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Summer 2011

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No Sabbatical for Stroke

A Young Stroke Survivor Finishes Her Doctorate

By Lindsey Hagerty, National Stroke Association intern

At 31 years old, stroke was the furthest thing from my mind,”  said Erin Russell, a stroke survivor who graduated this spring with her doctorate in public affairs, just two years after an ischemic stroke. The healthy and active young woman had completed four marathons and had no known family history of stroke.

Russell’s stroke symptoms first began a month prior to her stroke when she noticed an increase in blood pressure. She then suffered from severe headaches, neck pain and nausea, which peaked on her drive to work in Sept., 2009. According to Russell, not long after her peak in symptoms, “the world started spinning.”  She was immediately rushed to the hospital where they did not immediately recognize that she was having a stroke. They tested her for various other ailments, including swine flu and meningitis.

Twenty-four hours later, she was both frightened and confused to learn she had suffered a stroke.

Stroke can affect people of all ages—not just the elderly, and it affects everyone differently. Russell’s stroke occurred in her cerebellum and primarily affected her balance. It also left her with overwhelming exhaustion and limited eye movement. Suddenly, everyday reading activities were a challenge, let alone studying for and completing her doctorate.

Early in her recovery, it took all of her energy to move from the bedroom to the living room sofa. Russell had to learn how to become aware of her energy and brain limitations. She scheduled time to focus on her studies and was open to the fact that her brain would tell her when it needed a break.

“There is life after stroke,”  Russell concluded. She gradually returned to work as the Director of Legislative Affairs at a law firm and recently completed her doctoral studies, graduating in May 2011. “It is about taking one day at a time,”  she says.  “Every day you make progress and get better.” 

Russell credits a large portion of her recovery 
success to the support of her husband and caregiver, Trevor Hayes. The two had celebrated their first 
wedding anniversary just weeks prior to the stroke. Hayes continues to be a champion of support for Russell throughout her recovery—a life-changing process for them both.

Obtaining her PhD has been rewarding, yet her story of recovery does not stop there. Russell’s new goal is to educate the next generation about stroke. Now the recent graduate is creating a support group aimed at young stroke survivors. She remembers feeling both isolated and frightened after her diagnosis and wants others to know they are not alone. She often stops by local hospitals to reach out to other stroke survivors. Russell knows how far she has come in her recovery process and is using her story to inspire hope in others as well.

Russell, like many other stroke champions, has contributed her story to Faces of Stroke, National Stroke Association’s National Stroke Awareness Month campaign that began in May 2011. Faces of Stroke is aimed at bringing attention to the personal side of stroke and educating the public about important stroke facts. To learn more about Russell’s story, or to share your own story, visit stroke.org/faces.

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National Stroke Association’s mission is to reduce the incidence and impact of stroke by developing compelling education and programs focused on prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and support for all impacted by stroke.

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