By Dani JohnsonJanuary 8, 2019
FORT LEE, Va. -- The ability to grow and thrive in the face of challenges and bounce back from adversity is the Army's definition of resilience.
I always considered myself resilient. I was born a month early and the doctor told my parents that I wouldn't mentally go past 10 years old -- I have a master's degree. I went to seven different schools before I graduated high school so I was always the new kid. I went out of state to college and joined the Air Force after graduation and commissioning. After nine assignments, seven deployments and numerous temporary duties, I retired after 20 years and became an Army civilian, with two assignments so far. You get the point, I am resilient.
I had that resiliency severely tested in June 2018. One Sunday, I had four episodes over nine hours that I really couldn't explain so I called an ambulance and went to the hospital. Because I had no preexisting conditions, they told me it was allergies and sent me home. I had two more episodes over the night, woke up, made a doctor's appointment for that afternoon and went to work.
I had an event that morning and when I got back to my desk I started to feel an episode come on. I asked my co-worker to call an ambulance. When the paramedics arrived, I wasn't able to hold myself in my chair and was on the floor. The paramedics had to carry me out from behind my desk to put me on the stretcher.
Turns out those episodes were TIAs (transient ischemic attack) or mini strokes. All I knew is that I had no control over my right side, I was in the hospital for the first time since I was born, I was scared and I wanted my mom. My mother flew in that Wednesday. I spent four days in the hospital then transferred to inpatient rehabilitation where I spent six weeks. I needed some speech therapy but for the most part my language wasn't affected. Since I had no use of my right arm and leg, I needed a lot of occupational and physical therapy. I'm right handed so I had to learn to do things with my left while working to get the right back.
After the six weeks, I could walk with a four-point cane and take care of myself on my own - I went home basically alone but able to call people if I needed help. My mother had to go home after two weeks. A friend picked me up, got me into my house and spent the weekend making sure I had everything I needed. I started home health rehab. After two weeks of going crazy in my house, I realized I had to go back to work for my sanity.
I went back to work full time in September, started driving in October and I'm in outpatient rehabilitation twice a week. As I look back on the past 7 months, here is what I've learned.
** You are not alone, more people care than you realize.
I had been at Fort Lee for just six months, but the support from the CASCOM staff was overwhelming. I never felt like I had a schedule to go back to work or had any concerns with my position. They supported me without question and told me to take my time and come back when I was ready.
My military family stepped up. I had visitors, calls, flowers and overall support from military friends going back to ROTC. They took time off work to visit and make sure I knew I was important to them. I always knew I was liked but I never knew how loved I was.
** Don't be afraid to ask for help.
Physically or emotionally, we all need help at one point or another. It isn't anything to be ashamed of. Emotionally, strokes make the strongest person emotional. I cried over everything at first until my doctor noticed and gave me something to even me out. I didn't want it but at the urging of my mother, I took it because as she reminded me what I was going through was not normal.
Find someone to talk to that is trained to help you and someone who has gone through what you have. Both are key to your recovery. If it wasn't for my therapists the first few weeks, I don't know what I'd do. I talked and cried my fears to them. I'm in a stroke support group that helps me know that they've been where I am at.
Physically, I needed a lot of help initially and to this day, there are still things I need help with. People want to help but you have to ask. This is a weakness of mine I had to get over. I feel I'm imposing if I ask for help. Trust me, it is better to put your pride aside and have someone help you then hurting yourself because you are stubborn.
** You will have bad days.
It's only normal. There will be days where you don't think you are improving and all you want to do is cry. That's fine, embrace it, acknowledge it and get over it. I never allowed myself to wallow more than half a day.
Get involved and try to get back to normal activities. When I was in inpatient, after the first day I never ate in my bed. From the beginning, I went to the dining room for meals and on the weekend the gym. Staying the room all the time or hiding out is not good for your psyche.
** You will fall and fail, continue to push on.
I fell twice - the first day I was home and the first day I showered with no one in the house. The first one I was trying to do something I shouldn't and the second I was doing everything right but still fell. Stay calm and figure out how to get back up. It is fine and expected.
I fail every day. That doesn't keep me from trying and before I know it, something I couldn't do I now can. You can't get frustrated. Go at your own pace - you know what you can do and it may be faster or slower than people think - you know your body. Be honest with yourself - you may want to do something, try but your body isn't ready, acknowledge that and don't push too far. The most common thing I say is 'I'm not there yet but I will be.'
** Don't compare the new you with the old you or anyone else.
You aren't the same person so you will only get frustrated if you continually compare yourself with what you used to be like. Also, don't get frustrated because someone who had the same thing you had seem to be farther along than you. We all heal differently. Remember someone is looking at you, thinking you are so far ahead of them.
** Positive attitude is worth more than anything and is vital to your recovery.
I fought every day to be positive because I knew the more I accepted what had happened and worked hard, the faster I would be on my feet. It takes time but in the big scheme of things what is a month, 6 months or even a year when you are talking a lifetime.
I had two examples that kept me going. The first was a good friend, Air Force Col. Aaron Burgstein who passed away in 2015 after battling a brain tumor for 5 years. The whole time during his fight to live, he said "PMA" - positive mental attitude. I know he had his bad days but he never took it outside of his home. He always had humor about his situation and talked open and honestly about it. I tried to emulate that in my recovery.
The second is someone I had the great fortune to work with at Fort Carson, Colorado, Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Marks. Marks is an Army World Class Athlete and a wounded warrior. Injured in Iraq, she didn't let it define her. She found swimming and became a gold medal Paralympian. While that is impressive, the thing that affected me the most was her positive attitude. I know she had her struggles but she didn't let the world see them and she didn't let them define her. I tried to emulate that in my recovery.
I'm not 100 percent yet but I will be. It won't be the same 100 percent it was before my stroke but it will become my new normal.