Unapologetically Celebrating Life: Lessons Learned Three Years Post-Stroke

The morning I had a mini-stroke started out like any other. It was a sunny day in Miami, with no hint of Winter or Fall ever cooling us down. By that point, it had almost been one year since I had graduated from UNC and was still living at home.

I was facing the usual tribulations of a recent college graduate. Dealing with being inexperienced, too experienced, underpaid and overworked. When I graduated I had imagined that going into the workforce would be easier than it was and with the copious amounts of work I did during my university years I’d surely have no trouble.

Instead, I was working in basically anything to try to make ends meet. Miami is an expensive city, so either you find a high-paying job that can afford living expenses, or you find several jobs to help you out.

During that year alone, I had worked for two schools and had completed a social work certification program to start working with at-risk families.  It wasn’t even remotely close to what I wanted to accomplish, but I figured the experience couldn’t hurt.

You see, I was a knowledge collector. I’d hoard diplomas, certifications, and technical skills that I later had no vehicle to apply them on. I would take the classes because it seemed like a good step into being a competent professional, but in reality, I was not excited or inspired by the turn my life was taking.

That year had also been a significantly trying one. Early in the year, my aunt died suddenly of a heart attack, and shortly after so did my grandfather. It was the first time in my life I had struggled with so much pain. I lost my job at one of the schools I was working at, and still had no idea what would come next.

To be honest, the idea of going back to school to be buried in debt for most of my adult life gave me palpitations. The LSAT exam prep would bore me to death. And I had failed to write for myself for more than six months.

Then, that morning arrived.  I had just done yoga, meditated, followed every rule for living a “healthy” life. As I got in my car to drive to work, the left side of my head felt like it was hit by a truck. Undulating pain made its way from my temple to my jaw. For about an hour I was in so much pain I could barely see.

I remember clearly telling one of the therapists at my new job at that I was in “face labor.” Then, my face started to droop.

The all too famous “Bell’s Palsy” was happening. Not thinking a 22-year-old could be having a stroke, I drove myself to the Urgent Care, where my best friend Kris was waiting for me. They weren’t sure how to diagnose, so they told my friend to take me to the Emergency Room, “just in case.”

On our way there, I lost consciousness and when I woke up we were in the parking lot of the Hospital. He looked terrified as he tried to help me toward the entrance. What came next was a flurry of doctors, nurses, and technicians wheeling me to and fro exam rooms trying to figure out if the clot had passed or if I was still at risk of having a more severe reaction.

The Diagnosis

When they told me it was a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA) or mini-stroke, I felt the room cave in around me. Even more so when there was talk of heart surgery, catheters, and all kinds of awful sounding procedures to be done.

Life seemed to have suddenly gotten complicated on levels I never had to imagine before.

Aside from the physical repercussions, such as persistent migraines, panic attacks, changes in blood pressure, and numbness on the left side of my body, I couldn’t find a rational explanation as to why that had happened.

After several tests, they concluded that the TIA was most likely caused by a hole in my heart that never closed. Turns out, we are all born with a little flap that connects the two chambers of the heart. For 75% of the population that hole closes on its own between the first three months of birth.

For those of us lucky enough to be special butterflies, the hole does it close. Meaning that 1 out of 4 people (or 25%) people have a PFO and may not even know about it. That is until you have a complication such as a TIA.

Transitions and Frustrations

For the next year, I found myself lost in a sea of doctors, specialists, and physical therapy. I was frustrated by all the changes I had to suddenly make in my life, and especially frustrated by the changes in my physical body.

On some days, I would wake up to find my blood pressure on the ground. It would make me lethargic, sleepy, cold. Sometimes my left leg or my arm would simply stop moving for days only to return with horrible muscle spasms and pain.

I had decided to move out of my parent’s home and in with my best friend and another group of young professionals to give myself a change of pace.

But overall, I was mad. I was pissed that this happened to me despite leading a healthy life, doing everything I was told to do, and following the rules. Why?

Steps Toward Change

It was not for at least another six months that I realized how much having a TIA changed my perspective on life. For one, I was less afraid.

Not in the sense that I was reckless and doing whatever I wanted, but I cared less about what other people had to say about what I did, and just did what I wanted to do.

My focus became centered around creating a life for myself that would allow me clarity, balance, and inspiration. I had no time to waste consistently engaging in activities that required me to have suppressed my desires.

Did I really want to be a social worker? A teacher? A lawyer?

No. I wanted to be a writer, a business owner, an entrepreneur. I wanted to help people grow, prosper, build lives they loved. I wanted to inspire through the written word.

It was as if the lens on my camera had been off-focus and suddenly the stroke had moved the lens. I made a list of the areas where I needed to improve, and where I wanted to apply my newfound knowledge. My list included: nutrition, self-love, forgiveness, healing.

The Road to Entrepreneurship

It was my business that inspired me to take my stroke and turn it into lemonade.

I don’t think I would have been able to push through the first two years of physical and emotional recovery if it hadn’t been for the fact that something inspired me to get out of bed every morning–I had something to look forward to. I could use this experience to let others know that they are not a diagnosis or a freak health event, you are more.

With my doctor’s consent, I was able to get off blood thinners and replace them with supplements from my own store. I started focusing on turning my home, my business, and my life into a more sustainable one.

The stroke also made me more forgiving. I used to be unyielding, always pushing for things to be the way I wanted them to be. However, this journey made me conscious of the battles I was fighting, and who I was fighting them with.

It made me see the people in my team for who they were, what they were going through, and how I could help them from my side.

I also became a better leader. I became focused on listening, absorbing, and thinking about what the other was saying without passing judgment. My focus shifted into fully helping others, into focusing on dreams instead of problems.

Unapologetically Celebrating Life

I am, and will always be until the day I die, a work in progress. After surviving one year,  I was grateful. After surviving two, I felt like I was in the clear. But three takes the cherry.

I am thankful every day that this experience did not kill me, that instead, it catapulted me into going after my dreams, my purpose, my aspirations. It was what needed to happen for me to unapologetically take steps in my life to live better and fulfilled.

Today, I vow to never apologize for removing myself from toxic situations, jobs, and people–no matter who they are. I used to put myself last until it almost killed me, now I put myself first. You can’t pour from an empty cup, honey, so fill yourself up!

XO,

Karla

 

 

 

 

 

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