Caveat: This is copied from a Word document that is my journal entry for the day of my stroke. It is rather long.
Day 1 – Stroke at Seatac
It has been over seven months since I had the stroke that changed our lives forever. I have intended to keep a journal of some sort but have not been good about doing so. It is a point of pride (or good luck) for me that I retained awareness of the day, so I don’t want to now lose it. As time goes by I know that I will find it harder and harder to recall the bits and pieces, so since I can’t start any sooner than now, here goes.
Ed and I were up early on Sunday morning, August 23, 2015, as we were checking out of our rental unit in Seattle and my sister and brother-in-law were driving us to the airport. We all wanted to get there before the traffic got too heavy as driving in the city can be a bit challenging. It had been a wonderful three days of catching up with my younger sister, Cindy, and some of her family. We met our adorable grand-nephew, Luc, who was turning one the next day. We had explored Cindy’s Phinney Ridge neighborhood, and the neighborhood of Ballard where my niece and her family live. The weather was lovely; we made a local coffee shop “ours” and explored a variety of dining options. The airport was busy when we arrived, and the quick hugs with Cindy and Dave were hard as we didn’t know when we would get together again. I was in tears as they drove off and we entered the chaos of the Alaskan Air section of Seatac. But I was also very excited as we were flying to Missoula, Montana to see our daughter, Diana, and spend some time hiking and exploring in Glacier National Park. The night before I had printed our boarding passes and paid for our two checked bags, but still had to go to a kiosk to print our luggage tags, a procedure I was not entirely familiar with. We got through that and headed for the lines at security, a process that we don’t especially enjoy. Fortunately, a couple of years ago we had purchased TSA Pre-Check so we could go through the short line and not need to take off our shoes or remove computers and liquids from our carry-ons. We looked forward to getting through, finding our gate and relaxing with some hot coffee. I used to love the flying part of travel but have recently found it to be unnecessarily stressful. It seems like we have had more than our share of questions and body searches; our kids joke that we must be a suspicious-looking old pair. Now I will generally take a Xanax before going to the airport, but this was to be such a short flight I skipped it. And I didn’t want to be dopey when we saw our daughter!
As I was putting my two small carry-ons on the belt to be scanned, I had a strange sensation in my left hand. It was feeling weak and heavy. I said to Ed “my hand is going all funky” and watched as my bags went through the scanner with no questions. Then my left foot got the same odd feeling and I thought STROKE! but couldn’t bring myself to say the word. I told Ed that this was a medical problem and we had to get help. He pointed out that our bags had gone through and we were holding up the line. So I walked through the metal detector, or tried to. When I bumped into the left side of the machine, the TSA man said “Uh, ma’am, you can’t do that.” I suspect he thought that at 8:00 in the morning I was just a drunk old lady. So I had to walk through again, with much concentration. I thought I did fine but Ed now noticed that I was dragging my left foot and my knee was giving out. For the first time ever, I think, he had managed not to forget something that would trigger the metal-detector. We made it through and he immediately guided me to a folding chair. He interrupted another TSA man and told him he thought his wife was having a stroke. TSA man immediately called his supervisor who quickly approached me with the words “so you think you’re having a heart attack?” I replied “no, stroke.” There, we had both said it. Something big, bad and ugly was out there. Sometime during this process I had directed Ed to take two aspirin from my bag, as I had read that this is what you do when you think you are having a heart attack or stroke. He told me to chew the aspirin because they were coated. But I found I couldn’t swallow. Somebody brought water in a paper cone but I still couldn’t swallow. It didn’t go at all well, which in hindsight was a good thing since the stroke turned out to be a hemorrhage. Water and pieces of aspirin went all over and I noticed that my speech was slurring. Very soon another man arrived, a TSA employee who was introduced as a former coast guard medic. I was asked lots of questions and I couldn’t hold my arm up when I was asked to do so. Somebody made a remark about my drooping face. More people came and a privacy screen was set up around me. A woman knelt right in front of me and asked questions that I could answer and asked me to do things that I mostly could not. Ed later said that my speech was quite slurred but that I could be understood. Two more men came with a stretcher and asked more questions, many of the same ones over again. What’s your name? Where are you? Where were you going? Where are you from? What day is it? And so on. I was on the stretcher, being carried through the busy airport. I had kept my eyes shut, but opened them when I heard some harsh words being spoken nearby. Our police escort spoke to an oblivious man whose little boy was playing directly in our path. I was in the ambulance; Ed was in a side seat with all our carry-ons. Our checked bags were headed to Missoula. One medic was with me. There was a discussion about which hospital to head to, and at some point our destination was changed from Harborview to Valley. I heard a siren and thought, oh no! This is going to hold us up. When I realized that it was us I was at first embarrassed for making a scene. Then I felt relief that I was getting help. I didn’t know enough yet to be as frightened as I should have been. Eight minutes from the airport to the ER! The ambulance people were very proud of this time.
