By Rebecca Webber
Photo courtesy of Amy McDougall
On the night of April 21, 2012, Amy McDougall had a headache that really frightened her. She would get migraines from time to time, but this was different. The pain, which had started in her jaw a few days earlier, seemed like a toothache at first. Then it morphed into intense pressure in her head, leading her to believe she had a sinus infection. A trip to an urgent care clinic confirmed her suspicion, and the doctor gave Amy a prescription for antibiotics.
The evening the headache really kicked in, Amy was at a friend’s house in Silver Spring, MD, for a home jewelry show. She began to feel woozy, and a spring rain’s pleasant patter in the background suddenly intensified — except the rain wasn’t falling harder: The storm-like sound was inside her own head.
Amy felt flushed and confused: “Everything was a blank,” she says. The sound kept getting louder: shhshhshhSHHSHHSHHSHH. She told the other women, “I hear this whooshing sound in my head.” Although she felt panicked, Amy scoffed when a friend suggested that she might be having a stroke. “I’m only 47,” she said.
Too shaken up to drive, she called her husband, Bill, to come get her and take her back to their Gambrills, MD home. But when Bill arrived, he insisted they go to a hospital emergency room right away.
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A CT scan revealed a spot on Amy’s brain, but the diagnosis was unclear. After recommending she see a neurologist in the next few weeks, the doctor released her.
When they finally got home, it was late; exhausted, they went straight to bed. At 2 A.M., Amy was jolted awake by the return of the whooshing sound in her head. Rather than ignore the symptoms, she shook Bill awake and told him, “It’s happening again!”
Bill rushed her back to the ER, where she underwent another CT scan — this time with a dye to mark blood vessels in her brain, providing a clearer picture. The scan revealed that the “spot” on the back left side of her head was in fact a blood clot in a vein, and it was blocking blood flow in the area. Amy had suffered a full-blown stroke. The ER staff immediately began treatment with blood thinners.
Restarting From Scratch
Two days later, an ambulance transported Amy to Johns Hopkins Hospital Stroke Center, where specialists could better assess the damage to her brain and continue treatment. Amy’s doctors warned Bill and the rest of her family that if she recovered, it could take months.
Amy had other plans. At first when she tried to talk, she couldn’t form words; instead, she made sounds like “mmmm” and reeled off strings of gibberish.
But with each day, her vocabulary and comprehension expanded. Bill stayed by her side around the clock, sleeping on a cot next to her; family was a regular presence, too, and the interaction seemed to stimulate Amy.
After a few days, she could form some words and use them in the right context. As soon as she was able, she asked over and over again what had happened to her, listening intently in order to get a handle on her situation. Her speech therapists used picture flash cards to try to jog her memory about familiar names and words, but frustrations persisted. When they showed her a picture of an acorn, for example, Amy knew that squirrels ate them, but she couldn’t come up with the word “acorn.”
No one was sure whether Amy would face coordination challenges, but after a few days her physical therapist had her out of bed and she began to regain her balance right away, walking around the hospital floor.
Two Steps Forward…
Amy’s impressive progress wasn’t without setbacks: Upsetting blanks in her memory continued to crop up. Seven days into her recovery, some of her younger children came to visit, but her son Billy, then 9, was shy and worried and hung back. When Amy tried to call him closer, her heart sank: “I realized I couldn’t remember his name.”
Her room was flooded with balloons and flowers and drawings from the kids, and Bill brought from home the one possession she truly missed: an iPod full of her favorite music. As she listened, the songs soothed her — until she realized the words seemed unfamiliar: She couldn’t sing along.
A Miraculous Recovery
After nine days in the hospital, Amy went home: In that time, she’d regained much more of her speech, writing ability and physical coordination than anyone had dared hope.
Amy continued to search for the words to the songs she taught at Sunday school. When she expressed her frustration to Bill, he’d reassure her, “It’ll all come back.” Remarkably, each day, more and more did come back. In total, Amy missed only three weeks of her Sunday school class. Teaching her 4-year-old students again was a big step: “I was so emotional — it felt like I was finally able to be where I needed to be.”
Although many stroke survivors have lasting disabilities, Amy has regained nearly everything she lost. Words still elude her at times, and she continues to take warfarin, a blood thinner, along with an anti-seizure medication, Topamax, to help keep the fluid in her brain under control and her migraines at bay.
Periodically, she goes to her neurologist for a check on the clot, which is still there, stable and walled up inside a blood vessel. Her doctors say her body may reabsorb the clot; removing it surgically could be risky.
Though her day-to-day life looks much like it did pre-stroke, in some ways it will never be the same. “It was a wake-up call,” she says. “Clean windows used to be important to me. Now I skip things like dusting to take walks or read stories with my children. Their piano lessons and soccer games are my top priority. I’m so happy I’m here to enjoy them.”