Here is the gist of the speech I give last week:
Rocky Mountain Stroke Center Jubilee /October 22, 2015
My name is Joanne Heim. I am 43 years old and I have been coming to the Rocky Mountain Stroke Center for just over a year.
As I think about my life story and my stroke, the word that comes most strongly to mind is miracle. My story is a miracle story—just like all of the stories of the people who come to the stroke center. None of us should be alive; stroke often kills and tried its best to kill us too —but here we are!
My life before stroke lasted 38 years. Here’s a glimpse of my life before stroke:
I had a happy childhood—an idyllic childhood, really. It was filled with love and laughter, camping, sailing, horseback riding, skiing, time together as a family. My dad was in the Air Force, so it was also a childhood of moving and new schools and new friends every few years. I loved it and became comfortable in new situations and places.
I was born in California and lived in Redondo Beach for six years, playing at the beach and eating sand, going to preschool with my best friend, whose mother was my mother’s best friend, starting kindergarten, getting a baby sister for Christmas when I was two years old. It was happy, safe, and fun.
We moved to Colorado Springs when I was six years old and my dad began teaching at the Air Force Academy. We had lots of snow, a long steep driveway for sledding and summers filled with camping in the Colorado mountains in our green canvas tent. We were involved at church, loved Sunday school, and I fell in love with books of all kinds.
The summer after fourth grade, we moved to Alabama. It was the era of Atari and Pac Man.
After a year there, we moved to North Yorkshire, England, and spent three years loving British life there. We camped all over Europe—in a small camper this time, and collected stamps in our passports.It was an especially wonderful season for our family—one we would all gladly repeat!
After my three years of middle school at a British school—complete with a boring navy uniform—we returned to Colorado Springs and I began high school. I was a normal teenager—I went to school and did my homework to keep up good grades. I had friends and boyfriends, I learned to driven babysat. I worked a few jobs and butted heads with my parents.
The summer I was 16, I met the boy I would marry. We got engaged the night before my high school graduation. ( My parents have since recovered as you’ll see!)
We drove to Spokane, Washington and attended Whitworth University, where I majored in Communication Studies and French. I took a full load of classes each semester, studied hard, edited the school newspaper, worked as a graphic designer for the school and graduated in three years. It was a whirlwind!
We got married over Christmas break my sophomore year and moved into a tiny apartment on campus, where I learned to cook and keep house.
Our last year of college flew by and graduation approached. We did not have jobs or a plan until I got a call from my dad, telling me of a partner company at his job that needed someone to fill in for an employe on maternity leave—in Paris.
I wrote down the number, took a deep breath and dialed Paris. Within a few weeks, I finished my last independent study class to complete my degree, packed our tiny apartment into storag, the biggest duffel bag ever for myself and got on a plane to Denver. My parents met me at Stapleton for a short layover and I boarded a plane for Houston. From there, I was off to Orly.
On e of my tasks at this software company was to answer the telephone—by far the scariest thing I’d ever done up to that point. I learned a new vocabulary of office supplies and computer terms by day. In the evenings and on the weekends, we explored Paris and it quickly became my favorite city in the world.
At the end of a marvelous summer, we returned to Colorado Springs and began our lives as adults. we got our first real jobs, our first dog and bought our first house. Soon we had our first baby. After a terrific pregnancy in which I starred as the most pregnant woman you’ve ever seen, Audrey was born in August of 1998. I drove a station wagon and stopped working full time as an editor and copywriter at a local publishing company.
Within a few years, we built a bigger house and decided it was time to have another baby. Emma was born in 2001 and I upgraded to a minivan and a double stroller. The girls and I spent a lot of time in Denver, exploring museums and the zoo. It was a wonderful happy time and I loved everything about being a mom to my little girls.
After several years in Monument, my husband changed jobs and we moved to San Diego.We lived near the beach and enjoyed days at Sea World, Disneyland and Legoland.
