The Day I Had A Stroke

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past fifteen years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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Allison Zmuda strokeI have shared my story of having a stroke, but never quite like this.

This is a manuscript I wrote with my speech therapist, Paul Fisher, but never published. It is important, yet difficult, for me to recount what happened on March 27, 2010, and potentially more difficult to recount my recovery. In many ways, actually, I’m still recovering.

Sharing my story as it is written within my unpublished work is a way for me to contextualize events, projects, and life lessons I’ve experienced the last six years. The first chapter of that book will be published on Learning Personalized as a series of posts.

Thank you for taking the time to read more about my experience and for your wonderful support.

Difficult, Familiar Memories

The tingling sensation started in my toes, casually teasing up my right heel and into my calf muscle. I feel it sometimes, even now, years later as I lie awake in my hotel room while I’m on the road. It’s a sort of phantom experience, a constellation of sensations that reaches out from my past and grabs me by the back of my collar, pulling me under when I least expect it. The sudden onset is reminiscent of that March morning when I thought my foot just fell asleep. I could not have been more mistaken.

What if you woke up unrecognizable to yourself? What if what made you remarkable was gone?

March 27, 2010

On the morning of March 27th, 2010, I, a 38-year-old nationally known education consultant and public speaker, suffered a devastating stroke. There were no warning signs or typical risk factors. When I awoke from brain surgery, I was faced with a harsh reality; her language, the motor that powered my personal and professional life, was broken.

I was at my kindergarten daughter’s soccer game on a cool, clear Saturday morning. Hardly the setting for the worst day of a person’s life, but in my story and the stories of countless others who have endured what I have, the setting is daily life. Sitting at the breakfast table with your family. Browsing in a department store. Watching a sitcom on a random Tuesday evening. Watching your daughter’s soccer game.

I pumped my leg in an attempt to shake the tingling sensation, but it persisted. No big deal. I had been sitting in a chair watching the game for the entire first half. It made sense. Then Zoe got a breakaway. My instinct was to get up and cheer her on as she raced to the goal.

So somewhere deep in the circuitry of my brain, I decided to stand.

Attempting to Stand

It was my brain’s responsibility to send the message to the parts of my body responsible for shifting from a sitting position to a standing one. We take a lot of things for granted and the function of the brain and its connection to the body is a major one. We don’t celebrate the brilliance of the brain. We assume it will do its job. We count on it like the rising and setting of the sun.

As a healthy 38-year old, I had never experienced the inability to perform a basic movement. So when I attempted to stand and couldn’t, my initial reaction was one of befuddlement. What the hell? I tried again. And again. Befuddlement gave way to frustration and anger.

Pull yourself together, Allison. This is ridiculous. Stand up. Stand up. I made one final attempt, an all or nothing, dive-head-first-for-the-end-zone-with-the-ball-outstretched shot at it.

And collapsed to the ground.

Scary Symptoms Unfold

Allison Zmuda stroke
My son, Cuda, and I after finishing a half marathon as a challenge I gave myself after suffering a stroke.

Even now, years later, it doesn’t take much for me to slip into a flashback to that morning. A soccer sideline full of chairs. The sight and sound of an ambulance. The memory can swoop in at any given moment and once the tape is set to play in my mind, it’s almost impossible to stop. One second I’m getting ready to go to the beach with my family and before I have time to react, I’m back on the cold, wet ground.

The world is so quiet, I am only faintly aware of the sounds around me. I can’t feel my right side.

Oh my God. I CAN’T FEEL MY RIGHT SIDE.

The paramedics arrive and begin asking a barrage of questions to strangers who have no connection to me.

“Does she smoke?”

“Does she have a medical history?”

They see me blinking, with a blank expressionless look on my face, not the growing worry and despair that assaulted my thinking. I am supposed to fly out for work tomorrow. I am supposed to go on vacation with my family next week. I am supposed to stand up and go on with the rest of my day. But my schedule of “supposed tos” has been permanently interrupted by a stroke.

Startled by Unfamiliar Speech

I am a 38-year-old woman — healthy, vibrant, passionate, energetic. And literally in a flash, without warning, I am fighting for my life. One paramedic leans in and makes direct eye contact with me. “Allison, do you know what day it is today?”

No brainer. I reply, “Saaatturrrrdayyy, Mmmmarrrch 27th,” but I am stunned by my voice. The paramedics realize that I am having a stroke. I am still clueless. Time is of the essence, as all medical professionals know. There is a magic window during which medical treatment may prevent further damage from the clot in my brain. They are working feverishly to ensure that I’m stable before transporting me to Virginia Beach General Hospital.

Meanwhile, I’m still focused on the jumbled mess that just came out of my mouth. What is happening to my voice? What is happening to me? I, like thousands of Americans, am unfamiliar of the signs of stroke, even as I am exhibiting them in full force.

Family Fear

As they make preparations for me to be carted off the field, my husband rushes onto it. He was at the local Y watching our son take his swimming lesson when he got the call. He never thought that I would be the first to fall. I was invincible — his warrior — I could do anything. Tom reaches for my hand and walks to the ambulance.

“I love you. We are going to get through this. Everything will be all right. Everything will be all right.” I want to comfort him, to tell him not to worry, but I can’t speak. Can he see me? Again, my blank expression betrays me. Can he see me buried beneath this expressionless mask of stroke symptoms?

The paramedics tell him about the stroke and that it is imperative that they get me to the hospital so that they can work on me in the emergency room. They rush me toward the awaiting ambulance, leaving Tom and our two children in the parking lot.

Being in the Right Place at the Right Time

My daughter has been eerily stoic throughout this ordeal, while my son has been inconsolable. I have always comforted my children and assured them that we can work through anything together, that I will love them no matter what, and no matter where Mommy is they can count on two things — 1) I will carry them in my heart wherever I go; 2) No matter how far I travel, I will always come home. It was a mixed blessing that I was at home that day.

I worry that the image of me on the field is emblazoned in their memory banks, no amount of healing or progress can erase the involuntary flinch when they hear ambulance sirens.

But it is a true gift that I was on a soccer field, three blocks away from a stroke-certified hospital. I could have been on a plane, in a rental car, in a hotel room, in a classroom, in a conference, my usual M.O when I was on the road. It took me a long time to understand that God was looking out for me that day.

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