I began my day just as I did last year, with a swim, and then getting the kids to school. Today however was different, as I set out with intention and purpose. On this, the anniversary of what I now fondly refer to as “my stroke” I can honestly say I have nothing but gratitude for the event of February 27th, 2018. At first, admittedly, I felt frustration and annoyance when my left arm and hand went numb and a faint tingle shot up and down my left side, books spilling from my arms as I rearranged the shelves in my sons’ room. Shrugging it off as a weird migraine, I took some Excedrin and went about my day. There were two little boys to take care of and get to school, errands to run, and a parenting class to attend. Later, when the numbness persisted and I was directed to the ER, I still felt mostly frustration – this was not what I had planned to do with my day! Finally, when the doctor informed me that I’d had a stroke, I was met with disbelief, tinged with fear, and lots questions. My first question, “Can I still run the Boston Marathon?”
I’m sure many of you are thinking “That was your first question?!” Yes, yes it was indeed my first question. I had run 10 marathons to achieve a qualifying time, and I’d been training for months. This little “incident” was also not my first when it came to medical oddities and achievements. As I was informed I would be in the hospital for tests and observations for the next couple of days, frustration and anger quickly set in and pushed all other emotions to the wayside. I don’t like being told what to do and I hate hospitals. I’m a terrible patient with an inability for accepting help. My anger quickly turned to rage as doctors and nurses talked at me rather than to me, treated me like a stereotypical stroke victim when I was anything but, and the fear of being trapped had me acting like a caged bear.
I refused to take the medication that was doled out to every patient on the stroke floor where I’d been placed with a cohort of elderly patients – blood thinners and other stroke meds. I was not one of them! I was a healthy, athletic, nutrition-conscious, previous personal chef, and a 37-year old mother of two boys, not an 80-year-old with most of my living behind me. I didn’t smoke or drink or eat foods high in fat. I didn’t consume loads of sugar or avoid the gym like the plague. I did all the right things, I was only 37, and I ran marathons for heavens sake!
I didn’t get any sleep as the monitors went wild every time I dozed off and my heart rate fell below 40. Have I mentioned, I was not the typical stroke victim and I was frustrated by my classification as such? I explained multiple times that night why my heart rate was low – “I am an athlete, not a bed-ridden 80-year-old.” Why was no one listening? Why was no one taking the time to see me as a unique individual???
The doctors later discovered I had a hole in my heart and determined this was the reason for my stroke. This was not a satisfactory conclusion to me. If I had a hole in my heart now, I’d always had a hole in my heart, so shouldn’t the real question be “why are clots now floating around to head on up to my brain? Why now?” At the moment, however, no one else seemed very interested in answering this question, and I really just wanted to get out of there. Having had two brain surgeries and an emergency appendectomy as a child, I had no doubt, I’d be just fine, and I needed to get home to my husband and kids. Two little boys needed their mama and certainly they would be the best physical therapy I could get. I needed three hands in all honesty; I couldn’t afford to be down to one hand for long!
I quickly recovered function and obligingly went to my follow up appointments, one with a cardiologist. I expected we’d discuss more about why this happened, why there were clots, and maybe even what I needed to change about my lifestyle to ensure there would be no more clots. This was not the case. This appointment was a sales pitch for a medical device he wanted to use to close the hole in my heart that just a week ago had remained undiscovered and unproblematic. At one point when I asked about why there were suddenly clots threatening my life, he looked at me and without skipping a beat, informed me, “Well, you’re a 37-year-old woman who has had two children, so obviously you have varicose veins, and obviously you have hemorrhoids, and so obviously you have clots and are at risk for a stroke.” I was speechless! Shouldn’t I know if I have varicose veins and hemorrhoids?! He had never even examined me and he knew all this about me just because I was a 37-year-old woman and had two kids?! I was so taken aback, I fled that office vowing I would never return and finally set out to do some research. Anger served its purpose!
Turns out, 25% of the population has a hole in their heart. Turns out, if you did an autopsy on everyone that dies, we would discover all kinds of imperfections, most of which probably had nothing to do with the cause of death. Turns out, that with a little more research and a good doctor, this all becomes less scary and overwhelming. Finally, I could turn to reflecting and healing and remembering I was, and always will be, whole. I turned my attention to what I was really learning from this “little incident.”