Soon after arriving in California, my husband was diagnosed as bipolar and went through a deep depression.My faith grew by leaps and bound s I became totally dependent upon God to get me through each day. The god I had known since childhood became more real and biggerto me than ever before.
Those years in San Diego ran to extremes. When life was good, it was incredible, but when it was bad, it was almost unbearable.
After three years, we moved back home to Colorado. This time, we settled in Denver, bought our favorite house so far.We were close to family again, busy volunteering at the girls’ school and life felt like it was going just as it should.
I began to do some public speaking and dreamed of pursuing a master’s degree in Old Testament biblical studies at Denver Seminary.
I began seminary in 2009 and loved everything about it.
I was working on a paper in the library on spring day, when my husband called to say, “We’re moving to Phoenix for a year!”
We packed up the house and picked the few things we would need for a year and moved tPhoenix in July.It was a hot adventure.
With only a year’s commitment to stay there, we decided to do a few things differently. We left the television behind and decided to give homeschooling a shot—something I swore I would never do—so naturally, that’s what we did! We loved it so much that when we returned to Denver a year later, we decided to keep homeschooling.
I returned to seminary in the evenings and we settled back into life in Denver, surrounded by friends and family.
I learned to run in Phoenix and was running four miles a day by the end of our year there. Back in Denver, I had to learn again—this time with hills and altitude. It took time, but soon I was running five miles a day and I was stronger and healthier than I’d ever been.
M ymiracle day arrived on January 11, 2011. It dawned bitterly cold, so after forgetting to pen the flue and filling the house with smoke, I decided to run on my treadmill in the basement.I cranked up my iPod and was flying along when I got the worst headache I’d ever experienced. It felt like someone covered my head with metal zipper, unzipped it and poured iced water over my scalp. I knew it couldn’t be good. It wasn’t.
Sometime later my children came looking for me to start our school day and found me collapsed on thee floor. They called their dad, my mom and 911.
The ambulance raced to Littleton Adventist hospital where I’m told my brain pressure grew too high after a massive stroke so they removed a piece of my skull to relieve the pressure and then put me in a medical coma for it to rest and heal. Friends came from all over. From in town, and from out of state, they drove, they flew, they brought food and kept my family company. My husband and children moved in with my parents for a time. The girls went back to school again and my between my family and friends, I was never alone for long.
There is really no good time to have a stroke, but weirdly enough, this was the perfect time for mine. I was young, strong, healthy, and surrounded by friends and family. I am sure that is why I am alive today.
The first thing I clearly remember after that headache on my treadmill is the smell of my mom’s perfume and the sounds of her voice. I had been moved to Kindred Hospital, a long-term acute care facility where I could heal more before going to a more intensiverehab hospital. Mom was holding my hand and telling me the story of someone who’d had a staroke and was very, very sick. I didn’t understand or know where I was, yet in a moment of total clarity, I knew she was talking about me.
My memories of Kindred are confused and jumbled because I was on such strong drugs for the terrible headaches I had each day. I was angry and depressed. I remember being cold and loving heated blankets. I learned to sit up and swallow. Friends visited often and brought me food once I could eat again. They broughtStarbucks, ice cream,popsicles, cheeseburgers and lots of love. I received bed baths and finally got to take my first shower in months. It was glorious! I texted with friends who remind me of long conversations we had on our iPhones.
My thirty-ninth birthday arrived on March 15, but instead of a blue box from Tiffany’s, I received a birthday cake from the Kindred staff and an ambulance ride to my new home at Spalding Rehabilitation Hospital.
I was medicated, depressed and intimidated by the work to be done. Days at Spalding began with being read to by my dad who came by before going to work and before I went to breakfast.Each day was filled with hard work—physical therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy. I learned to walk with a hemi-walker and then a four-point cane.
Friends still visited often ,t, but now they wanted to eat what I did (Spalding had an excellent chef and the food was delicious!)
I remember getting a pass to leave the hospital and taking a trip into the outside world—to Target to buy underwear. (Potty training should really only happen once in life, as far as I’m concerned!) TMI… Sorry!