I recall being moved again, ending up in the CT machine. Then I was moved again to a bed in the ER. I was mostly keeping my eyes shut as the lights were bothersome. And I think I was trying to block some of it out of my consciousness. I heard Ed talking with someone just outside of full hearing. I became annoyed that I wasn’t included in the conversation, so said, I think politely, “Would someone please tell me what is going on.” Ed and the very pretty, young, red-haired ER doctor both came to my side. Her explanation was to me somewhat blurred, but I was told that I had a stroke, a hemorrhage, and that she was consulting with the neurologist and neurosurgeon who had been waiting for my arrival. Right now there was nothing more they could do except watch and wait. The injection they had prepared, later learned to be tPA, could not be given for this type of stroke. During this time there was a lot of activity with various people hooking me up to various machines. The doctor asked if there was someone we could call. I recall telling Ed to make sure to call Diana so she wouldn’t be waiting at the airport, but I didn’t really want to bother my sister again. The pretty, young doctor said to Ed, “If there is anyone to call, call them now.” I heard her say “This is no small thing.” Ed told me later that she had tears in her eyes and said again that there was nothing to do but wait. It was determined that the neurosurgeon wasn’t needed, so he left. Someone told us that it was a good thing he wasn’t needed. I was getting a headache and was bothered by the bright lights and noise and activity, so I pretty much kept my eyes closed and tried to be still. People kept asking me questions and as I recall I was always able to answer. If Ed was asked a question that I thought should have been directed to me, I would respond, sometimes just to let people know that I was there and could speak for myself.
Until the stroke, I had always been blessed with excellent health. My only hospitalizations had been an overnight or two for childbirth, and those were many years earlier. I had always said that that was a good thing as I imagined I would be a terrible patient. What I learned is that when sick enough I am able to be tolerant of all these unfamiliar happenings. I made an effort to be polite and compliant. That is probably because I didn’t know enough to be as scared as I should have been. I was at a major hospital in a major city, and getting lots of attention, so I knew it would all be fixed soon and I’d make it to Montana a day or so late. Looking back now, I can’t imagine that level of ignorance. Among the things I didn’t know was that more than half the people with the type of stroke I had do not survive the early days, and that half of those survivors are profoundly disabled. It never hit me until many days later, after being discharged to residential rehab, that our lives would never be the same. I didn’t know that it would take months to even walk again, or how much hard work would be required to manage a few awkward steps. I didn’t even really know that at this point my left side was completely paralyzed. I could think and speak and I was never unconscious and I held to that fiercely.
Sometime later I was moved around again, transferring to a room in the critical care unit upstairs. Lots of tubes and equipment and people came with me. I was resettled into a more comfortable bed, but I still kept my eyes shut most of the time even though I was awake. Soon after arriving upstairs I felt a gentle touch and heard the gentle words that could have belonged to an angel. The voice said “Hello. I’m Mary (I’ll call her Mary.) I am your nurse.” I opened my eyes to see not a white winged image but a beautiful black woman in navy blue scrubs. This sounds like a strange thing to say now, but I felt calm and secure and even loved in her care. She was with me for the rest of the day and into the evening; I think I must have been her only patient. She shared her story about coming to this country from Ethiopia where her father had been murdered for being on the wrong side during some of their political upheavals. She was very proud of the fact that he had arranged for all four daughters to leave the country first. I told her that the only time I had been to Ethiopia was to change planes in Addis Ababa. She said, oh, we lived right near the airport. Well, we hadn’t had a great experience there, but I wanted to say something positive. Fortunately I remembered seeing all the beautiful women in beautifully colored, flowing clothing so told her that. I now began to drift in and out, probably helped by the IV dilaudid that I was given for the escalating headaches. Cindy arrived and, being my sister, gently joked about my drooping face and botox. (Usually we joked about drooping boobs so this was just another thread for us.) All sorts of people came and went, poking here and there, asking me questions and trying to have me do things that I couldn’t, such as lift a leg or arm. One time I was able to move my leg a little, and they found that very exciting. Ed settled into the recliner chair by my bed where he pretty much remained day and night for the next 72 hours. Diana arrived late that afternoon, having driven from Missoula, through some of the worst smoke and debris from the forest fires all around the area. She delivered the rest of our luggage that had traveled to Montana without us and said that we wouldn’t have wanted to be in Missoula anyway because of the very smoky air. Despite my being pretty groggy by this time, it was beyond wonderful to have her there with us! And of course she had called her brothers and taken care of other logistics such as cancelling the rental car and our reservations in Glacier.
During this day I had IV drips going, I think, all the time. Eventually, I had to pee. I told Mary and she said she would get a bedpan. I informed her that I couldn’t possibly use a bedpan, due to what my daughter terms “performance anxiety.” I asked if I could please, with help, get to the bathroom. My lovely angel of a nurse now turned into a stern authoritarian. I was informed that the only other options were catheter or diaper, so quickly agreed to the bedpan. I swear Mary smirked just a little. This of course necessitated the help of more than one person. Great – a bigger audience! So I perch on the bedpan and of course nothing happens. Though I am a small person, I could feel myself “bottoming out” so to speak and knew the results would be, um, unpleasant. [Men here – you don’t know how much easier you have it sometimes.] So stage fright won this round but I still had to pee. About 37 gallons more of IV fluid and I had to ask for the cursed thing again. Someone in the audience remarked “Wow, you really did have to go!” I bit my tongue and swear that I saw Mary looking just a bit too triumphant.
Evening came, Cindy had left for home. Ed and Diana settled into the two chairs in the room. Mary said goodbye and that she was sorry she couldn’t be back tomorrow but she had to report for jury duty. Other nurses came and went and they were fine, but I missed Mary. The relative darkness felt wonderful and I think I slept more than I was awake that night. The machinery blinked and beeped and Ed snored. Diana tried to block it all out but I don’t think she slept much all night.