Karen Dionne and her fiancé Michael were busy making breakfast one morning in March 2007 when her head started to hurt. Dizziness and extreme exhaustion quickly set in. Then she noticed she couldn’t feel her left foot.
Soon, she couldn’t feel her entire left side.
Michael immediately recognized her classic symptoms: Karen was having a stroke.
At the hospital, a CT scan showed a pool of blood in the middle of her brain. Karen had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke at age 37, only four months before her wedding day.
The bleeding in Karen’s brain stopped on its own. Doctors watched her closely in case the bleeding started again, but it never did.
Karen, of Graham, Wash., admits the first days of rehabilitation were filled with bouts of feeling sorry for herself.
“I said to Michael during my little pity party that I would understand if he left me because he didn’t sign up for this,” Karen said. Without pause, he told her, “I signed up for this the first time I said I love you.”
From that point, Karen said, she fought to reclaim her life.
It wasn’t easy.
“The stroke takes you down to nothing and you have to start over,” she said. “But you have to put in the work to get better.”
“I encourage everyone to educate themselves about the warning signs of stroke so they can save the ones they love – just like Michael was there to save me.”
She started celebrating every small success in her recovery: Standing up from her wheelchair to brush her teeth. Blow-drying her hair.
Her most memorable accomplishment came on July 7, 2007 (07/07/07), when she walked down the aisle without a cane.
“I wasn’t worried about the flowers or all those other wedding details everyone stresses about,” she said. “All that mattered was that I was there and Michael was there.”
During recovery, Karen didn’t have much luck finding stroke survivors her own age. So in 2010, she started an online support group for young adult survivors called Reclaiming Ourselves.
“It’s a place for people to share their struggles and triumphs,” Karen said. The group currently connects more than 500 survivors and family members worldwide.
Since 2010, Karen also has worked with the American Heart Association to bring awareness to stroke, the No. 4 killer of Americans and a leading cause of disability.
“I encourage everyone to educate themselves about the warning signs of stroke so they can save the ones they love – just like Michael was there to save me,” she said.
Named the 2012 Go Red For Women Ambassador of the Year for Tacoma, Wash., Karen also joined the American Heart Association’s annual Lobby Day in Washington state to press for a new law that would require every high school student in the state to learn CPR before graduation.
Karen stood behind the governor’s chair as he signed the bill into law in May 2013.
Today, Karen cannot feel her left side. She has partial vision loss, and severe pain in her left foot makes every step painful. But that didn’t stop her from running 13.1 miles in 2011.
“We can come up with all sorts of reasons for why we shouldn’t do things,” Karen said. “But, sure enough, I completed a half marathon.”
Shorter races followed, but soon Karen picked her next big challenge. In March, she climbed 69 flights of stairs to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
A month later, she competed in the Mrs. Washington International 2013 pageant as Mrs. Pierce County International.
“I had never done a pageant before, but it was an opportunity to raise awareness about stroke, to show people this is what a face of a stroke survivor looks like,” said Karen, who won the Audience Choice Award and the Beauty Uprising Award for her stroke awareness platform.
Karen is now looking for her next big challenge. “Who knows what I’ll be doing next.”
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Photos courtesy of Karen Dionne