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A Second Chance: How Stroke Brought These Families Closer Together
by Erica Bray
My mother and I never really had a true mother daughter relationship until after she had a stroke in 2006. While she still struggles to get simple words and phrases out due to aphasia (a condition that affects a person’s ability to communicate), the irony — and blessing — is that we are communicating more now than ever before. Neither of us could have imagined that the catalyst for strengthening our relationship would be a stroke.
After my mother’s stroke, I would visit her at the hospital nearly every day. And I would talk — mainly because she couldn’t. She learned a lot about my life during that time. Friends, boyfriends, work, travel plans, body issues — no subject was off limits. My mother learned everything she never knew about me, everything I never opted to share with her before the stroke.
In return, I discovered in her a willingness to be a part of my everyday ups and downs, to emotionally invest in my life — even if she could only articulate those emotions with her eyes and body language. I knew she was listening, really listening. And I had faith that, in time, my mother would eventually respond with words.
Within a month, my mother began doing just that. She started pushing conversations forward with questions like “Why?” and “Really?” When something piqued her interest, she would respond by saying, “That’s great.” Our conversations eventually became a running dialogue, albeit a simple one. It was encouraging to hear her express her feelings about everything I brought to the table — even if it wasn’t always what I wanted to hear. In that respect, she was just being my mother.
And it wasn’t just me rallying around my mother. My father, four siblings and I worked together — as a team — to support her, and each other, during those first few pivotal months. Her stroke tested our family bonds, which we discovered were quite strong, despite my years of believing otherwise.
Family became a critical part of my mother’s recovery, because it provided something no doctor or therapist could ever truly provide: Unconditional love and encouragement. And this seems to have been my mother’s most precious medicine.
The Sherbans: Closer Than Ever
Whitney Sherban of Denver, Colo., can certainly attest to this. At just 11 years old, Whitney had a stroke while horseback riding in October of 1988. The outdoor enthusiast suddenly found herself spending her days in the hospital and at therapy sessions, relearning how to walk and talk.
She was forced to start over at a time when her peers were just beginning to enjoy their carefree teenage years.
“It’s been a bumpy road,” Whitney, now 20, says. “I’ve gone though good times and bad times. I work hard everyday. [My family] has been an amazing emotional support. They’ve been my cheering squad.”
Whitney says her family had always been tight-knit, but they grew even closer after her stroke. Her parents, Bonnie and Terry, and younger sister, Alicia, became a big part of her motivation in part because they were always there.
Over the years, the family spent countless hours together at the hospital and turned some of Whitney’s therapy sessions into special family events. The mother-daughter bond was further strengthened when Bonnie Sherban decided to home-school Whitney. And with assistance, as well as her family by her side, Whitney even relearned how to ride a horse and ski, two activities she enjoyed doing with her family prior to the stroke.
“Being able to do an activity that we all once enjoyed doing pre-stroke, and then to do it after the stroke, was very beneficial for our family,” says Bonnie.
“The circumstances of Whitney’s stroke definitely brought us closer together,” she continues. “And today, we continue to spend a lot of time together.”
Now, nine years after doctors told the Sherbans that their daughter was close to death, Whitney has beaten the odds. She volunteers at a local hospital and attends a community college. She also aspires to live independently one day.
Whitney says the encouragement provided by her family was ultimately just as critical as her doctor visits and therapy sessions, if not more so.
“My family was a crucial part of my recovery,” Whitney says. “If it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
The Brays: Another Chance
I look at my own mother, Dr. Linda Janus (Bray), and know she feels the same way. She may not be able to say it, but I see it in her eyes and through the affection with which she showers us.
Like Whitney, my mother has beaten the odds. And our family has been with her every step of the way. She relearned how to ride a bike. She goes on solo shopping trips. She cooks and quilts. And she even does something that never happened pre-stroke: This one-time homebody now travels. (Last year my mother and I took a trip to Paris together.)
While it pains me to watch this valedictorian-turned-physician-turned- mother-of-fi ve who once had control of everything now struggle at times to say her own children’s names, I am so proud of her. And I’m grateful for the realization that she’s helped to inspire regarding my own family — and its special healing power. It’s certainly helped her mend, just as it’s helped me to grow.
At a time when some might only see tragedy, my mother and I have found a second chance.
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