Stroke survivor Jessica “Jess” McNair can joke about it now—one of the reasons, in fact, she is convinced that it’s her sense of humor that helped her recover from a series of strokes this year. At 32 years old, Jessica experienced what doctors described as “cascades of multiple strokes” resulting from irregularly formed arteries in her neck. The event left the San Rafael, Calif., resident unable to walk, talk or care for herself. The prognosis was bleak and Jess’ team of doctors predicted she had a five percent chance of living. Her road to recovery started with a grueling schedule of occupational, speech, and physical therapy.
“I had overwhelming amounts of denial from the very beginning,” said Jess describing her first reaction to the news given to her at the hospital. Although Jess was preparing to move to London and bartending to save money, she doesn’t see herself as a victim: “I consider myself strangely pessimistic in an optimistic way.”
This is where Jess’ older sister Kate comes in.
The Caregiver’s Life is Changed
No individual or family is ever prepared to fulfill the role of a full-time caregiver. Looking back, Kate recalls that both her and Jess were overwhelmed with emotion. “We were both crying, but immediately started joking,” says Kate who feels that maintaining a good sense of humor is a necessary coping skill for everyone – but especially for stroke survivors. “When I walked into the hospital I told her that there are other ways to get a day off – you don’t have to have a stroke!”
A fulltime sales professional, wife, and expectant mother at the time, Kate knew early on that she had to deal with the situation personally. The then 34 year-old recalls the vagueness of the doctors and nurses in answering her questions, which emphasized how important it was for her to take control of the situation. Shouldering the responsibility of work and the physical demands of pregnancy, Kate now had the added role of primary caregiver to her younger sister.
Thankfully, Kate was able to rely on her husband and friends who helped deal with insurance companies, meal preparation, and physical therapy.
“There was a lot of planning. We had to plan how to watch her. It was pretty scary and the frustrations were there,” Kate remembers.
When it came to working as a team, Kate recalls Jess’ determination, “She was really determined. We would make a diary and everyday have these little goals.” This helped support the efforts of her rehab.
A Great Rehab Team
For stroke survivors, rehabilitation options depend on the severity of their stroke, their level of disability, and the intensity of rehabilitation exercises they are able to endure. The goal of rehabilitation is to improve the survivor’s function so that they can regain independence and live life without relying on a caregiver.
Upon suffering a stroke and calling the ambulance herself, Jess was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit at Marin General Hospital where she had two more big strokes. She was then accepted to the rehabilitation program at California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC)—Davies Campus while she still had a tracheotomy. At the time, Jess couldn’t speak or make a noise. Through their sisterly-bond, Kate was the only person who could read her lips and understand her. “I guess you could refer to me as a vegetable at that point—I was not moving at all,” Jess points out. This marked the beginning of her three-month stay at CPMC’s inpatient rehabilitation facility, before being transferred to their outpatient program.
“I had three amazing people working with me—I call them my heroes,” referring to her occupational, physical, and speech therapists with whom she remains friends to this day. During her recovery, the skilled professionals got her standing up and walking again with assistive technology such as the EksoGT™, a wearable exoskeleton that helped train her body to walk with a proper gait, and an electronic stimulation machine that enabled her to relearn vocalization. With these devices, both Jess and Kate noticed improvement, providing Jess the much needed confidence and motivation to continue her therapy.
A Time for Independence
Jess is still in recovery and has been able to regain some of her independence with the help of Kate and her army of “heroes.” The sisters, who will be separated in the upcoming months due to Kate relocating to Minneapolis, feel that this experience has brought them closer and made their relationship stronger.
“Before, we were close – we saw each other on an everyday basis, but now our bond has been reinforced. Silly arguments don’t seem to matter anymore,” mentions Jess.“I love her—she’s one of my most favorite people on earth. I feel like I’m abandoning her, so I’m going to miss her a lot, but I am confident in her progression,” Kate adds.
Jess is maintaining her positive attitude and currently focusing on regaining enough independence to be able to make the move to London.
To encourage others on their own personal comeback journeys, Jess and Kate recently participated in a podcast. The podcast is available through Connected Social Media, Ekso Bionics and iTunes.
To learn more about the advanced exoskeleton technology Jess used during rehab, visit Ekso Bionics.