Stroke Survivor Creates New Life Helping Others
by Mary Anne McCormack
Over the last two years, Kate Adamson’s life has been filled with extreme adversities and remarkable triumphs. At age 33, she was a wife and mother caring for two small children and a house full of pets, athlete and physical fitness advocate on her way to becoming a certified trainer. Then one morning, she suffered a near fatal stroke that left her paralyzed from the neck down. Although at one time she wished for death to escape the pain, depression and helplessness, she not only recovered, but channeled her energies into helping others-and in the process created a new, fulfilling life for herself.
“That morning, I had just gotten out of the shower and was planning to take the children to play with friends” Kate says. “I became dizzy and told my family that I didn’t feel well. By the time an ambulance arrived, I had lost my speech and all feeling on my left side. I couldn’t walk and I was panicking.”
She had suffered a double brain stem ponds stroke, one of the most serious stroke types. “I didn’t know what a stroke was,” she says. “I was ignorant of the warning signs and I had no family history of it, so I didn’t know what was happening to me. In the beginning, everything was a blur. I remember having an MRI done and being told to lie perfectly still, but my body was going into convulsions. I was medicated, hallucinating and couldn’t speak. But I do remember wanting somehow to communicate that I needed to get home.”
Her seven weeks in the ICU were terrifying and devastating. Kate experienced severe headaches and double vision, but couldn’t tell anyone. She couldn’t swallow, had a feeding tube surgically placed in her stomach, a tracheotomy to breathe and several IVs. Because she couldn’t cough, Kate needed painful suction treatments every 20 minutes to extract fluids from her lungs. “I could hear what people were saying to me but, in the beginning, no one knew if I understood because they didn’t know how much brain damage I had,” she says. She was trapped in her own body, unable to move or communicate.
When her family realized she could blink voluntarily, she was able to communicate with an alphabet board. “At the end of six weeks in ICU, I blinked to my doctor, was I going to die, because I just couldn’t do it anymore,” she says. Bible verses hanging on the walls inspired her to go on. Her mother arrived from New Zealand to offer her support.
A large part of Kate’s anguish was caused by being separated from her children, Stephanie, 3, and Rachel, 18 months. Stephanie didn’t understand what had happened to her mother or why she couldn’t talk to her if she were alive. Her family showed his daughters photographs of Kate in the ICU, but it distressed them and they didn’t want to believe it was their mommy. “When Stephanie finally visited me in the ICU, she cried and didn’t want to come near me,” Kate said. “That was the last time I saw her until I was in rehab.” When her younger daughter finally visited her in the rehab hospital, she didn’t want to come into the room. “She ran to the door and called the nanny mommy,” Kate said. “I can’t tell you how much that broke my heart.”
Transferring to Daniel Freeman Rehabilitation Hospital was a turning point for Kate. Her neurologist, Dr. David Alexander, remarked after his assessment that he thought rehabilitation would work. “I needed to hear that and I hung on to those words,” Kate says.
Because of her low energy and lack of endurance, Kate alternated therapy and rest sessions from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon. Then she visited with her children, usually out on the lawn where they were free to play while Kate worked at gradually reestablishing her relationship with them. “I would hold an open bag of chips and they would periodically come up to me and take a few ‘ Kate said. “I would transfer from my wheelchair to a picnic bench so I would look more normal to them.” Dinner and bed rounded out the day’s routine. With the encouragement of an especially supportive nun at the hospital, Sister Delores, Kate learned to focus only on the moment.
As Kate regained feeling on her right side, her double vision dissipated and the catheter, feeding tube, and trach tube were removed. Over the next three months, she learned to breathe on her own, swallow, speak and write again. Always goal oriented, Kate looked forward to the Tuesday morning goal-setting sessions and kept a journal of her accomplishments, like blowing her nose for the first time. She gained strength in her right leg by pushing herself around in her wheelchair. She attended an “incredible” eating program, with classes in picking up a spoon, chewing and swallowing, and a cooking class where, among many other tasks, she learned how to wash strawberries and remove the stems. “It’s such a simple task, but it was so hard for me,” she recalls. “I had to keep my shoulders back and squeeze my butt while I did it with one hand. It was so overwhelming.”
Going home created a new set of challenges. The den was converted to a bedroom and a downstairs bath was made accessible. Kate recalls feeling depressed and angry at the condition of her house and the reality of the tasks before her. She canceled therapy and tried to fix everything at home at once.
A wonderful support system, led by family who had closed his law practice for five months to be by her side, helped Kate through her new challenges. Church members arrived to walk the dog, cook and straighten the house. Nurses came for two hours every morning to help with bathing and dressing. But Kate “got tired of feeling like a piece of meat” and desperately wanted some privacy and independence. She asked her family to rig the shower door so she could pull it shut with a string and began to shower and dress herself.
Another turning point occurred six months after the stroke when Kate decided to drive. She passed the special test, equipped her car and took off. “From that point on my life changed,” Kate says. “My voice came back and I joined a stroke support group that really helped me.” The group’s leader, Candice, a Stroke Association director, suggested Kate start a group in her area. Back on Track, the group she founded, saved her sense of independence and self esteem by enabling her to move beyond herself and reach out to others.
Kate became a director of the Stroke Association of California and later a National spokesperson and local board member for the American Heart Association. Last year, she testified before Congress on behalf of the AHA for an increase in federal funding for stroke and heart research, and was a spokesperson at last year’s AHA Volunteer Leadership Conference in Washington. She has visited the White House and discussed issues involving Americans with disabilities with the President’s policy making staff on health. Currently, Kate is involved with United Way in Los Angeles and has spoken at their pledge campaign functions. Ironically, Kate’s background is in speech and drama.
Though her left side is still paralyzed, Kate walks with a brace and four-footed cane. Her daughters, now 6 and 4, are helpful and compassionate, and her family is credited with playing a large role in enabling Kate to accomplish what she has done. “My days are still not a bed of roses,” Kate says. “I’m on a roller coaster with my emotions. I go into deep depressions. Some weeks I don’t want to talk to anyone. I cry a lot. I can’t listen to anything sad. If I don’t keep busy I get really depressed, but I’m learning to be serene by myself. I work out with a personal trainer a couple of mornings a week at a gym and feel normal again mentally.”
Kate is writing a book about her stroke and has helped establish, with a handful of people, an online support group that reaches 500 stroke survivors. “The most important thing is to feel worthwhile again and part of society she says. “This has been a very humbling experience. It has taught me that you should not take life for granted, because it can all be taken away in seconds. But you can also turn your life around and get on with it. We all have special gifts that enable us to touch other people.”
Kate Adamson is available for keynote speaking and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about stroke, call the National Stroke Association at 1-800-STROKES (1-800-787-6537).
The American Heart Association has also launched a National Women’s Heart Disease and Stroke Campaign, “Each One-Reach One.” With the staggering numbers of women effected each year by heart disease and stroke, this campaign was designed to spread the news to all women about the dangers and warning signs. For more information call toll free: 1-888-MY HEART.
- Stroke Is the largest single cause of neurologic crippling in our nation.
- Stroke kills more than twice as many American women every year as breast cancer.
- Women over age 30 who smoke and take high-estrogen oral contraceptives have a stroke risk 22 times higher than average.
- Stroke has a disproportionate effect on women. Women account for approximately 43 percent of the 550,000 strokes that occur each year, yet they account for 61 percent of stroke deaths.
- Approximately one-third of all stroke survivors will have another stroke within five years.
Statistics from the National Stroke Association.
Reprinted from Caregiver News and Report