May 14, 2015

Interviewer: When you're a younger stroke victim it presents a whole different set of challenges than if you are older and have a stroke. Amy Steinbrech doesn't consider herself just a stroke survivor she considers herself a stroke thriver. We're going to talk to her next to find out what it was like when the stroke hit, when she realized her life was going to change forever, plus advice for other young stroke victims coming up next, on The Scope.

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Interviewer: We're talking with Amy Steinbrech. She's a stroke survivor here on The Scope Health Sciences Radio. Amy thank you for taking time to join us today.

Amy: You're welcome. Thank you for inviting me.

Interviewer: So tell me, when did your stroke happen, how many years ago now?

Amy: It happened 22 months ago. It happened...

Interviewer: Twenty-two months, wow.

Amy: Yeah.

What Happens When You Have a Stroke?

Interviewer: How exactly did it come on? Did anybody know when it was happening? Tell me about that.

Amy: Well it happened when I went out to the car to start my car. And I realized kind of a dÈj‡ vu feeling, that only lasted a split second. So I didn't think much about it. But was in the left side, when a stroke occurs on your right side, the left side of your brain is impacted. So I went back inside and watched a movie with my family. And then went back home to my sisters house in Lander, Wyoming. And went to bed and then I woke up in the middle of the night to use the restroom. And I went to turn the light switch off and my mind didn't register where on the wall the light switch was. So at that point I was still able to walk. So I walked back to the bedroom and drifted in and out of consciousness.

And about 8:00 that morning my sisters, they wondered why I wasn't up because I'm usually an early riser. So they came to check on me and what they found when they opened the door terrified them. I was barely conscious, not able to walk, talk or anything.

Interviewer: And from your own experience, the only indication that something was weird was that momentary bit of dÈj‡ vu and then the fact that you recognized your brain wasn't quiet computing where the light switch was.

Amy: Exactly.

Interviewer: And that was it. Is that common for most people? Is that the only sign you get?

Amy: Yeah, well sometimes there can be more common signs, like a headache. But mine was just that split second when the stroke must have happened.

Interviewer: How would a person even know? Because we all experience dÈj‡ vu, right? So why would you even think that that was... Obviously you didn't.

Amy: Yeah, I didn't, exactly.

Interviewer: Oh wow. So they find you, they take you to the hospital. What happened at that point?

Amy: Well I was brought to the hospital in Lander, Wyoming where my family is. And then the doctors at Lander Hospital immediately recognized that I had a stroke. So they immediately gave me the choices of to life flight me to Denver or University of Utah. Obviously I live here so University of Utah was a no brainer. So they flew me to the University of Utah and what I remember about the life flight was kind of in and out of consciousness, but I remember the air medic. My sister rode with me in the air medic and the air medic had the nicest smile I remember. He was just comforting and so reassuring, "You're going to be okay. We're going to get you taken care of."

Symptoms After a Stroke

Interviewer: Did you realize at this point that you'd had a stroke? I mean at this point you knew.

Amy: Yeah, I realized that it was something.

Interviewer: Because people told you?

Amy: Yeah, well I wasn't able... I didn't register, my mind didn't register what people were saying. But internally I knew that this was a big deal, typical more than minor accident.

Interviewer: Were you able to realize you couldn't move fingers or feet or legs or?

Amy: Yeah, exactly. And then we arrive at the airport in Salt Lake. They get me there and stabilize me at the University of Utah. And they run all the tests and do everything and get me stable. And then they immediately bring me up to the ICU room. And I was in and out of consciousness. But for a good day or so I don't have any memory of what happened.

Interviewer: And then what was your next memory?

Amy: My next memory was a couple days later I remember my mom reading to me, trying to get me to respond to things and I wasn't even able to talk or walk or anything. So that was her first attempt to get me to talk and my niece and nephew made a memory board for me. The speech therapist must have mentioned that a memory board would be helpful in recognizing the name and faces of family members.

So I remember the memory board very well in the acute care after the ICU. And constantly me pointing to a picture of my sister and saying, that's "Vicky or that's Sonia," and pointing to a picture of mom. And just to be able to recognize my family members.

Interviewer: Did it register with you at that point? Was there any sort of mental connection that that was mom and what that meant?

Amy: Yeah, yeah it did.

Stroke Recovery Timeline

Interviewer: Oh okay. What was going through your mind at that point when you came to then?

Amy: Well, it was a long process. I was in the hospital for a total of six weeks. And basically in the ICU it was just a big blur. In acute care, a few things started to stick with me. And then the rehab unit is where my recovery really started earnest with Dr. Edgley.

Interviewer: When you when was the moment that you realized my life has really significantly changed?

Amy: Right from the ICU, right from the ICU a couple days after the stroke I knew I had a long road ahead of me to haul. But I wasn't going to give up and I was a determined person, a determined personality and I was up for the challenge.

Interviewer: How do you do that? In that same situation, I don't know that I could do that. I mean, how did you get yourself to that point? Or is that just inherently who you think you are?

