Stroke Happens: Chapter 1

30 Nov

Below is Chapter 1 of Stroke Happens, which I hope will be published in its entirety someday. Comments or advice welcome.

 

Chapter 1: Stroke Happens

 

“How bad is it?” I asked the doctor. “It was a major event,” he replied as he pinned a film of my husband’s brain onto a light board. The right side was grayish and crisscrossed with a network of crooked lines, like an aerial photo of creeks and streams converging into a river. In contrast, the left side was white, like vast, snow-covered tundra.

 

“He’s going to live, right?” I stammered.

 

“The next 72 hours are critical,” replied the doctor before walking away. I stood, stunned and uncomprehending, in the bright white hallway, staring at the whiteout of Chuck’s left hemisphere.

 
He had suffered a stroke—a cerebral vascular accident—in the middle of the night. My insomnia had driven me into the guestroom, where I was sleeping when Chuck’s symptoms started. I’ll never know what they were. Did he have pain restricted to one side of the head? Weakness, numbness or paralysis on one side of the body? Problems walking? Loss of sight or other vision problems in one or both eyes? Confusion? Sudden inability to speak or to understand speech? What I do know is that the next morning, when I got up and walked back to the still-dark bedroom, he was unable to respond when I asked him if he was getting up. I turned on the light, and life changed forever.

 
His left pupil flared open in response to the sudden illumination; the right one remained pinprick small. Dried vomit crusted the pillow, and his breathing was raspy and effortful. He was unable to respond when I asked him what was wrong, although I had guessed. He just looked at me. I rushed to the phone to call 911, and the EMTs were there within five minutes, strapping him onto a gurney and wheeling him away. The ambulance, flashing and wailing, sped away as I called a friend to come and take me to the hospital.

 
When I arrived at the hospital, Chuck had been installed in a chilly cubicle in an emergency room bristling with nurses. He recognized me, but was disoriented and unable to respond. His t-shirt had been scissored off and tossed in the garbage, the logo for New Orleans band Washboard Chaz draped over the lid. Technicians whisked him away for x-rays. An octopus of anxiety wrapped its tentacles around my stomach and squeezed; I knew I was waiting for bad news. Time seemed to stretch until finally, the neurologist appeared with the results of Chuck’s X-ray. The left distal carotid artery—the river that transports oxygenated blood to the brain—was completed blocked.

 
In an instant, a clot had interrupted the flow of blood to Chuck’s brain, depriving it of oxygen for hours and defining the rest of our lives.

 
Chuck was transferred to the Neuro Intensive Care Unit (ICU). He remained conscious. Intravenous lines snaked from bottles hung around the bed and into his arms, transporting medicine and food. Therapists came and went, performing tests that would help determine the extent of the damage. I hovered helplessly. Chuck flashed me a thumb’s-up sign and smiled crookedly. The right side drooped as if it had nothing to do with the rest of his face. All I could do was wait. My sisters Mary Lou (from Hillsborough, North Carolina; five hours away) and Betsy, with her husband, Rob (from Charleston; four hours away) arrived and we sat around until night started to fall. We had been there for about ten hours. Chuck’s condition was stable, so my sisters persuaded me to go home and get some rest. When I got there, I wrote the first of what would be hundreds of emails to a list of family, friends, and colleagues.

 
Friday, August 31, 2007
Hi,
I am writing to let you know that Chuck had a stroke this morning. He’s now at the hospital, in the Neuro IC. The neurologist, after reviewing the x-rays, called it “a major event” and said that the first 72 hours are critical. The clot completely blocked the major cerebral artery, which is bad news. He is thus far paralyzed on his right side and cannot talk, although he responds to commands and recognizes people. We hope that he will not hemorrhage in the brain, which could endanger his life. If he makes it through the weekend, it will be a long road to any sort of recovery.
Please keep us in your prayers. Thank you.
Love, Laura

 
My update about Chuck’s condition became a medical-progress report, a forum for my emotions, a request line, and the story of his struggle to recover. “People who tell a cohesive, full narrative of what’s going on with them stay so much more connected and attached to those who are most important to them, and that provides stability and consistency in times of change,” according to my friend Hamilton, who’s a psychiatrist. I was building a network of people, a community that would support me in the aftermath of Chuck’s stroke.

 
Everyone was shocked. Chuck had no risk factors. He worked out regularly, was tall and lean, ate the right foods, and drank two glasses of red wine daily. Bespectacled and boyish with mop of brown hair, he looked younger than his age, 56. He suffered from occasional stress, but he was a college professor, not an air traffic controller. For 17 years, Chuck had been teaching elementary education students at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina. He loved teaching, as well as conducting research, writing journal articles, collaborating with colleagues, serving on the faculty senate, and writing grants. He had tenure and was highly regarded by his peers and students, evidenced by graffiti reading, “Dr. Linnell rocks!” in the elevator of his building. We had been married for 11 years. I taught in the English Department.

 
The previous week, we had started the fall semester, a busy and stressful time. That night, a Thursday, we were tired but were relaxing in front of the television, sipping wine and digesting supper. About 8 o’clock, Chuck mentioned he had a headache and was going to bed, not especially unusual at the beginning of a semester. He didn’t say he was in undue pain and, he didn’t describe any of the troubling symptoms that often presage a stroke. I decided to sleep in the guestroom to avoid disturbing him with my start-of-the-semester insomnia. For a long time I beat myself up about this. I’ve asked myself, over and over, if the outcome would have been different had I slept with Chuck that night. I’ll never know. What I do know is that at some point, stroke happened, and life changed forever.

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4 Responses to “Stroke Happens: Chapter 1”

  1. Martha John November 30, 2013 at 5:43 pm #

    Beautiful Laura!

    Like

  2. Dorian Dickey December 1, 2013 at 7:06 am #

    A stunning first chapter. Laura Garren perfectly describes the visceral shock, memorable images, and life changing experiences that accompany all touched by the sudden onset of a cerebral vascular accident. I’m greatly looking forward to reading more!

    Like

  3. H Holt December 2, 2013 at 5:16 pm #

    stunningly well-written narrative of that terrifying and uncertain time. emotional and balanced with fact and detail to make it very accessible. great, great work…

    Like

  4. Kit Veal December 3, 2013 at 9:55 pm #

    A very personal and intimate story describing how a stroke changed two lives forever and touched many more.

    Like

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