STROKE

RUTHANNE URQUHART


The report of my death
was an exaggeration.
Mark Twain



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part THREE  |    
part FOUR  |    
part FIVE  |    
part SIX  |    
part SEVEN  |    
part EIGHT  |    
part NINE  |    

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part ONEJune 20, 1991, I was sitting at my desk at home, talking on the telephone. As I talked, my right arm began to tingle.
I stood up with the intention of rolling my shoulder and flexing my arm, thinking I was pinching a nerve or something.

As soon as I was on my feet, I realized my leg was almost numb. It hadn't tingled the way my arm was; it was just numb. I remember thinking, "I'm having a stroke". It was so ridiculous I sat down and laughed out loud – I had no headache whatsoever and, as far as I could remember right then, there was no history of stroke in my family. I can't remember what I said to the person I was talking to, but I ended the call.

I stood up again and things weren't so funny: my right side was disappearing by the second, and my ability to balance with it. I felt slightly nauseous. I knew it was a stroke. No one in my family had had one, but I couldn't think of anything else that would cause those symptoms.

I called for my 10-year-old son, who was downstairs undergoing his daily transfusion of Nintendo. I sent him to get my daughter, 15, who was babysitting down the street.

I was feeling more nauseous, and time was slowing down; when I moved, I felt as if I were underwater. I pushed my chair back and slid down onto the floor, thinking I might as well because I'd wind up there anyway.

When my children arrived, I explained to my daughter what was happening, and she telephoned for an ambulance. They questioned her about what was happening, and she told them; they were skeptical, but dispatched an ambulance.

She then telephoned my husband's office. I think I spoke with his secretary. He wasn't there, and she didn't know where he could be reached. There was no answer on his car phone.

All of my and his parents lived in the same town as we did. My mum was away, visiting my sister, brother-in-law and their new baby girl. Neither my father nor my husband's parents were home. I was worried about my kids; at 15 and 10, they were old enough to be left, but...

I asked my daughter to go outside and watch for the ambulance. My son sat on the floor with me and held my hand. I didn't want to lose consciousness in front him—he was frightened enough already—so we talked... about what, I don't remember.

The ambulance arrived. The attendants, too, were skeptical; the first thing they did was stand me up. I fell sideways, and they sat me on a kitchen chair. They took my blood pressure, and asked me questions...

I'm sliding down the front hallway on a kitchen chair. There's a stretcher... I'm falling. I'm in an ambulance. The doors are open. The kids are standing at the top of the driveway, crying. I want to say - the garden's so beautiful - I'm sorry - tell them - my kids - I love you. They're closing the doors...

The ambulance attendants did indeed slide me on a kitchen chair through the hallway, I've been told. They couldn't negotiate the corners with the stretcher, I guess. My cat, in the mindlessly gallant way of adoring pets, attacked them as they carted me out.

They didn't ask my children for any information. It was hours or days before anyone knew I was on hypertension medication, before my family doctor knew I was hospitalized, before anyone remembered I was a heavy smoker probably going through withdrawal.

I remember knowing I might be dying, and being rendered speechless not just by what I thought was a stroke but by my unpreparedness for death. There was a lifetime's worth of things I wanted, needed to say to my children, and all I could manage before those ambulance doors closed was, "I love you".

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Mrs. C, where are we? Kitchener.
Mrs. C, do you know where we are? Ottawa?
Mrs. C, can you tell me where we are? London!

Now, I understand the reason for this constant questioning by the nurses (is she still in there?) but I can remember being annoyed by it. And vaguely, distantly amused that they didn't know where we were, that I didn't know where we were, that I didn't care. They were encouraged by the fact that I could make the effort to respond, however incorrectly.

I was in Toronto Western Hospital, where I had been taken the evening of the day the artery burst, in case I would need surgery to relieve the pressure of the bleed; that sort of surgery could not be done at the hospital in my home town, where I had originally been taken.

