness, she managed to tell the student to call “911” and, then, everything “went to black.”
Virginia was taken to Mary Hitchcock Hospital, in Dartmouth, New Hampshire. There, doctors discovered a hemorrhagic stroke on the right side of her brain, caused by an arterio-venous malformation, a tangled mass of unstable blood vessels that had burst. The ruptured AVM catapulted Virginia into a coma which lasted four long months.
When Virginia finally woke up in May, she learned that some things had changed in the “outside world,” while she was unconscious. She remembers the first two things that her husband told her upon awakening: one, that Plymouth State College, where she worked, was now a university, and, two, their state symbol, an ancient stone face known as the “Old Man of the Mountain,” had fallen off his cliff. Virginia says that she knew how he must have felt; she, too, had also fallen off a cliff.
Once medically stable, Virginia went to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, where she received physical, occupational, balance and speech therapies from May through August, 2003. When she was discharged from in-patient rehab, she continued out-patient therapy (from 2003 through the present) at various rehab centers in Boston and Concord, Mass., and Campton, New Hampshire.
Apart from standard treatments, Virginia sampled a variety of non-traditional remedies, including hypnosis and acupuncture, which gave her some relief. She also tried a Saebo® dynamic hand brace, which she no longer uses. Her paralyzed left foot was fitted with an AFO (ankle-foot orthosis), and she started using a metal cane to help with balance issues (she continues to use both to this day).
Virginia’s recovery wasn’t always smooth; she had many setbacks and days when all hope seemed to evaporate. It was extremely difficult to accept that she was no longer the independent person she had been, and that she had to rely on others for everything. Relinquishing control left her frustrated and despairing.
When Virginia “plateaued” in her recovery, she broke down and cried because she knew her old life was lost to her forever. But, her husband reassured her by saying, "while we may not have the same life, together we will build a new life". This made her realize that although she couldn’t control much, she could still control one thing: her attitude. Knowing her husband “had her back” enabled Virginia to start moving forward once more. (She says her husband is her “everything”: friend, lover, valet, cook, companion, cheerleader, grief counselor, essentially, her “rock”.)
To keep Virginia buoyed, she and her husband crafted their own mantra, “CBW”, which stands for “could be worse”, inspired by a Spanish saying that goes, “I cried because I had no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet”. They invoked their “CBW” mantra whenever Virginia felt down, but, over the years, they revised the mantra from “CBW” to “CBB” (“couldn’t be better”) which more-accurately reflected their optimistic outlook.
Optimism is the one thing that enabled Virginia to continue pursuing her scholarly interests in reading, writing and researching. Thanks to her many colleagues at Plymouth University, she was able to audit many college courses, including French, art history, and cultural anthropology.
Now, thirteen years beyond her stroke, Virginia’s reached a point where things have settled into a satisfactory routine. While she still can’t use her left arm or hand, she says that thanks to her long-suffering husband, and the help of countless other wonderful caregivers over the years, she’s able to get around better and live a very active life.
And what an active life it is. Virginia swims once or twice a week, using a snorkel mask and fins, and she plays piano with her “left-hand man,” a young piano teacher who gives her weekly piano lessons at home. She also belongs to a book group, and to a group dedicated to philanthropic and educational projects, particularly for women. She attends monthly language conversation groups in Spanish and in French. And, she and her husband travel to spend precious time with her singer-songwriter son, his wife and their two children, who live in Paris, France.
Most importantly, Virginia continues to be productive, by writing and publishing articles for a Spanish journal (she says, “Thank heaven for the internet!”). As such, Virginia considers her greatest post-stroke accomplishments to be publishing two books, plus several articles, and conducting a seminar in Spain.
Virginia says that while her life is satisfying, she’s still hoping for the day that her neurons can be rebuilt using stem cell therapy, like the kind they’re experimenting with at Stanford University. However, even though things aren’t 100%, she remains upbeat and wants to share some valuable advice with other stroke survivors:
Always keep going.
Use whatever you can to get yourself closer to what you were before your stroke.
While it may seem so at first, a stroke is not the end of the world; there’s still a lot of life to come afterwards.
Keep looking forward and be optimistic.
Attitude makes all the difference; she says she’s living proof that survivors can reclaim their lives after a stroke.
Right now, Virginia is in a good place. She says she’s happy, healthy and her mind is clear (even though her brain doesn't work perfectly). As she and her husband say….CBB.
Anyone who wishes to contact Virginia can do so via the Stroke Network. Her user ID is PEW.