Sheila’s Resilience — From Stroke Recovery to a Life Reimagined

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Sheila’s Resilience — From Stroke Recovery to a Life Reimagined

In 2018, Sheila Campbell dropped her son, Quinton, at work early so she could borrow his car. As an OU Health employee recovering from hernia surgery, Sheila was eager to get back to some mild exercise. She planned to drive to Myriad Gardens near downtown Oklahoma City to take a gentle walk.

On her way back home, Sheila felt a sudden, intense head pain that forced her to pull her car off the road. Once the pain had slightly lifted, she managed to drive home but couldn’t make it upstairs to her bedroom. Instead, she lay on the couch. When she checked the time, it was 8:35 a.m.

Sheila awoke to her phone ringing. It was her son, asking why she hadn’t picked him up from work. The couch was drenched in sweat, and confused, she raced out the door to get him — it was 9 p.m.!

Quinton noticed his mother didn’t seem quite herself — she was a bit confused, and her speech was slurred. However, he thought it may be the effects of a new medication causing drowsiness after her recent surgery and he let her sleep while he drove home.

Sheila’s behavior continued to change over the next few days. Her text messages made no sense, and she was struggling to communicate. She was also unable to comprehend what she was reading.

A Diagnosis Fills in the Blanks

Six days later, Sheila attended a post-operative appointment for the hernia surgery. Her doctor noticed that her behavior wasn’t normal. Concerned, he sent her to the emergency room at OU Health University of Oklahoma Medical Center where the team confirmed that Sheila had suffered an ischemic stroke.

An ischemic stroke happens when a blockage cuts off the blood supply to part of your brain. With the blood supply cut off, brain cells start to die, and damage to brain cells can affect how the body works, as well as how you think and feel.

Ischemic strokes are the most common type of stroke. In 2019, approximately 3 million people worldwide died from them. The Oklahoma State Department of Health reports that stroke is a leading cause of serious disability in the United States and in 2020, stroke was the sixth leading cause of death in Oklahoma. This number equates to 1 out of every 24 deaths from stroke.

Sheila was placed under the care of OU Health neurologist, Dr. Evgeny Sidorov, M.D., Ph.D., professor and Chief of the Section of Vascular and Inpatient Neurology at OU College of Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences. Sheila was treated for an ischemic stroke and given medication to prevent future strokes.

The Effects of Ischemic Stroke

Sheila’s motor and language skills were impacted by the stroke. She struggled to get her words out and she had trouble remembering how to write. She was diagnosed with expressive aphasia and apraxia.

Aphasia is a language disorder caused by damage in the parts of the brain that control language and comprehension, and apraxia is a disorder that can make saying the right sounds and words difficult. At first, Sheila was devastated by the changes the stroke had caused, especially her inability to communicate with others. She was referred to OU Health speech-language pathologist, Tracy Grammer, M.S., CCC-SLP, ASHA Fellow, and together, they worked hard to get Sheila communicating well again.

Speech-language pathologists work with stroke patients a couple of different ways, depending on the effects of the stroke.

“We worked on finding the right words she wanted to say, and the muscles to help her produce the speech,” explained Grammer. “Our brains have different road maps on how to say different words and different sounds and common phrases. With Sheila, those road maps got tussled about and we had to help her brain put those road maps back in order and learn how to execute them again. The words were still there, but Sheila couldn’t retrieve them.”

Communication was a large part of Sheila’s role as a health unit clerk at OU Health, and the restrictions caused her a great deal of concern. Grammer encouraged Sheila to attend Camp Sunrise, an outdoor summer camp for adults with brain injury. Sheila participated in the three-day retreat as a counselor, helping other people who had suffered significant brain injuries. For Sheila, the camp was a turning point. She met people who had severe brain injury and seeing how far they had come, and how they continued to live life to the fullest, encouraged her.

Taking Huge Strides

In 2-3 months, Sheila was forming sentences and was ready to return to work. Grammer continued speech-language therapy with Sheila and helped her seek a different position at OU Health. The new position, Patient Services Representative, requires a high level of communication. Together, Grammer and Sheila worked on getting her to a stage where she would be able to perform the job adequately. Sheila was successful in obtaining the role, and she uses the skills Grammer taught her daily to communicate well. She still has moments where her speech is slurred or sometimes freezes, but she now has the skills to work around any limitations.

