Rita Kurty – Stroke Survivor Hero
Rita had two strokes in April 2016 when she was 86 years old. She shares her story in honor of National Caregivers’ Month.
I was living independently, enjoying a full life in retirement, and proud of my capabilities. I had just flown 1,500 miles on a commercial airline, changing planes at a major hub, and managing both checked luggage and my cat, in an authorized pet carrier, tucked under the seat in front of me.
I had a headache for a few days and over-the-counter medicine did not provide relief. The headache pain got to the point where, one day, I just wanted to lie in bed. My son, Jack, woke me when a visitor came to the house. I don’t remember our meeting; I am told that I spoke as if I was in a confused state. Observing my rapid decline to semi-consciousness, Jack cut the visit short.
Getting up from the table I was suddenly weak, unbalanced, and unable to walk without assistance. Jack helped me out of the house and drove me two miles to our city hospital’s emergency room. MRI results showed a hemorrhagic stroke - a bleed - on the right side of my brain. I was rushed by ambulance to a larger hospital; a craniotomy was done that night. It was the only option to save my life.
I had taken a blood thinner for many years to avoid having a stroke but now thickened blood was required for surgery, and for healing, so my anticoagulant was stopped. I was between a rock and a hard place. The risk of ischemic stroke - clotting - was real and…two weeks later…while in a rehab hospital…I had a major one, again on the right side of my brain. Doctors, nurses, and family members watched and waited, hoping for the best. Nothing but pain relief could be administered. I survived, but the effects of this unchecked second stroke were more significant, and life-changing, than the first.
Looking back, I can’t remember my time in emergency rooms, intensive care units, and hospitals. I do, though, remember my time in rehab hospitals and in a rehab nursing home. When asked by staff what my goals for recovery were I said, “I want to be the same as I had been”. Therapists took me at my word; they were getting me up and out of bed all the time, it seemed, to work on speech, occupational, and physical therapies. Unable to do anything without assistance and uncertain of what my circumstances really were or would be, saying that I wanted a full recovery had been easy; achieving it seemed to be both our non-negotiable pathway and cruelly unlikely.
The persistent and talented therapists and the constant encouragement and support from my family made all the difference. My health stabilized thanks to new medications, a sizeable and specialized medical team and, later, home therapists. It was two solid years of daily effort before we began to know what essential abilities had been or might still be regained and which ones had not, or possibly would not, come back. At the same time, I was aging and coming to understand, as best I could, my new self.
I gave up retirement when I had two strokes, replacing “free time” with healthy and purposeful living in all of its dimensions. My days are now focused on activities that give me pleasure and aid my recovery: reading, walking (with assistance), napping, crossword puzzles, chair yoga, socializing, sending and receiving cards, and enjoying many forms of art – music, movies, and museums, for example. I take all of my prescribed medications, see my doctors as scheduled, and enjoy a brain-healthy diet. While I may not have all the abilities that I had four years ago, I have more than I had 3 and 2 years ago and this gives me a good feeling of accomplishment. I continue to work on things and to see progress.
Some weaknesses have improved; others have become less important - compensated for by other strengths or pushed aside by the development of new interests. I have made many new friends and look forward to making more. Now in my 90’s, it is rewarding to still be learning; this helps me continue to grow and to live each day to the fullest. I live by the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. The courage to change the things I can change. And the wisdom to know the difference.”
I remember well the words of one person at a Stroke Survivor’s Support Group who said, “If you do nothing, nothing will happen.” I thank all the extraordinary people I have met since my strokes for helping me to appreciate all that I can do, who encourage my continuing work on abilities that I would like to develop, and who help me realize that “when one door closes, another opens.” Thankfully, I am able to be a light for others who have challenges of their own.