More than a dozen strokes interrupted – but didn't end – her pursuit of becoming a lawyer

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg, American Heart Association News

Stroke survivor Brianne Rico. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Rico)
Stroke survivor Brianne Rico. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Rico)

Brianne Rico had a terrible headache during a class in law school. When she stood up, she stumbled. Still, she downplayed whatever was happening. She didn't have time to be sick.

That night, the headache got worse, and she took pain medicine. The following day, her mother, Kathy, convinced her to see a doctor.

A scan showed she was having transient ischemic attacks, or TIAs, temporary blockages of blood flow to the brain. Doctors didn't know why. They transferred her to a specialized hospital in the Los Angeles area.

By then, Brianne, 27, was feeling fine. She started taking a blood thinner.

"Take the semester off," the doctor told her. "Rest."

But Brianne didn't want to leave school. She wanted to rejoin her classmates and keep working toward a career in family law. She went back, graduated two years later, then started studying for the bar exam.

Four days before the big test, Brianne had a headache and her body ached. She figured it was a cold, or maybe the flu. She took cold medicine, made coffee, then started walking back to her room. In the hallway, she stumbled and fell against the wall.

"What are you doing?" her mom asked.

"I think I tripped," Brianne said.

"Be careful," replied Kathy.

In her room, Brianne sunk to all fours on the floor, knocking over her law school notes. They lay scattered on the carpet. And the words suddenly looked jumbled.

"I can't read these papers!" Brianne called out to Kathy in a panic. Kathy called 911.

Brianne woke up in the hospital, her parents by her side. Right away, she remembered the bar exam.

"What day is it?" she said, sitting up. She tried to get out of bed, but the left side of her body was paralyzed.

"You had a few strokes," her dad, Jerry, said.

"What's a few?" Brianne replied.

"So far," he said, "13."

At first, doctors tried a procedure called transluminal ballooning to open blood vessels and help more blood reach Brianne's brain. Multiple attempts didn't work.

Brianne needed a cranial bypass, a surgery to restore blood flow to her brain by rerouting blood around damaged arteries. There was a 50-50 chance the operation would go well, doctors told her. Brianne said her goodbyes.

Hours later, she woke up with a bandage on her head.

"She's going to be a vegetable," she heard a doctor say.

Brianne began to cry. "Leave the room," her mother told the doctor. "God will decide if and when she walks again." Then she bent down and whispered into Brianne's ear, "You're going to walk again. We're going to get there."

Kathy stayed by Brianne's side night and day. After three months in the hospital, Brianne got a scholarship to spend four to six hours daily for five months in an intensive rehabilitation center to work on regaining mobility.

At first, she felt depressed and sorry for herself. She curled up in bed, crying, and refused to leave her room. Her father came to see her.

"You're going to get out of this bed, get into that gym and you're going to walk," he said.

Brianne got up. She started with a few steps, then walked with a leg brace and cane. Her dad bawled and staff clapped and cheered when she took her first few steps on her own.

At home, Brianne walked in loops around her cul-de-sac every day. Soon, she didn't need the cane or brace.

Brianne Rico (left) with her mom, Kathy. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Rico)
Brianne Rico (left) with her mom, Kathy. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Rico)

Now, more than five years after her strokes, Brianne is living on her own. She walks well, though has occasional nerve pain in her legs and limited function of her left hand. She also has to work harder to read peoples' social cues.

Brianne started dating and she has a long-term partner. She's studying for the bar again, too, and hopes to practice law one day soon. "That was always in the back of my mind," Brianne said. "I refused to give it up." Her ultimate dream: to open her own firm.

"I thought I would never be happy again, and that lasted a couple of years," Brianne said. "But it does get better. It's important for survivors to understand that there's hope."

Brianne credits her remarkable recovery to her parents' support and to never giving up.

"Without my parents, I would still be in that hospital, curled up in a ball crying," she said. "Surround yourself with a culture of empathy, understanding and hard work."

Counseling helped, too, added Kathy – both individual and family. So did Brianne's strong will. "Brianne is very much a go-getter," Kathy said. "From where she was, and what we were told, she's come a long, long, long way. She's a true miracle."

Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

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