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Stroke Smart Magazine

September/October 2007

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“Stroker”: A coming of age story

By Rowena Alegrķa

At the age of 20, Danielle Bragg of Flemington, N.J., has lived more years with stroke than without. Her life before Girls Scouts, gymnastics, piano, dancing and swimming lessons, and anything that required two hands is all a blur, she says.

“I’m forgetting what it was like to be four or seven or even nine,” she says. “I didn’t have a chance to be a regular kid.”

Danielle instead recalls returning to school after the stroke and trying to explain what had happened to her, though she barely understood herself. She remembers teasing and name-calling, and what it was like to be 13 and not have any friends.

For more than a decade Danielle has struggled to walk, talk, and use one of her arms. She’s battled depression and even tried to commit suicide. She admits she was angry with God. Why me? she asked.

In all those years, Danielle says, things haven’t gotten much easier. Yet she swears she wouldn’t change a thing.

‘That can’t be my daughter’

On Nov. 23, 1996, her parents’ wedding anniversary, nine-year-old Danielle got up and made them a card. The handwriting was a little sloppy, she says, “but I spent a minute and a half on it.” She had a headache, too. “But it was just a little headache.”

By the time Danielle arrived at the YMCA for swimming lessons the headache had worsened. Though she could barely walk, she got in the pool to join her classmates in the backstroke. She collapsed in the water.

Danielle’s mother, Elizabeth, was in another part of the YMCA at a tumbling class with Danielle’s little brother, Timmy, who was just two years old at the time. When alerted, she said, “That can’t be my daughter. My daughter’s healthy as a horse.”

Danielle was airlifted to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Brunswick, N.J. They hadn’t yet diagnosed her, but they gave her a shot (something she’d always hated) and cut her favorite bathing suit right off her body. And she didn’t get to have shrimp for dinner, the family’s traditional anniversary celebra tion. When she awoke sobbing, her parents thought she was in pain. But that wasn’t the problem at all. “I thought I’d ruined their anniversary,” she says.

By the next day, doctors determined Danielle had suffered a major stroke. She couldn’t talk. She couldn’t move her arms or legs. She suffered memory loss.

“I didn’t even know how to spell cat,” she says. “To this day, I can’t smile right. I can’t wink. It’s sad.”

Living with stroke

Within months of the stroke, Danielle regained speech and the use of her legs. She walked with a brace for years and still Danielle sometimes has trouble recalling words. Before the stroke she was right-handed, but now that arm doesn’t work. Her hand is so tight she can’t open it. “I can grab things but I don’t release them,” she says. “I can’t use my arms for more than opening the door at this point.”

When Danielle entered the fourth grade, the autumn following her stroke, teachers thought it would be a good idea for her to explain to classmates what had happened. Afterward, her mother recently informed her, some of her classmates refused to go swimming because they were afraid the pool had caused Danielle’s stroke. Others feared headaches. “They were scared they would have what I had,” Danielle says. “It was weird having my classmates see me like that.”

It wasn’t better at a new school. Or at any of the other schools that followed before college. “People would tease me about not being able to use my one arm,” she says. “They would call me stupid names, like retard, and laugh at me. I didn’t take my pills like I should [have] because I was afraid of what everyone would say.”

On top of those challenges, Danielle suffered the most common emotional problem faced by stroke survivors: depression. It went untreated for 10 years. When she went away to Centenary College in Hackettstown, N.J., she struggled. “I would have flash backs,” she says. “I would have nightmares. I tried to commit suicide a number of times.”

After 10 days in a “behavioral house,” her parents said she could return to school if she wanted, but they weren’t paying for it.

“She was having a lot of trouble figuring out what she wanted to do with herself and what she wanted to be,” says Joseph Coppinger, Danielle’s boyfriend of two years whom she met at Centenary. “It was her first time being completely independent, and it was that way for all of us at the time.”

All in all college was still good for Danielle. It not only gave her a taste of independence but provided her a community of friends who weren’t afraid to learn about stroke. They also weren’t afraid to help, carrying Danielle’s heavy textbooks to classes for her. They teased, too, but in a gentle way. “My friends call me Lucky Fin. Or Nemo. Or Stroker, which is OK because I did have a stroke.” Her car, because of modifi cations, has been dubbed the Stroker Mobile. “I’m now known as Stroker,” she says proudly.

Recently Danielle began working as a receptionist at the local ARC. She wants to return to school and study social work, so she can help other disabled people.

“I’ve always wanted to give back,” she says. “The stroke made me stronger. I can deal with more issues than a lot of other people [can]. And I think it made me a better person.”

Although Danielle is living with her family, she is looking for a place of her own. “I have wonderful parents and a wonderful brother, but it’s time to get out and start living my life.”

Doctors aren’t sure what caused Danielle’s stroke. She still has regular check-ups to try to head off another. But she doesn’t dwell on that.

“Me wallowing over my stroke and what I can’t do has just ended, and me starting to live with my stroke has just begun,” Danielle says.


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