After one pronounced incident, she searched online for what might be causing her symptoms. Patty found information about transient ischemic attacks, or TIAs, and thought, “Oh, this fits – it’s a mini stroke.”
The working mother of four children made a note in her planner to check with her doctor.
A few weeks later, Patty began drooling and having speech difficulties while at her job as a special education facilitator. Instead of worrying about herself, she was concerned about her husband, Bob, who was having his last day at work because of layoffs.
Patty forgot to pick up her 4-year-old daughter at preschool that afternoon. When the school called, she drove to get her. Patty’s condition deteriorated on the New Jersey Turnpike.
“I started to feel like my brain was being sucked in on itself,” she explained. Patty made it off the highway.
She punched her vehicle’s OnStar button. Then she passed out. The emergency service contacted an ambulance.
Patty recalls that a paramedic suspected she was simply overstressed and having an anxiety attack. Tests at the hospital revealed that Patty, then age 42, had experienced a stroke and that she had a hole between the chambers of her heart, a condition known as patent foramen ovale, or PFO.
Surgery soon afterward closed the hole. Eventually, she saw a neuropsychologist and underwent outpatient stroke rehabilitation for 18 months, struggling to find the right words to speak and to overcome stuttering.
Much of the time she was depressed. What finally helped was an occupational therapist inviting her to paint. Suddenly, Patty discovered a creative side of herself she’d never known.
“I couldn’t turn it off. All I wanted to do was paint,” she said. “That was truly when surviving my stroke happened.”
Because of Patty’s newfound artistic streak and the tight job market for Bob, Patty and Bob decided to open a paint-your-own pottery shop. The store would reach out to those with disabilities and be named A Stroke of Creativity. (Three of the couple’s four children have disorders, including Asperger syndrome and Tourette syndrome.)
By mid-September 2010 – two years to the month after Patty’s major episode – they were about to open the business when Bob said her name and she didn’t answer. Her face was lopsided.
“I froze,” Patty recalled. “I stopped responding.”
She was having another stroke.
Bob called an ambulance right away. Fortunately, Patty was given the clot-busting drug tPA. Hers was a textbook case of how the medicine can help stroke survivors if it’s administered quickly enough.
After a week in the hospital and a subsequent month in a rehab center, Patty went home.
“I’m so lucky,” she said.
Today, along with serving as “creative goddess” at their shop, Patty is active with the American Heart Association. She serves as a Go Red For Women ambassador and a speaker at American Heart Association events. She participates in the Heart Walk in her area in Monroe Township, New Jersey.
Patty even nominated local American Heart Association staff members for a “Stroke Heroes” award.
“They inspired me to just do so much,” she said.
It feels good, Patty said, to share with others what she has learned about heart health. Although Patty had no obvious cardiovascular problems, such as high blood pressure, before her strokes, she learned that family history is key. Both her parents battled heart disease, and her grandmother suffered her first stroke in her 40s.
Though Patty left her educator job because of her lingering stroke effects – nerve damage and some difficulty walking and speaking – she’s finding her new voice and feels she’ll always be a teacher, in a way.
“I like who I am,” said Patty. “Stroke isn’t the end. It’s just a new path. … There’s lots of good to come. You just have to give yourself time to let it happen.”
Photos courtesy of Patty Lang
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