At Spalding, I often wished for more dogs to visit. I was dismayed when volunteers brought books and I discovered I could no longer cold a book to read. I was not at all sure I wanted a life without reading! Luckily, a friend from college came to the rescue by bringing a Kindle pre-loaded with books she knew I could like. One-handed reading worked marvelously well and helped fill lonely days for years to come.
I came home from Spalding after two months. My Christmas tree was still up in the living room and I was thrilled to be back in my familiar home. My dad installed additional stair railings and grab bars in the bathrooms so I could manage being home more easily. Friends brought meals and our freezer quickly filled, relieving us from the nightly chore of preparing dinner.
In-home therapists came multiple times each week and I continued speech, physical and occupational therapies with them.
When I needed more direction, I began the day therapy program at Spalding. My dad installed a therapy gym in my garage and we worked together there with the exercise instructions I had collected from all the therapists I’d seen thus far. In the midst of a lot of hard work, he and I had sweet times together.
During this season, I first heard about the Stroke Center and its YESS (Young Enthusiastic Stroke Survivors) group. I wanted nothing to do with it. Yes, I was a Young Stroke Survivor, but I was certainly not Enthusiastic about it. No, thank you!That was not for me—I did not want to be one of those people!
When the exercise and therapy failed to reduce my plantar flexion and my left foot still refused to sit flat on the ground, an orthopedic surgeon recommended surgery to lengthen my Achilles’ tendon. In November of 2011, I had surgery and spent weeks in a cast and a wheelchair while it healed.
We tried some family counseling during this time to help us deal with the many changes that came with my stroke and its effects upon our family. We learned some helpful things, but still struggled on a daily basis.
Despite the difficulty of getting around, a couple of my girlfriends suggested we get season tickets to the Denver Ballet. On various Saturdays, we went out for lunch downtown and enjoyed an afternoon at the ballet. I am thankful for their determination to make sure I engaged with the world outside of my house.
A year later in the winter of 2013, my husband and I were forced to sell our home, declare bankruptcy and move to Colorado Springs to live with his parents.
It was a difficult time. I spent most days alone in the family room, reading books and drinking tea. Friends came to visit often to get me out of the house and I am grateful for their love and care and encouragement when I was told “You only have half a brain” and “you can’t do that”on a regular basis by my family. I was depressed, over medicated and lived in a fog of confusion and sorrow.
From time to time, I travelled to Denver to spend time with my parents. At the end of a visit in April 2014, my husband and children told me not to return to Colorado Springs. My husband had started a new job and said he could no longer care for me. I moved in with my parents permanently and we have been a family of three to ever since.
I quickly became part of their life—church, activities like concerts and theater, running errands and short weekends away to camp in their trailer. I also began physical therapy at home again with a therapist I’d seen before. In the summer of 2014, we moved into an age-qualified neighborhood and quickly became involved with activities and new friends there.
That fall, I visited the Stroke Center for the first time and began attending the art therapy group on Mondays and a physical therapy class on Tuesdays.
The art group has become a support group for me as I have made friends and learned to paint. As my friend said, “We are my people.” I look forward to art each week and am excited about the friends and paintings I’ve made.
Today, my life is not what I ever imagined or dreamed what it would be, but it is good. I am happy, active and look forward to the future.I stopped using a cane about six months ago, and walk about a mile each day. My dog and I visit stroke patients at Spalding together and are encouraged by it as much as we encourage those we visit.
I am making goals for the future with my counselor and plan to fly for the first time and learn to drive again next year. I see the progress I am making and am motivated to keep working toward more recovery.
BecauseI am still here, my story is an ongoing one. I do not know what the future holds, but I do know my story ends well!
I am thankful for the Stroke Center and wish I had stated going sooner than I did.Who knows where I would be in my recovery if I had? I am grateful to the staff, the other survivors and all who donate their time and finances to make it the place of healing and recovery it is today.