Gina doesn’t remember much about that day, except that she wanted to get to work. She owned and managed the L.I.F.E [Leadership is Fundamental Every Day] Institute, and had a busy schedule working with juveniles in a court-ordered anger management and substance abuse program. The neurosurgeon who examined her told her she would have to have surgery.
“I told the doctor I had to go to work, and would come back another time,” she says, laughing. That wasn’t an option, and she had her surgery at nearby Mease Dunedin Hospital.
“When I woke up, I noticed I had a tube in my head, and I was still having that headache,” she says. “I thought if they could just take the tube out, maybe it would stop hurting!” Her doctors explained she had actually had three strokes before her surgery. Her left side was paralyzed, and she couldn’t talk.
Gina stayed in the hospital for three weeks before she was transferred to a HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital. Three months later, she went home. By then she could talk, but still needed a wheelchair to get around.
While she was recovering, her company lost the contract to facilitate the court-ordered program, so she went out of business.
Gina had dealt with hardship before. When she was a police officer in Michigan, she was shot in the leg during what she describes as a drug deal gone bad. She went out on disability, moved to Florida and built a new career. Then the year before her strokes, the house she and her family lived in burned to the ground. She lost her home and everything in it. Dealing with the insurance company and contractors to rebuild the house was extremely stressful, she says.
But her strokes were even more difficult to deal with. Her memory was a big problem. “Prior to my strokes, my mind was constantly going. I just remembered everything,” says Gina. “After the strokes, I was trying to get back to the normal routines of life. It’s frustrating not to be able to remember anything. I couldn’t even remember my children’s names!”
She had another stroke (this time a transient ischemic attack, or TIA) only a few months after she came home. “I fell into a deep depression,” she says. She continued to go to outpatient rehabilitation, but wasn’t really making any progress. Her husband and five children (now 32, 31, 22, 21 and 15) were very supportive, she says. “Without my family, I would have been lost.”
But they were frustrated by her lack of progress and motivation. They finally told her they could not take care of her at home if she didn’t try to get better.
She resolved to work harder during her outpatient rehabilitation sessions, and became active in the American Stroke Association. At the time, the Association was sponsoring a half marathon walk in Hawaii for stroke survivors, and this gave Gina a goal.
“I thought if I was going to have to walk, I was going to walk in Hawaii,” she says. A year and a half after her first three strokes and surgery, she completed the thirteen mile walk. “It was the beginning of my comeback. Once I did that half marathon, I had confidence that I could be a vital part of society again.”
Despite having an additional TIA last year, Gina continues to make good progress. She went to physical therapy for several years, and now exercises at Morton Plant Hospital’s Wellness Center in Clearwater three to four times per week. She also went to a six week brain fitness class, which she says improved her ability to “multitask.”
Now Gina facilitates a stroke support group at Mease Countryside Hospital and is President of the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) at her son’s high school. She keeps up with cooking, grocery shopping and household chores. When she has time, she works the concession stand at her son’s football games, and watches the “cop movies” she’s always enjoyed.
Her day starts at 5:30 in the morning, when she gets her son ready for school. After she drops him off, much of her time is spent working on PTA projects and preparing for support group meetings. Her Two Timers Stroke Survivor/Caregivers Support Group is 25 people strong, with a focus on education, mentoring and fellowship. [The name came from the idea that after surviving a stroke, you are given a second chance at life.] If members of the group have a question, Gina arranges a guest speaker to address the topic. Recent speakers have discussed stroke prevention, physical therapy and insurance issues.
“I was always community oriented,” she says. “Before my stroke, I was being mentored to become state representative. Being active is part of my personality. I felt God did not keep me alive for me to lie in bed.”
Household chores can be a challenge, but Gina has learned to take everything in stride. She makes grocery shopping lists, but says she often has to go back to the store because she’s forgotten things. Her driving skills are good, but she tends to get lost, even in familiar places. “I just pull over and get directions,” she says. “I stay in a five mile radius – you could say I live in a box.”
When Gina cooks, she sometimes has trouble getting ingredients right. “It may taste a little different,” she says, “but my family bears with me.” Her husband is a chef, so he helps with the cooking.
To get all this done, she relies heavily on her computer, her calendar and notepads. “Ninety percent of what I do is on computer,” she says. “Ten percent is on the phone. I defer to my computer if I forget something. My sister is a speech therapist. When I first had my strokes, she suggested I start writing everything down on sticky notes. Even to remember to write it down was difficult, but now it’s routine. I keep a notepad in my car every day with everything for the day on it. And if it’s not on my calendar, it’s not in my world.”
What advice does she have for fellow stroke survivors who have memory loss? “Get back involved in the things you did previous to your stroke,” she says. “Get involved in the community. Routine is very important, and consistency. You can still have a good life, you just have to make notes - have lots of sticky pads! It can be frustrating, because you want to be like everybody else and not have notes. But if you want a vital and vibrant life, this is one of the accommodations you’ve got to make.”
Gina’s community involvement gives her a sense of purpose. “I had a near-death experience after my stroke,” she says. “I was at the gates shaking them, but there was nobody there to let me in. I yelled to open the gates, but was told I was too noisy and to go back to life. That may have been the sign. It made me think I have something left to say, and I do. I’m not going to be quiet yet.”
Note: Gina lives in the Tampa Bay area, and hospitals referred to in this article are in or near Clearwater, Florida.