I am … a Survivor.
It was September 3, 2016, opening day of Montana’s archery big game season. My husband, Cody, and I were at our coveted elk camp, 3 hours from home, ready to take a big bull with our trusty stick and string. Archery season is our favorite time of year. We spend all year long getting prepared for hunting, getting and staying in shape, and acquiring all the gear we need. This summer we had started an outdoor supplement and weight loss program, we had lost a bunch of weight, and were in the best shape we had ever been in. We were ready to climb up and down mountains, and call in some elk for 9 days!
I had been having some health issues for about a month prior. It started with migraine auras with flashy, zigzag arcs in my vision. And then one day coming home from the archery range I started shivering and having uncontrollable shaking chills. I tried to wrap myself in my robe and blankets, but they didn’t stop. My temperature jumped to 103 degrees, and we left to the ER because I couldn’t stop shaking. Everything came back normal, decided it must have been a virus of some sort. However, a week later, it all happened again. I just stayed at home, took some Tylenol and waited it out. I got with my doctor who started running test after test after test, but all results were coming back normal. On a weekly basis, the auras, fevers, and chills were coming, and the tests continued to come back normal. At this time, I was starting to get severe muscle cramps with the fevers too, and my ESR and CRP were elevated, but we weren’t sure why exactly. My heart palpitations had gotten a little worse, so we decided to try a 2 week holter monitor. However, at this time I was a week away from our 9 day elk hunting trip, so I decided I would start the holter monitor when I got back.
On Friday September 2nd, I had another aura as I left work. We started the trip up to hunting camp anyway. On the way there, I didn’t feel very good, my palpitations were crazy. My chest and upper back hurt, and down my arm too. Any normal person would have thought they were having a heart attack and gone to the ER. But I had had palpitations a lot, and I also have anxiety, and I didn’t want to ruin our hunting trip due to an anxiety attack, so I pushed through and we made it to camp. I felt a little better when we got everything set up and sat down for dinner in the wall tent. We ate and went to sleep.
The next morning, opening day, we woke up before the sun came up. I was excited, and feeling good! We ate breakfast and got ready to go hunting. We hiked around for a couple hours, trying to call them in, but no response. About 10:00, my husband let a cow call off, and a bull immediately bugled back to us. We took off running down the mountain toward him. Cody called again, and he bugled back again, a lot closer this time. We went a little further down and Cody set me up by a tree and went behind me a ways, and let another call out. The bull bugled back again, really close this time. I was shaking, I was pumped, this was the closest encounter I had ever had where I was the shooter. I saw his antlers coming through the trees, and I pulled my bow back. He came out and I debated whether I had a good shot or not for many seconds, when I finally decided to let it go, he spun, butt down, and bolted. My arrow flew right over his back!
It was still an incredible experience, and the adrenaline rush lasted for quite awhile. After trying a couple more set ups with no luck, we started back to camp for lunch. I started having the shaking chills again, and spiked a fever. I took some Ibuprofen, and laid down for a nap after lunch. I woke up a couple hours later. Felt a little better, and told Cody I wanted to try a night hunt, but maybe keep it a little close to camp. He had told me that if I needed to go home at anytime, we could leave, no problems. So we headed out and sat down near the edge of a meadow, and started calling again. Within 10 minutes, I felt horrible. I turned to Cody and told him it was time to go home, I couldn’t do this anymore. I stood up to grab my pack, and an immediate pain in my head, just behind my left eye. I grabbed my head for a second and said “Ow”, but then we headed back to camp. Cody packed up the important stuff at camp, while I sat in the truck. And about a half hour later, we were on our way out of camp.
I put my head in my hands, and closed my eyes. The road in and out of camp is more of a rock crawling road. It’s only 6 miles, but it takes an hour and a half to drive, up and over boulders, and extremely bumpy and jarring. I couldn’t open my eyes, I was incredibly dizzy, and the bumpy road wasn’t helping. I was relieved when we hit the highway, although I still couldn’t open my eyes. I just wanted to get home.