My husband, children and parents visited me there; apparently, I responded slowly but fairly sensibly. I don't remember. A friend from Ottawa visited, too. She later told me I responded to her as well, and even initiated conversation... What the Hell are you doing here? Apparently, my profanity synapses had not been damaged. They flourish to this day. [2008, and still swearing.]

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My shoulder hurts. I'm tied down. Where am I? I can't move. A big machine. It hurts. Again. Again. Stop. That hurts stop stop. It stops.

Because the bleed had stopped and restarted several times, on the morning of June 25 I was scheduled for a cerebral angiogram. My husband was unavailable and so, utterly unaware of anything, I signed the permission form, I'm told. I was right-handed, the side affected by the bleed; that's a signature I'd like to see.

I have since learned that particular test (dye is injected into an artery in the collarbone area, allowing technicians to trace its path through the blood vessels in the brain) is no longer the test of choice. It is too intrusive to a brain already under severe physical stress.

Apparently, the nurses and technician were pleased I could respond so lucidly, so vehemently, to the pain of the injection; I would live after all, they guessed.

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We're taking you back home, Mrs. C. It won't be long. Just lie still. Where have I been? Why is he staring at me? Who is he? I'm rolling over? My right side? Just lie still, Mrs. C. We'll be there soon. Where?

I was in an ambulance, close quarters at the best of times. I'm sure I didn't make the attendant's job easier by trying to roll onto my side, but I was, distantly, annoyed: I've never liked the feeling of being stared at while resting.

Sending me back to my home town meant the bleed had stopped, that I wouldn't need surgery.

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The walls are moving. I'm going to be sick. Where am I? Hold me hold me. Everything's moving. Where's Mum? I want Mum. I'm alone. The walls are moving. The button. Someone comes. Again. Again. She's taking the button away. The walls are moving. I'm scared. Please...

Judging by the clarity and accuracy of my still-frightening memories of that first night back in the intensive care unit of the hospital in my home town, I was capable of communicating my wishes and I was semi-aware of my surroundings. And I was terrified.

My right side was completely paralysed, including the muscles of and around my eye. Seeing was like looking through binoculars with one side askew and out of focus. My complete field of vision was doubled; even the slightest of motions, either of my head or in my field of vision, cause the sliding, nauseated feeling experienced by new wearers of bifocals. Add to that general brain and mind damage, a semi-darkened and unfamiliar room, unfamiliar noises... it's easy to understand now why I was so terrified.

I can't help but wonder if I'd have passed a calmer night if someone had taken the time to explain to me what I was experiencing. Or, if I wasn't able to understand the explanation, why didn't someone put a patch over my right eye? I wouldn't have been able to take it off because my lack of sensation on the right side would not have let me know it was there at all. In fact, I saw many such patches in later weeks at the hospital, worn for that very reason.

That night was the worst time I've had because of the bleed. I've been sadder. I've been more confused. But I've never been more frightened.

And, yes, Mum did come to be with me that night.

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I returned to my home town with the last significant obstacle to recovery, a serious bladder infection.

No one at the hospital could determine why I was so sick. I had a very high temperature; I was extremely restless; I removed my various tubings; I was obviously in pain. My symptoms couldn't be squeezed into "burst artery", and so were indecipherable to the doctors. My husband was unavailable, so my mum arranged for a nurse to be at my bedside around the clock.

I'd had a catheter in place during my stay at Toronto Western. I'm neither a doctor nor a psychic, but if someone says "catheter" to me, I'll always respond with "bladder infection". It's commonplace; it's common sense. A clear-thinking nurse finally called Toronto Western, and the mystery was solved but, regrettably, it meant a fearful day and night for my parents.

My husband and children visited, I'm told; apparently, I didn't respond as quickly or as lucidly as I had in Toronto. I don't remember.

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"Good morning, Mum." Why is she crying?

A day after being started on antibiotics for the infection, eight days after the bleed, I began my recovery with those three words.

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