5 Surprising Life Lessons I Learned From Having a Stroke

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It started in the ICU. The nurse smiled at me as she bustled about. She checked the intravenous bag hanging next to my bed on a stand, which turned out to be full of nutrients of some sort. She checked the IV connection in my arm. I was exhausted just from opening my eyes and wanted to go back to sleep. But two of my relatives were pressing into the room joyfully, so happy I’d lived through my ordeal. They wanted to talk. I wanted to sleep. Guess who won? They did.

According to the American Stroke Association, one in five women will have a stroke in her lifetime. I had just become one of them. And I was already starting to react in stereotypical female style — putting others' wants and needs before my own.

As women, most of us are trained from birth to be nurturers. And as a result, we tend to put the happiness of others before our own. Because if they’re happy, we’re happy. We glow when we’re spreading happiness around.

As I quickly found out, when you’ve had a stroke, you can’t do that. You’re not going to be your usual smiling self, but that nurturing spirit we’ve always been taught can — and should! — be turned around and applied to ourselves. Here’s where you can have a natural edge — if you apply it correctly.

Risk factors are real. Pay attention to them.

Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in women in the United States, according to the CDC. We can change that. It helps to know the risk factors. We can all keep an eye on our stress levels, monitor our blood pressure to make sure it hasn’t gotten too high, stop smoking, eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly. Women in particular should know the risks of therapeutically prescribed hormones and hormonal birth control, and those with high blood cholesterol, migraines with auras (especially if you smoke) or atrial fibrillation are also at higher risk, according to the American Stroke Association.

I kept swearing that I didn’t have any risk factors, except stress. My neurologists shook their heads in puzzlement. But truthfully, I took hormone replacement for too long — even after my gynecologist warned me about the risks — and I resisted treating my almost-high blood pressure. My skin looked great, my blood pressure wasn’t that high, I couldn’t do anything about my stress levels being off the charts. Well, I could have, but I never thought anything would happen to me. You never do.

Don’t give in to fragility.

Being a woman can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, people will often treat you like some delicate and fragile thing — and right after a stroke, you are. But then time goes on, and just when you are feeling a tiny bit better and ready to begin the hard work of recovery, you will find that people are still treating you like some delicate and fragile thing. That’s where you have to be firm.

When I had my stroke, I thought it was the end of the world. But the person I made the most progress with, including learning how to walk again, was my physical therapist Bret. He didn’t coddle me or treat me like a hothouse flower. With great kindness, he made me do things I didn’t think I could do. He made sure I learned to walk, dizzy or not (and I was very dizzy). I walked all over that hospital. In the linoleum-floor corridor outside the hospital gym, to be sure, but we also went down to the parking garage, where I encountered — and conquered — ramps, grassy knolls, uneven turf and the street with all its broken glass and tree roots. We did stairs over my objections (“You’re kidding, right?”). I progressed by leaps and bounds. And the person I made happiest was myself.

Use problem-solving to your advantage.

As women, we tend to be natural problem-solvers. Two kids, one lollipop? We handle things like that all the time. I’m a writer, on my good days. After my stroke, I couldn’t use my right side at all. I couldn’t write anything, couldn’t type anything. After I got over my initial panic (and I did panic, as anybody would when faced with the reality of losing their livelihood), I trained myself to be a lefty. I can even type with my left hand. I didn’t think I could use one hand on the entire keyboard, but I do.

Because problem-solving is second nature to me, I realize I can’t go through life using one hand and letting the other just flop beside me. So I’m using the right more and more, and someday I’ll be ambidextrous. That’s cool, and an unexpected gift.

If you fall, get right back up.

Late one afternoon, when I was a child, my dad took me to a nearby playground. I wanted to go on the swings. Maybe it was because he was there, maybe I was just a daredevil, but I swung too high, and I took a big and dangerous tumble backwards against a fence. I lay there, stunned. My dad’s face loomed over me.

“Are you all right?” he asked. “Did you break any bones?”

I moved all my limbs. No pain. (I would feel the bruises later.) “I think I’m okay,” I said.

“Great! Then get up.”

I got up and walked home with him. By some tacit agreement, neither one of us said a word to my mother, who would have had me in the ER in minutes. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was good training for getting over a stroke.

In recovery, I did a lot of foolhardy things that I wouldn’t recommend to anybody, like walking so much I fell and taking lasagna out of a hot oven, then promptly dropping it. Yet they all worked, because here I am, leading an almost-normal life.

Ignore (some of) the statistics.

According to the American Heart Association, having had a severe hemorrhagic stroke shortens my life expectancy by over seven years. And I have an average 24% chance of having another stroke after 10 years, a great increase over normal. Yet I know a woman who has been waiting for 23 years to have another stroke, and is still waiting. Some people never have a second stroke. You have to ignore the statistics and live.

If you turn those statistics around, I have a 75% chance of never having another stroke and a good chance of beating the life expectancy odds, too. That sounds much better, doesn’t it?

Eileen Haas is the author of Along Came a Stroke, available now from your favorite bookseller. This essay is part of a series highlighting the Good Housekeeping Book Club — you can join the conversation and check out more of our favorite book recommendations.

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