Amy: Well to be any other way never really crossed my mind.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Amy: I get a lot of that stubbornness from my dad. And he never settled for anything, always pushed himself. Even after a heart attack and a brain aneurysm.

Interviewer: So it runs in the family. You've seen it.

Amy: Yep.

Interviewer: Because I think for a lot of people it'd be easy to go, "I don't know if I could overcome this." But that wasn't even a question. That's incredible.

Amy: Right.

Stroke Rehabilitation

Interviewer: So tell me about going through rehab then and what that process was like for you.

Amy: Well in the rehab unit I had speech, physical therapy, and occupational therapy. The three therapies. And I was in therapy for seven hours a day, six days a week. I guess usually they only have three or four hours of therapy. But I was constantly wanting more therapy, constantly wanting to push myself. And I was always up for extra time on the treadmill in between therapy sessions. Just to break for lunch, from 8 until 4, I was in therapy. And so therapy was hard. It was hard. I remember my speech therapist holding up a pencil and asking me to identify it. And it's like I looked at her and said, "Your guess is as good as mine."

Interviewer: You just didn't know what that was.

Amy: I didn't know what that was.

Interviewer: Wow. Did that happen with a lot of objects?

Amy: Yeah.

Interviewer: And a lot of things?

Amy: Yeah. Eraser, a pencil, a cup.

Interviewer: So you had to relearn a lot of that kind of stuff. Did that come easy? Were the connections made fairly easily and quickly after somebody held that up and said what it was or did it take time?

Stroke Physical Therapy

Amy: Well they were made quickly. I noticed the most dramatic improvement in physical therapy. From being guided along the guide post on the wall. To actually to graduating to a cane, to a gate belt, to today being able to go on seven mile hikes.

Interviewer: Wow. There are a lot of healthy people that have never had strokes that can't do that.

Stroke Speech Therapy

Amy: Yeah and speech continues to be my most challenging. I still go to speech therapy once a week and work with my speech therapist here at the University of Utah. They have a great graduate speech therapy program where graduate students work with you and I've been really blessed to get into that program. And this'll be my sixth semester there and just little things that still need a little bit of fine tuning I'm finding. They have deductive puzzles and advanced level things they have me working on.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Occupational Therapy for Stroke

Amy: And occupational therapy was, it progressed nicely. I still don't have total use of my right arm. And I'm constantly reminded by my mom that says, do you have a right arm?

Interviewer: Yeah.

Amy: In that way that moms only can say.

Interviewer: Oh and she's doing it because really you need to challenge yourself to use it in order to get the usage back.

Amy: Yeah and my fingers are a little bit stiff, so I have a problem typing. It's slow, but I still use both hands.

Interviewer: Gotcha. I want to step back here for a second. So after you got up and you started to try to walk for the first time and go through physical therapy. What's that experience like when your limbs aren't doing what you would expect them to do or your mouth's not doing what you want it to do?

Amy: It can be frustrating.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Amy: But I was very patient with myself. There was always the next hour of therapy or something that I couldn't do one hour, I could literally do the next hour. My therapy progressed that rapidly.

Can You Fully Recover from a Stroke?

Interviewer: So that was fortunate.

Amy: That was very fortunate that it progressed that rapidly.

Interviewer: So you mentioned some of the ongoing things that you still go to speech therapy and you got to work on that right arm as your mom reminds you. What are some of the ongoing things? Is there ever an end when you're done?

Amy: I don't think. I feel like I'm about 95%, but there's that last 5% is obviously the hardest to come back. And I'm working hard, remaining very physically active and remembering to use my right arm. And just working hard in speech therapy. But I don't think you ever fully recover from a stroke. You can get about 99% but...

Interviewer: Yeah. What is it that you hope for in the future now?

Amy: Well I'm currently looking for employment. Yeah, that's my next obstacle to overcome.

Interviewer: And what kind of challenges are you facing there?

Amy: I haven't really been looking that hard yet. Doing volunteer stuff with the American Heart and Stroke Association and writing some freelance articles has kept me pretty busy. But if the right job comes up. I would ideally like to work for the health care system up here.

Interviewer: And why is that?

Amy: So I figured I'd be a banner client, in the public affairs department working for the University of Utah. I think I have a lot to offer.

Being a Stroke Survivor

Interviewer: Did your experience lead you to want to work in health care you think? Your stroke.

Amy: Yes, yes exactly. And just writing articles. I'm exploring options for writing articles for health related magazines and everything.

Interviewer: What was it about your experience that made you want to do that?

Amy: I think it gives me a unique insight to be able to share with other people and other stroke survivors and their families. I think it puts me in a unique position to give back in a unique way.

Interviewer: What advice would you give somebody who has gone through the same thing that you have, has had a stroke. And they're going through the same thing you did or you are currently going through.

Amy: I have two bits of advice. Is to never give up on yourself. You have to believe in yourself. And also to surround yourself with only positive people. No Debbie Downers allowed in my support network group. And a positive attitude. Positive attitude can truly work miracles and I'm a shining example of that.

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