When I started law school in 2004 as a 37-year-old wife with two teenage boys and a full time job, I had no delusions that the path I had chosen would be an easy one. I had no idea what lay ahead, and I must be honest, if I had known what I was about to go through I may have chosen another path.
During my first year of law school, like other students I had the standard high stress levels and my share of everyday illnesses. A particular delight of the second semester first year law student is the writing and presentation of an appellate “brief,” which ironically mine was pared down to 52 pages of concise, precise argument guaranteed to win my case. This project was due just before spring break for which I also took vacation time from work to rest from all the reading, research and writing.
My plans were usurped by an unexplained illness. At work on the day before my break, I became disoriented, unable to speak or think clearly, unable to move my left arm and hand and weak on the rest of my left side. I spent 36 hours at the hospital within which time, the symptoms seemed to disappear. After many tests, the doctors diagnosed this event as a migraine. It left me tired and weak for the next couple of months. I also began having regular migraines thereafter.
At the end of my second year of law school, in June 2006, I suffered a moderate stroke of the right parietal lobe at the age of 39. This stroke happened sometime during the night. I awakened early in the morning to a feeling of a bad head cold with a heavy head, but I also could not move my legs. I was confused by my body’s lack of cooperation. Somehow I ended up in the hallway and my husband passed me saying, “Are you up already?” I do not recall my response, but heard my husband say, “Oh no, not again” as he led me to the sofa to sit down. My 15 year old was called to the room to watch me while my husband called 911.
I spent five days in the hospital this time. The doctors were unable to determine the actual cause, but narrowed it down to oral contraceptives or a fluke event. They also reinvestigated the previous 2005 incident and changed the migraine diagnosis to a TIA, or mini-stroke. A Speech and Language Therapist visited me one day, placed a piece of paper in my lap and asked me to tell her what I could see. Looking down, the entire left side of the page was blank. I could only see half of the page. I started to cry. The majority of what I did in law school required lots of reading. If I could not read, how was I to finish law school? She then showed me how I could compensate for the lack of vision by making sure I scanned my sight all the way to the left. She also tried to assure me that most of the vision issues would clear up in time. They did mostly within six months, but took closer to a year to get most of the way back to normal.
The only reason I was sent home so soon after my stroke was because my husband, a school teacher, would be home with me round the clock and my children were older and more able to help also. When I was released, among other things, I had left side weakness, limited vision in my left eye, confusion over how to do simple things that I used to do, like boil potatoes and my once stellar math ability was gone. I also had an odd ability to be hypersensitive to shower temperature while at the same time have a loss of sensation on the left side of my body.
I was scheduled for outpatient rehabilitation three times a week each for occupational, physical and speech and language therapy. I recall my first visit for speech and language therapy. I sat and cried in the chair because I had had a stroke and could not match up words with pictures. She told me a story of another patient who was unaware that a stroke had occurred and did not even understand why his capacities were diminished. At least I knew why I was diminished and could then work to compensate.
When my stroke happened, I was in Spring Term and lost five weeks of work when forced to withdraw from the term for medical reasons. I was determined to get back and continue my law education. I talked with Student Services about possible accommodation for my new situation. I was told if I “could not keep up, then maybe you should not be here.” I was stunned, but more determined than ever that I could do it. I may not be able to be a stellar student, but I would complete my law education. I was allotted extra time to complete exams, but that was all the school would do. As each semester went by, I was allotted less extra time. I made this part of my plan. My goal was to pass the State Bar Exam with no accommodation.
Ten weeks after my stroke, I returned to class and to friends who were greatly relieved to see me. I took a reduced schedule of three classes on Tuesday and Thursday only. Long breaks between classes were planned and I had a strict rule on reading. I had to have this rule because reading caused eye-strain and gave me headaches and made me tired. I had to pace myself. I only allowed 30 pages on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Keep in mind that each class typically has 100 pages per class period, so every week I was short 510 pages of reading. Friends helped fill in the gaps and I learned to listen more carefully.
I did not wow any Dean’s List nor was I in the top 25%, but I did graduate. I finished one semester later than my original plan. I did not get a paying clerk position to offset my costs as planned, but took out student loans that I will be paying until I am 70. I was not chosen for a prestigious internship, but it was with a local prosecutor’s office in a specialty unit. Only when my eight month internship was over did I tell my coworkers of my stroke. I wanted to be judged by my ability to stand with other interns. I was offered a job with the unit not once, but three separate times.
Tough economic times threw me out into the marketplace with other graduates in 2008, and I made a decision to start my own law firm. I did not want to subject myself to the demands of billable hours and long commutes. I love what I do and can tailor my work schedule as needed without explaining why.
Six years after my stroke, I still have trouble at the dentist with swallowing from an awkward position, but he works with me. When I get to concentrating really hard on something I drool out the left side of my mouth. If I read too much, my head hurts from the eye strain. A loss of feeling in the lower left side of my face makes eating a challenge with the occasional sauce left behind unknown, reminders for me to wipe my chin and difficulty manipulating chips or lettuce with my lips. This lack of sensation also results in the previously mentioned drool sometimes landing on my shirt before I know I am drooling.
In spite of my current shortcomings, I am an active member of my local and state bar associations. I served as Chair of the Real Estate and Environmental Law section from 2010-12 and was a featured speaker at an Urban Farming Symposium. I also served on the board of a local affordable housing nonprofit.
I am now in my fourth year of legal practice with my own solo firm primarily as a Real Estate Attorney. I represent businesses as general counsel and create estate plans for couples and individuals. My stroke experience brings more awareness to this last area of practice because I understand firsthand what it is like to need a plan, have someone take care of decisions on my behalf and how hard it can be to give up control. I also understand that sometimes it is necessary.
Coming out of my stroke experience, I choose to focus on what I have accomplished rather than on the challenge that I was handed. I would have preferred not having a stroke, but that was not my choice. How I respond to the challenge is my choice. I choose to respond like many others in my situation, with determination and courage.