“It was horrible. I was opening presents with my children on Christmas day and then I was gone,” says Sheila Uhl. It would be six weeks before Sadie, 6 and Jackson, 8 would see their mom again and by then she had completely changed.
“Christmas night I started vomiting non-stop,” says Sheila. “After about three hours I said, ‘Jimmy I think something is really wrong with me.’” Her husband Jim took her to their local hospital in Connecticut. She was given something for her stomach and sent on her way. Sheila barely made it home before she collapsed.
Back at the hospital, Sheila says, “They thought I was unconscious but I could hear everything that was going on. I remember this doctor saying, ‘your wife had a stroke.’ And Jimmy was like, ‘she what??’”
Once the diagnosis was made, Sheila was Medevac’d to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.
Waiting for her there was Dr. Philip Meyers from the Cerebrovascular Center. “We met almost immediately with him and another member of his surgical staff,” says Jim. “They made it very clear and easy to understand Sheila’s condition.”
Sheila had an uncommon kind of stroke in an area of her brain called the pons. Located at the base of her skull where the brain and spinal cord connect, the pons serves as a relay center between the brain and body for sensation and movement.
Commonly, a stroke in this area causes loss of balance and was likely why Sheila had been so nauseous to begin with. The brain stem, where the pons resides, is also where many of our most basic and vital functions occur and a stroke in this area can be deadly.
As soon as Sheila arrived, Dr. Meyers rushed her into surgery to remove the blood clot that had caused her stroke.
“It was 45 terrifying minutes later that Dr. Meyers gave us the wonderful news that the surgery had gone well,” says Jim.
Sheila was alive but seventy five percent of her pons had been destroyed by the stroke and, though they were optimistic, her future was unclear.
Sheila says she woke up a few days later, “paralyzed from my nose down.” She had a condition called Locked-In syndrome; she could hear and understand what was going on around her but she couldn’t move and she needed a ventilator to breath.
“We were numb and in shock,” Jim says, “but Sheila’s doctors were so empathetic to us—so human.”
Sheila spent seventeen days at Columbia before transferring to Gaylord Rehabilitation facility in Wallingford, Connecticut. There she began an intensive program of Physical, Occupational, and Speech Therapy. “When I got to Gaylord,” says Sheila, “I could just move my index finger and my right leg a little.”
Sheila’s recovery was unprecedented. By the middle of February she could stand in the parallel bars and soon she was walking. In march Sheila began to speak again and on April 15 she went home.
“I went to Columbia about a month ago,” she says, “and they were amazed to see how much I had recovered. They had so much to do with it too. It wasn’t just how well they treated me but how they treated my family. Dr. Meyers was so gracious. He was always very calm. He is a lovely lovely man.”
“In my recovery, I am up, I am walking–with no walker or cane,” says Sheila. “ The stuff I struggle with now can be a really tight lid… or those darn new water bottles, but I could punch someone if I had to—I’m pretty strong now,” she laughs.
Sheila says a lot of good has come her way since the stroke too. “You start to build a new network of friends and you know how real and pure that is. This has also brought my husband and I a lot closer in many ways.”
The best thing, she says, is that she spends more time with her children. “Before, with my job, I wasn’t around here enough. I am up every morning when my children are getting ready for school and I am home everyday when they get home. That is a big change for me—HUGE.”
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