A sign by my fireplace reads “We Interrupt this Marriage for Football Season.”
Most people think it’s for my husband, but it’s for me, the wife. I’ve been a diehard 49ers fan since the 80s, and like many, I thought this year was our chance for the Super Bowl.
And then there was that fateful day, January 29, 2023, when you, Brock Purdy of the 49ers, took that hit. I couldn’t believe it. Simply couldn’t believe it. My world came crashing down. Everything clouded over, because like millions of other fans, I was devastated — and so scared for you. Nothing seemed real.
But minutes later, when the edge of the television screen got blurry, life got weirder still. A quick call to my daughter, a child neurology resident in Rochester, New York, confirmed my worst fears. I was having a stroke.
I found out later that my left internal carotid artery had jammed up. In an instant, the blood supply to the left side of my head was gone.
Like someone thumbing through a flipchart, only fleeting memories remain. In the ER, everything was cloudy and jumbled. My words tripped over each other. I’ll never forget my absolute terror when I stared stupidly at the clerk and blanked on my birthdate. There was the stinging jab of a clot-buster. Everywhere they took me, the comforting, sanitizing aroma of alcohol was in the air.
I said yes to everything I was asked. I nodded along, every option sounding absolutely perfect. If someone had suggested head removal, I’d likely have acquiesced. The shock and disbelief on my husband Tim’s face played back as I was loaded into an ambulance to Sutter in Sacramento.
I’ll never forget the concern and kind words of the young man who sat with me in the ambulance as the siren blared. He did his best to keep me engaged and awake. On that terrifying ride, he would never know just how much I appreciated this intense connection with another human, while everything I knew to be true or real was gradually slipping away — vanishing from my consciousness.
Other vivid images remain — the solemn faces of the team of blue-coated doctors who faced me at the hospital. Their voices were hushed, but they did their best to reassure me. A smiling nurse shaved my thigh and I learned that a tube was going to be placed into my femoral vein. The speech therapist asked me to repeat, “Babababa... kakakaka.” She smiled back at me, so I knew I must be doing it right.
A short time later, I was profoundly relieved to hear that I didn’t need my skull cracked open and emergency brain surgery to move my middle meningeal artery around. Hallelujah to that! Miraculously, I learned that my collateral vessels jumped into action to nourish the poor starved brain cells on the left side of my brain. This intrepid collection of fetal blood vessels was recruited to play their part in my recovery. Without hesitation, they blazed through triumphantly, in a symphony of support.
There were casualties. I’m pretty sure several million brain cells keeled over and called it quits. But thank goodness we’re endowed with a few billion spares!
Two weeks after the stroke, I didn’t know what a cup was. I had to ask where jam would be stored, finally deducing that it might be in the refrigerator because it was made of fruit. I’m a competitive Scrabble player, but could no longer fathom how to place letters against other letters. Simple computations were difficult. Digits morphed into other numbers. My physician friend drew a large number “9” with the number “5” beside it, but I could not distinguish the numerals. Of course, this made patient scheduling tricky.
The notes of my Mozart sonata morphed into hieroglyphics. I now played piano like a kindergartener with tears rolling down my face. That was hard. I had lost a part of myself, Brock. A skill I owned that no one had but me.
My dense right visual field deficit made it easy to hit my head. Crowds of people overwhelmed me. I tolerated short meetings, one person at a time. Determined to work as soon as possible (my husband calls me stubborn) I saw patients on Zoom just two weeks after the stroke. Visits were spread out with 10 minute breaks in which I lay flat on my bed, listening to meditation tapes.
As if that wasn’t enough, fate threw me a curveball in the form of a new software system to navigate at the start of February. My neurologist told me recently that my miraculous recovery was due not only to rescue blood vessels, but also because I am constantly seeking solutions to problems, so I have internal deductive “work arounds.” I received speech therapy and cognitive testing and was given the green light to drive again. I’m almost back to 100 percent. I can beat my daughter at Scrabble, but scrolling through the electronic chart still gives me a blinding headache. Copying numbers takes intense effort.
Brock, you tore your ulnar collateral ligament, and shortly after that, my left internal carotid artery clogged up. But this world we live in is a caring world inhabited by beautiful, skilled, selfless people with hearts full of love. They are our collaterals. Like my hardworking vessels, our collaterals stepped forward without hesitation in our time of greatest need. Isn’t it wonderful that we both benefitted from the wonderful collaboration of hundreds of skilled humans, all waiting in the wings to help out?
Everyone from my ambulance driver, to the neurosurgeons, to the hospital dietician who made sure I had a low-sugar menu, to the cheery man who swept around my bed daily. Those are my heroes. They jumped in without hesitation to put me back together and support me. I can play piano again, Brock, thanks to my collaterals.
You know what, Brock? I think we’re going to make it.
Who are some unsung heroes in your world? Shout them out in the comments.
Dr. Pia is a child and adolescent psychiatrist. Her memoir, The Fortune Teller’s Prophecy, a Memoir of an Unlikely Doctor, will be published by She Writes Press in April 2023. She wrote this article after she recently recovered from a stroke. You can follow her on her website, Lallypia.com, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
Previously published in Davis Enterprise.
Illustration by Jennifer Bogartz