A Mother's Sudden Stroke And Long Recovery

It only took an instant to change my mother's life forever.

Nobel banquet at .

Marcelyn Wahl in 2006, seven years after her stroke. Tracy Wahl/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Tracy Wahl/NPR

A decade ago, just a few days before her 57th birthday, my mom had a severe stroke. It happened on a Saturday morning in August. My dad knew almost immediately what was going on, and she was rushed to the emergency room at a nearby hospital.

She'd had no existing health problems, was in excellent shape, ate right and exercised. Her experience just goes to show that there's no predicting exactly who this will happen to, though there are obviously risk factors that make someone more prone to a stroke.

Luckily, the hospital where she was taken was certified in stroke care. Right away, she got the clot-busting drug t-PA that was supposed to stop the stroke. In her case, though, it seemed to make things worse, so the doctors halted the treatment.

For days she couldn't say anything at all, though as is often the case after a stroke like the one she had, she remembered music. I remember singing "Doe, a deer, a female deer" to her in the hospital, and she seemed to be able to hum along with me. She hummed long before she spoke again.

Her right side was paralyzed—and she was right-handed. Though she could understand us perfectly, her only means of communication in the first days was a mixture of gestures, notepad sketches, and hard to read left-handed printing.

My brother Tony remembers anxious game of charades where we had to do our best to guess what she was saying. Failure to interpret her clues wasn't an option.

After a week in the hospital, she started speech and physical therapy using a wheelchair. After a few weeks of rehab, she could walk with a walker. Within a month she walked with a cane. Within 2 months she walked on a treadmill at a local fitness center.

She learned to write again the hard way, practicing each letter painstakingly the way you do when you're in kindergarten. That first year she was able to sign her name to Christmas letters which she typed with a computer.

My brother remembers that her ability to talk came back slowly, too. First came single words, then gradually phrases, sentences, and bursts of conversation. To practice speaking, she started reading books out loud to my father. And my parents started letting me know that some of the gift books I chose for them actually weren't that much fun to read aloud.

She took physical therapy for four months and speech therapy for a year. Thanks to her absolute obsession with always doing a little more than the therapists prescribed, 10 years later she walks with hardly a limp and can do almost everything she could do before the stroke.

She says she couldn't have done it without the support of her family, especially my father. When I visit her during the holidays, every morning I still hear her practicing her singing. Now, she does it both as therapy and because she's joined the church choir. Just a couple weeks ago I went to hear my parents singing the Christmas program at their church. Christmas carols never sounded so beautiful.

For more information on the treatment of strokes, see this Morning Edition story from NPR's Richard Knox. You can also take part in a live Web chat with Knox and neurologist Dr. Lee Schwamm at noon ET.



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