Surviving Stroke – A Family Journey

Much has been learned in the past decade about the plasticity of the brain, its ability to adapt in the event of the trauma or actual death of brain cells.  Permanent loss of function is no longer the fate of people who have suffered a stroke.  Sometimes, as in this case, stroke happens when you are doing everything right. Our staff writer, Pegge Bochynski, shares with us her family’s touching personal journey following her sister’s stroke when she was in the prime of her life. Pegge interviews her sister about her life after stroke in this inspiring Youtube video. If you have a friend or family member who has had a stroke, Martha’s Story may be something you’ll want to share.

by Pegge Bochynski

Martha: Stroke Survivor

On July 17, 2006, my sister, Martha, had a severe stroke. She was 51 at the time. When my husband and I arrived at the ER, she lay on a gurney, unable to speak or move. We were to learn firsthand that when a stroke happens to an individual, it happens to the entire family as well. Martha’s traumatic brain injury was a turning point in all our lives—including Martha’s college-age daughter; my elderly parents; my other sister and her husband; and my husband, Kevin, and me.


Pegge Bochynski and her sister, Martha, (in blue) after stroke

Pegge Bochynski and her sister, Martha, (in blue) six years after her massive stroke.

We were in shock, so it took us a while to realize and accept that life would never be the same. Martha’s deficiencies were profound. The stroke left her with moderate aphasia, a speech disorder, and right-side paralysis. We had no idea what the future held, and questions abounded. Would Martha recover? If so, to what degree? Would she ever be able to work again as a special needs professional in the public schools? As a single mother, she was responsible in part for her daughter’s college loans. Would her daughter be able to continue her education? What about her house? Would she be able to live on her own? And most important, who was going to take care of her affairs? No matter how much we wanted to wave a magic wand and make things the way they used to be, there were no easy answers. The path before us was to be a step-by-step process, just like Martha’s recovery proved to be.

The next year was crucial in laying the groundwork for Martha’s new life. Frequently, we were stymied by unexpected challenges that caused us sleepless nights. Yet whenever the path seemed darkest, an “angel” would appear just at the right moment. Martha’s case manager from New England Rehabilitation Hospital in Woburn, Massachusetts, introduced us to a representative of Mentor ABI. A state-associated organization, Mentor places people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries into private homes in cities where they can receive intensive speech, occupational, and physical therapy at local rehabilitation facilities.

Martha stayed with a married couple in Malden, Massachusetts, for a year. Her speech therapist at Community Rehab Care introduced her to the Aphasia Resource Center at Boston University, where Martha began group classes with other people who had also suffered brain injuries. As a result of the BU connection, she was recommended for individual and group therapy at the Robbins Speech, Language, and Hearing Center at Emerson College. Both the BU and Emerson programs train student clinicians by pairing them with people with aphasia. It’s a win-win situation. The students gain real-world experience, while the clients benefit from cutting-edge therapy techniques. Martha’s abilities have improved slowly but surely. The conventional wisdom used to be that stroke survivors would plateau (a word we all came to dislike) six months to a year after the traumatic injury occurred. However, neurologists have discovered that the neuroplasticity of the brain enables survivors to recover throughout their lives.

Now seven and a half years later, Martha continues to recover. Taking the Ride (a state-run paratransit service) into Boston, she attends speech therapy sessions at Boston University and Emerson College two to three times a week. She also participates in the adaptive sports program run by the Salem, Massachusetts, branch of Boston’s renowned Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and, so far, enjoys bicycling, kayaking, skating, rock climbing, and horseback riding. On occasion, she’s volunteers at Spaulding in Boston, where she visits and encourages new stroke patients. She was not able return to work or live completely on her own, so she sold her house and now resides in a vibrant assisted living community. One of the proudest moments of her life was to see her daughter graduate from college in 2008.


Martha now, enjoying life to the fullest

Martha now, enjoying life to the fullest


We learned many lessons from Martha’s stroke. For example, because the causes and effects vary, each stroke is unique to the individual. In Martha’s case, she had none of the traditional markers of somebody who may be prone to a stroke. She doesn’t smoke or drink, her blood pressure and cholesterol are normal, and she eats a vegetarian diet. However, she was born with a patent foramen ovale, a small hole in her heart,  and Factor V Leiden, a heredity blood clotting disorder. The combination of these conditions created the “perfect storm” for a stroke.

We have also witnessed how the power of faith and a positive attitude influence recovery. Martha never gives up and continues to work hard to improve. She believes God is walking with her through this experience. There’s no question in her mind that because of the brain’s ability to rewire itself after an injury, she will get better. Current scientific studies support her belief. She’s also unafraid to try new things. If something doesn’t work out, she lets go of her disappointment and continues to move forward.

Finally, it has taken a village to facilitate Martha’s recovery. Her family and friends are present and supportive. A dedicated team of professionals—including hospital and assisted living staff; state and federal personnel; physicians; and speech, occupational, and physical therapists—serve her with compassion and understanding. Also, vital information provided by the National Aphasia Association and the National Stroke Association websites proved invaluable to us.

When Martha first suffered her stroke, we overwhelmed. One night, I phoned a mother whose daughter had had a stroke at 21. As we talked, I asked her how she was able to cope with the stress and anxiety. She answered, “Don’t worry . . . you will get through this.” Every time we had to deal with new or frightening challenges, her words were my lifeline. Get through it we did and in “getting through,” we all have been transformed.

Pegge Bochynski is a freelance writer who has published more than 150 articles and book reviews in print and on the web for a variety of publishers, including Salem Press, Oxford University Press, Marshall Cavendish, and Thompson-Gale.

1 Comment

  1. What a positive story. For anyone wanting to learn more about brain plasticity, a great resource is “The Brain That Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge, MD. (It covers some research behind the discovery that stroke patients can continue healing with continued work.)

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