Surviving and Thriving
By Margaret Johnson as told to Linda Chism
An odd sensation covered my entire body as I stepped into the half bath, and I felt a need to move toward the couch in the den. I never made it. A massive headache, worse than the pain of my five natural childbirths and a C-section combined, engulfed my being. I fell instantly to the floor, my left side paralyzed. Within moments, thousands of my brain cells had been destroyed by a life-threatening ruptured brain aneurysm.
This type of brain injury, also known as a hemorrhagic stroke, kills almost half of the 30,000 people inflicted each year and leaves many others with permanent disabilities.1 But I was not fated to die that day. In an unusual twist of fate, I was sent to one of the premier hospitals in Dallas, Zale Lipshy, whose top physicians are associated with the University of Texas Southwestern School of Medicine. There the initial MRI revealed that the brain leakage located between two major arteries had sealed itself. As a precaution against any future aneurysms, a skilled neurosurgery team placed a tiny titanium clip within my brain.
A close friend, Elizabeth Boyce, began chronicling my slow progress in her blog entitled “Margaret’s Miracles.”2
November 17, 2007 – The incision went from her right temple up and across the top of her head and then down her left temple past her left ear. There were staples running the entire length. We told her that she got a facelift at the same time, and she thought that was funny.
November 19, 2007 - The nurse indicated that for every 24 hours that Margaret is in bed, she will lose 3% of her muscle mass. Once home, she will be very weak and tired and will need daily help for 6-8 weeks before her mobility is back to “normal,” whatever that may be.
After only sixteen days, most of it in the ICU, I was released from hospital care. It was then that I realized the extent of my brain damage, even though others could not see it. My family and friends assumed that since my outward physical appearance had not changed, that I must be OK. But they couldn’t see what was happening inside my damaged body.
A loss of memory and focus was the first perceptible sign of disability. Garbled messages filled my ears that made no sense to my crippled brain. I fought constant forgetfulness and found my conversations regularly veering off to unrelated tangents. The strangest symptom was my total lack of smell as I walked through an airport, thick with the aroma of baking Cinnabons.
Prior to the stroke, I had been actively home-schooling my children, two of whom suffered from learning disabilities. In addition to family responsibilities, I led the children’s music program and adult choir at our church and taught private piano lessons to supplement our family’s income. My disability prevented me from returning to any aspect of that former life. Instead, I spent months in various rehabilitation programs, slowing regaining some of my former abilities. It was during my recovery that a series of seemingly random events occurred, each building toward a new direction in my life.
For years, our family had teetered on the edge of poverty, despite our best efforts as a couple. At first, the loss of my income and high medical bills created even more financial pressure. But with our minister’s support and encouragement, my husband was finally able to return to school to earn his degree as a registered nurse. As he earned his bachelor’s degree, I focused on recovering the daily living skills I had lost, including the ability to communicate and think clearly. Although it took several years of work and diligence, we each eventually accomplished our goals.
During this long recovery process, I had sought the help of a trained counselor. She shared with me a phrase that “conflict is growth trying to happen.” That phrase became my mantra as I re-evaluated the direction of my life. She also recommended a book that eventually led me to meet the authors, Dr. Harville Hendrix and his wife, Dr. Helen Hunt. The two of them had created a workshop program called Relationships First. They recognized my unique talents and experiences, and I soon became a trained communication educator and Coordinator of their Volunteer Strategy Program in Dallas/Fort Worth. Using that experience as a springboard, I am now building my own career as a life coach, consultant, and teacher.
People who do not know my medical history are amazed that I suffered such a life-changing event. But I know that beating the odds of a ruptured brain aneurysm was only the beginning of a new life for me. Along the way, I discovered that optimism and hope can conquer circumstances. I found new insight into how others learn, including my own learning-disabled sons. Most importantly, I learned that investing time and choices in ourselves can build and sustain our lives. Today I am living proof that no matter what occurs in our lives, we can be more than we ever imagined we could be.
2Elizabeth Boyce. “Margaret’s Miracles” blog. October 2007.
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