Sheila’s life is different in many ways from her life pre-stroke. She’s learned to live differently and to listen to her body more.

Quinton is proud of how much progress his mother has made.

“My mother has good days and bad days, especially if she over-exerts herself. Then her speech will worsen, usually at the end of the day,” he shares. “Tracy Grammer has been critical to helping her relearn how to read, write and process — rewiring those neurological pathways — not only figuring out how to do it, but when she realizes she’s unable to speak, how to use the steps she’s been taught to correct that. My mother has been taught to push through, but also, to listen to her body and recognize when she needs to pause and take a break. I don’t know if she’ll ever be exactly the way she was before the stroke due to its neurological impact, but she has learned to live with her new normal and how to operate with the changes. I think she’s doing great — she’s more capable in her self-dependence and she recognizes her limits.”

Ischemic Stroke Risk Factors

Anyone can have a stroke at any age, but there are certain things that can increase your chance of stroke. The major risk factors for ischemic stroke are:

  • Smoking
  • A diet high in sodium
  • Untreated or poorly managed high blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Kidney dysfunction
  • High blood sugar
  • High body mass index
  • Having had a previous transient ischemic stroke (TIA)

If you are at risk of stroke, consult your primary care physician for guidance and assistance in reducing your risks.

How to Recognize a Stroke

Quinton expressed that prior to this, he had no idea how to recognize the different signs of stroke. Since his mother didn’t have any facial drooping, he attributed the drowsiness and disorientation to medication.

Different signs of stroke can make the difference between life and death for someone having a stroke.

Symptoms of stroke include:

  • Trouble speaking and understanding what others are saying. They may be confused, disoriented or slurring words.
  • Numbness, weakness or paralysis in the face, arm or leg. This may affect one side of the body. One side of the mouth may droop when trying to smile.
  • Problems seeing in one or both eyes. They may have blurred or darkened vision in one or both eyes, or they may see double.
  • A sudden, severe headache may be a sign of a stroke. This may include vomiting, dizziness, and a change in consciousness with the headache.
  • Trouble with walking, coordination, and balance.

Call 911 and seek immediate medical attention if you notice any signs of a stroke, even if they seem to come and go or disappear completely. Every moment counts.

Stroke Care for Recovery

The stroke has meant a lot of changes in Sheila’s life, but she has continued to do the things she loves — play the piano, listen to classical music and opera, go to church, and serve God in any way she can. Sheila is grateful for OU Health, not only as an employer who has recognized her limitations and given her new opportunities but also as a team of experts who have helped with every step of her recovery.

“Sheila strongly believes in OU Health, and we have been able to support her recovery. We put her on the right pathway to improve her symptoms so that she was able to avoid disability, and instead, grow and thrive with the challenges she was facing,” said Dr. Sidorov. “She has a strong will and dedication to improve her condition.”

Sheila attends a support group for people who have experienced a stroke, run by OU Health speech-language pathologist, Jennifer Thompson Tetnowski, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, Assistant Professor, and MA Speech-language Pathology Program Coordinator in the College of Allied Health at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences. The support group encourages her to keep working toward a deeper level of recovery. There is no endpoint of recovery for Sheila — as she continues to work on developing her language and comprehension skills she will continue to improve.

“OU Health provides comprehensive stroke care, which means we have a multidisciplinary team which includes neurologists, neurosurgeons, neurocritical care specialists, advanced practice providers and rehabilitation specialists (physical, occupation, speech therapy), and stroke coordinators who collaborate to provide the highest standard of care,” said Dr. Sidorov. “Our stroke center has been recognized by the American Heart Association for the exceptionally high standard of acute care and great outcomes.”

OU Health Comprehensive Stroke Care

Learn more about our Comprehensive Stroke Care Center, request an appointment or get a second opinion. You can also learn more about speech-language pathology services at OU Health which are offered as part of our Comprehensive Stroke Care Center services.