Everyone was very eager to ask me what I had learned, and even more eager to tell me what I should be learning and how I should be changing. “You are going to slow down, right? I really hope you are going to slow down” was a common theme that kept emerging from family and friends. I’ve lived most of my life listening to and following the “shoulds”. I “shoulded” all over myself and generally let anyone and everyone else “should” all over me, too. Something this time made me pause – quite possibly just the forced pause of the stroke made me react differently. “No, I don’t think that’s it, I don’t think that is the lesson” I heard myself respond. And for months, I continued to disregard the “shoulds” and to sit in my new reality.
I ran the Boston Marathon six weeks after “the incident” and crossed the finish line in some of the worst weather I’d ever run in, weather that made headlines for the resilience and determination that graced the field of runners, specifically female runners, that day. My time was not my best, but was not my slowest either, and despite my decreased training due to my hospitalization, and despite the winds and driving rains, I crossed that finish line.
This is the part of the story I learned from. I sat with this idea that I am strong and resilient, courageous and fiercely determined. I was built to endure! And I like me, I like who I am! I began to think more about how I got here. Several months later, I was graced with this sense of ownership, of knowing, a new truth, a new lens through which to see my story, my past. Suddenly, I was at peace as I looked back and saw the treasures in the messes, the light in the darkest of times. I had been born six weeks prematurely, sent home, then air-lifted to a bigger hospital; I had my first brain surgery at 6 months old, an emergency appendectomy at 7, and a second brain surgery at 10; I moved way too many times, 14 houses in 13 years, 8 different schools between preschool and sophomore year; my mother and I had plenty of difficulties to overcome and I grew up with a sense I would never be enough. And yet, here I was, and I was enough, and without all these messes I wouldn’t be me. This peace, deep acceptance of my history, and gratitude, genuine gratitude for my story, was beautifully pervasive and transformative, all-encompassing and freeing.
A few months after that, I had the opportunity to attend a women’s retreat focused on finding and using your voice as a woman. Could the timing have been more right?! I tested out my voice and told my story through my new lens. I owned it like never before, and it landed and was accepted and was enough…I was enough. Just a few weeks later while my husband was away in China, I found myself in the driver’s seat at home, flying solo, and wow did I fly high! I spoke at church about my story, I traveled to pitch a workshop, and I returned to deliver a half-day session on Emotional Intelligence, meanwhile I not only took care of my kids and saw that they were in good hands, I actually enjoyed them and all that I was doing.
And poof, another realization came upon me. I was feeling like super woman and realized that 14 years ago, I gave up my plans for med school, I quit nursing school, and I followed a “should” moving in with my college boyfriend, now husband. I married him, followed him to Seattle, had two kids, then followed him to LA, all the while thinking I would find my purpose and happiness in him, in his career, in our family. I was lost and alone and desperately seeking. While he was away, I so clearly saw the choices I had made. I had to own my part. I had given up on me, on my dreams, and I had looked to him to fill the void. Yikes! I had created this 1950s dynamic I so despised. At the same time I had found my voice. Responsibility, ownership, and a call to change beaconed me.
As I leaned into my realizations and authenticity, I began to recognize my voice and my call, and owned the good, bad and the ugly, I saw the opportunity. Action, purpose, connection and joy came knocking, and finally I dared to answer. Just before I had my stroke, I had started a business and a coaching program. As I found my voice a year later, I found my stride and business began to come. Turns out, I like me, and now that I am seeing my value and worth, it is flowing from the inside out and others are seeing it, too.
I look back at this year and think how frustrated, offended, angry I was to be treated like an 80-year-old. Now all I can think about is how grateful I am to have experienced at 37, what seems to be more typical for someone of a much greater age, and to have the gift of time to change my path, to own my story and take charge of my future. This year has been an incredible journey – from listening to “shoulds” to finally learning to hear my own voice; from frustration to peace; from anger to gratitude, acceptance and joy; from paralyzing fear to purpose and action. “My stroke” was a gift, a ticket to ride, and I am so glad I chose to board the train, that I dared to pause, and wait, for the train heading in the right direction.