Posted by Lynn Bronikowski
“Hey Dave! Guess what the name of this song is that you are humming,” said Pataki. “Stayin’ Alive. No wonder you have it stuck in your head. You know about staying alive.”
Levy recalls hearing the song as background music while he did physical therapy following his stroke on June 9, 2015.
“That became his theme song,” said Pataki.
The couple were flying to their Hawaiian babymoon—a getaway before the birth of their daughter, Lilly—when Levy’s life took a threatening turn.
At thousands of feet in the air, Levy turned to his wife and asked, “Does my right eye look weird? I can’t see anything out of it.”
Pataki turned to her college sweetheart and asked, “Dave, are you having a stroke?”
“Maybe,” he replied before losing consciousness.
Within 30 minutes the plane made an emergency landing in Fargo, North Dakota, where Levy, a healthy 30-year-old athlete and surgical resident, was in a coma following a rare bithalamic midbrain stroke.
Five months pregnant and alone, Pataki outwardly appeared calm and composed at the hospital but her body was shaking and shivering in shock. Purchase the book HERE.
Pataki’s parents and in-laws soon arrived at the hospital—and her dad, former New York Gov. George Pataki—temporarily suspended his presidential campaign. Levy’s father—a neurosurgeon—was there to answer questions.
“At one point I asked my mother if I was going to be a widow, if my baby would grow up without ever knowing her father,” Pataki writes in her memoir, Beauty in the Broken Places (Random House).
The best-selling author of historic fiction was at her husband’s bedside when she decided to write daily letters to Levy to not only make sense of her husband’s stroke journey but to create memories for him.
“I thought I would write it all down and maybe someday he’ll read it and maybe someday our daughter will read it,” said Pataki. “These ‘Dear Dave’ letters were also for me because I needed to speak to my husband and he wasn’t there.”
The letters also became the basis for her first work of non-fiction.
“The book turned into something we did as a family,” said Pataki. “In some ways it was very healing for us to do it together.”
After four days in the Fargo hospital Levy was stable enough to be airlifted to Rush University Medical Center in Chicago—the very hospital where he had been doing his orthopedic surgery residency.
“I literally don’t remember the town of Fargo at all or being airlifted to Rush but those doctors saved my life,” said Levy of the healthcare team at Sanford Medical Center. “We typically learn about bithalamic strokes in med school and they are usually fatal. For me, I was young enough where I was able to recover. If this stroke had occurred 10 years later, I might not be here.
“The very challenging thing in stroke medicine is that no two strokes are the same,” said Levy. “Everybody is recovering differently and the brain is so many complex things that the manifestations of your injury are completely different.”
Pataki spent long hours at Rush, never wanting to leave her husband’s side. Over time she fed him, signed paperwork, tracked monitors and watched him struggle to take a few steps and say a few words.
“It was scary to see my brilliant husband’s body and mind kidnapped by this new helpless, disoriented foreigner,” Pataki writes.
She reflected back on an August day in 2010 when during a visit to the Pataki farm in upstate New York, the couple became engaged. The next day they found three four-leaf clovers which Pataki glued to a photo and gave Levy on their wedding day with a note that read: “Dear Dave, May we always remember how ‘lucky’ we are to have one another. Love, Alli.”
When she returned to their empty apartment, she wanted to throw that framed photo across the room but ultimately would come to write those words again while Levy lay comatose: “Dear Dave . . . I love you . . . I miss you . . .May we always remember how lucky we are.”
Now they were members of “the Club of the Bad Things,” coined by Lee Woodruff, wife of ABC News reporter Bob Woodruff, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2006 when a roadside bomb struck his vehicle while on assignment near Taji, Iraq. Woodruff wrote the forward in Pataki’s memoir.
“We became members of the Club of Bad Things,” said Pataki. “This (book) was really an experience that enabled me to connect with people both in my life and new people.”
One of the new people in their lives was Omar Lateef, MD, chief medical officer at Rush, who was the first to give the couple hope.
“He believed that Dave’s brain could heal, and that Dave’s recovery could be nothing short of our wildest hopes,” writes Pataki.
“Dave had youth on his side; he had neuroplasticity on his side,” said Pataki. “He had great rehab. Our life might not necessarily be the Plan A that we had planned on but we had every hope to expect that Dave would be a participating, thriving member of his family and in his life. We had to stay hopeful that the brain had this remarkable ability to heal.”
Levy transferred to inpatient rehab before heading home where he was lethargic and laid back—a far cry from his Type A personality which routinely had him putting in 15-hour days.
“When I asked Dave’s therapists about this, I learned that this apathy had to do with Dave’s still-inadequate executive functioning,” writes Pataki. “This was a tough place for us to be. He was lucid enough to resent my urgings (nagging, as he called it), but not sharp enough to initiate and take over all of his self-care.”
Pataki struggled in her roles of both wife and caregiver. Four months after his stroke, Levy was in the delivery room when their daughter, Lilly, was born. The couple last August welcomed a second daughter, Grace.
“As a caregiver you can go through therapy and you can see your loved one regain their ability to walk or run or go on the treadmill—those are great milestones,” said Pataki. “But there are so many unknowns—the invisible aspects of the injury that are just so excruciatingly painful.
“So I think it’s important to connect with others who are walking a similar road. Some of the most hope-giving moments for me were when I connected to other people—caregivers, survivors and advocates and said, ‘OK, I’m not the only one who has walked this road.’”
Levy chose not to return to his grueling medical residency and today works as a medical consultant, saying, “I really do feel like I’m 100 percent better. I had absolutely wonderful therapy and that is what made me what I am today.”
One year after his stroke he writes in an epilog to Pataki’s memoir that “gratitude is the first thing that comes to mind.
“It was certainly a scary experience to have almost died, but one positive I can unequivocally point to is that it has truly brought me closer to my entire family,” he writes. “My entire life is a second turn—a second look, a second attempt at trying to lead a happy and meaningful reality.”
As for Pataki, she writes, “Dear Dave, May we always remember how lucky we are to have one another.”