About 3 hours later, we pulled up to our house. Cody told me he’d get the truck unloaded, and I could go inside and lay down. I headed inside, my eyes were barely open. I ran into a few walls as I made it into my house. I went and sat down on my bed, and the dizziness was overwhelming. I knew something wasn’t right at this point. I tried to text my husband who was still outside that something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t text, I couldn’t hit the right letters, and I couldn’t delete anything, my fingers kept hitting the wrong keys, and it was a jumbled mess of random letters. I was confused, and I got up and when one of my daughters came in, I tried to tell her to go get Dad, but instead it came out “Go get Kendall”, who is my sister that lives in Washington, I tried again, “Go get Mom”, wait that was me. At that point, my daughter knew something was wrong, and ran out to get Cody. When he came in he asked what was wrong, I tried to tell him something was wrong, but all I could get out was “Con…con…con…fused”.
He took me immediately back out to the truck and to the ER. I was trying to talk to him, but nothing was coming out right, and was making me very frustrated, and very scared. When we got to the ER and I tried to tell them what was going on, they immediately rushed me into triage, which also didn’t last long, and they rushed me to a room, where they then called for the stroke team. It all seemed so weird, how was I having a stroke, I’m only 33 years old. This can’t be right.
Many doctors and nurses swarmed my room within seconds, hooking me up to things, trying to talk to me and do vision tests, while drawing blood and testing all my movements all at the same time. We realized soon that not only could I not get the right words out, but I also had a complete right field vision cut, I couldn’t see anything to the right. I had multiple doctors and nurses standing on my right side, but I couldn’t see any of them without turning my head. I was then taken into CT, and brought back to the ER room where the doctor informed me that I had a brain bleed, a subarachnoid hemorrhage in my brain. But that it was in an odd location, and they had no idea why. They did a spinal tap, and I was transported to ICU so they could monitor everything.
I spent the next 2 days in ICU. I slowly started to regain my speech back, and my vision. At first, I couldn’t even tell them my name, or what the month was that we were in. I could manage to get elk season out though. So everytime they asked what month it was, my response was elk season! Close enough, in my opinion! They continued to run a very large amount of tests. I didn’t know I even had that much blood to take! They had me on 3 different IV antibiotics, and an antiviral. But they had no idea what was going on.
After two days, they did an echocardiogram. The doctor came into my room about an hour later to let me know they had finally figured it out. I had endocarditis. An infection in my heart had formed a “vegetation” on my aortic valve. When that vegetation got big enough, small pieces of it started breaking off and entering my blood stream. At least one of those pieces went straight up to my brain, causing my stroke. Along with the hemorrhage, there were 2 septic emboli on each side of my brain that were found also. And a couple days later, they found a piece of the infection lodged in my right calf also. One more embolic event, and they were going to have to replace my aortic valve. The cardiothoracic surgeon met with me to discuss what kind of valve I wanted. I was never so scared in my life. I’ve never had surgery, except my tonsils when I was 5, and now open heart surgery!?! Fortunately, the infection became stable, and I didn’t have anymore embolic events, and after 12 days in the hospital, I was released to go home!
After 7 months, I’m doing very well. I made it back to work about 2 months after I got out of the hospital. And even made it back in the woods for hunting season, although my endurance was lacking, and I didn’t harvest anything. Today, I’m pretty much back to normal. I occasionally have dark spots in my vision, and I get migraines on occasion that mimic my stroke symptoms, which is terrifying, but I’m learning to deal with and prevent them. My anxiety is worse too, which doesn’t help, and I experience panic attacks. But all in all, I’m incredibly lucky and very thankful that someone was watching out for me that day! I’m thankful that I get more time with my husband and my kids! I am blessed, and I am a survivor! And this next hunting season is going to be the best yet!