It was July 10, 2008, when my brain abruptly took a left turn. Suddenly nothing was or is the same.
INVESTIGATIVE TV REPORTER
The week before I had spent most of my days crammed inside a hot car with a news photographer working on an undercover, investigative story, highlighting the street drug sales on what is known as the "naughty" north side of Minneapolis. The surveillance was paying off big time. We got what we call multiple targets buying and selling.
The story was running during the crucial May sweeps period. A year later it won a major photographer's award and an Emmy nomination.
In short, it was a good day in a good life.
Hidden camera reporting was a major part of what I did as an investigative reporter for a network affiliate in the Twin Cities. I loved it. Still do. I have never wanted to be anything but a journalist.
Fortunately I had written and recorded the audio for that investigative report before my brain took a nose dive.
THE NAGGING HEADACHE
Unrelenting headaches were nothing new to me, due to stress and fibromyalgia. I simply rode them out. This one was just as jarring, only it consistently banged every corner of my head with no mercy no matter how many Motrin pills I took. All morning long I agonized, but I was not alarmed. If only I could just sleep the headache off, I would be okay, I kept telling myself. I had another story being edited which was scheduled to air that Saturday. After all, it was May sweeps, which is like tax season to an accountant.
Going to work was still on my agenda.
By mid-day, my fiancée Stuart came home and was stunned to see me in bed surrounded by orange Motrin pills. He immediately sensed trouble since I had never called in sick in the three years we had lived together. But I brushed off his pleas to go to the hospital. Just another bad headache attributed to fibromyalgia. I have always been stubborn. This was one time it backfired on me.
The next morning I agreed to call my health provider. I was alert during this conversation as the nurse asked about the severity of the headache. Her advice to Stuart was stern. She said, "Call 911 right now. Do not take her to the hospital in your car. Go now!"
Even as I dressed, unaware that my left side had collapsed, I felt in control.
Stuart says he knew something catastrophic was happening when I couldn't lift my left arm to put on my shirt.
I remember vividly when the ambulance arrived. As I walked out of the house a paramedic said to me, "We're going to take good care of you."
I was urging Stuart to get in the ambulance with me, as if I was off on a joy ride. At this point, I was not afraid. I didn't perceive danger or trauma.
I was quietly curious. It's like I was in the moment, but not. My alertness ended in the ambulance. The rest is a fog.
When Stuart got to the hospital he was met by a chaplain and taken into a room where eight doctors told him the unbelievable news, "We don't think she's going to make it." He's told me the story a dozen times. "Jack, as they are talking, I can hear them clearly, but tears were streaming down my face. All I could do was cry."
The prognosis was not good. In ER, it is obvious to the doctors that a healthy 52 year old woman in the prime of he 20 year TV career, was suffering an acute stroke. In medical terms it is referred to as a "right middle cerebral artery infarct." But the $60,000 question that is still unanswered 210 days later is why.
If I were writing this as a news story, it would read like this: "Something terrible has gone wrong with Fox 9 investigative reporter Jacqueline McLean's brain. It is swelling and her blood pressure is skyrocketing. Doctors at HCMC are "outright puzzled."
Stuart was asked repeatedly "Does she use cocaine? It was the only thing that makes sense to the doctors. "You got the wrong one," Stuart said a thousand times. " She seldom drinks a glass of wine."
"DO YOU WANT US TO DO EVERYTHING TO SAVE HER?"
To relieve the pressure off my brain, the doctors decided they needed to remove a section of my skull, telling Stuart it is "the only way we can save her, but it is risky and she may not survive this kind of procedure."
Somehow doctors needed to create room for my swelling brain to expand. Stuart is told that it was highly unlikely that I will resume my TV career. "It's her passion," he said as if it would make a difference in how the doctors treated me. "Too much brain damage," was the only answer he got.
At this point, I was still conscious. But as the morning drifted on, I slipped deeply into stroke land as Stuart made the round of calls to my family in Chicago. Everyone was in shock.
A relatively young, healthy, athletic family member has a stroke. This is not in our family history. How? Why? Jackie?
My immediate family dropped everything and jumped into their cars for the 500 mile drive to Minneapolis.The word they got from doctors was also doom and gloom, even though they had ruled out brain surgery. Instead the neurology team of doctors monitoring me decided to shave the top part of my head to insert a tube on the left side to relieve the pressure. In neurology talk I had suffered "severe edema'" and required a "ventriculostomy."
"NO, SHE WONT DIE OR BE A VEGETABLE"
With tubes all over me, and a half-shaven head, my mother passed right by me when the family was brought to to my bedside at ICU. My brother Robert said to her, " mother , this is Jackie." She was in disbelief at my appearance. The family was taken into a room and told "if she does make it, she will not return to you the same person. She most likely will be a vegetable." My mother's faith never wavered. With no hesitation, she told the doctors, "No, she won't die or be a vegetable." She was not shaken when the man next to me died moments after they got there..
THE POWER OF PRAYER
I've always believed in the power of prayer, but never had to personally put it to the test. Every day I'd ask the nurses to "go get my mother so she can pray for me." A strong church background and mother and daughter of a preacher, I needed her to call on God for me. As she prayed, the rest of my family was on the phone to their "prayer warriors" in in their church community, and extended family, requesting prayers. Close friends were called and more prayers were summoned. Everyone was told to pray for me by first and last name, so God would know exactly who needed so much help. By day two, my family was prayer fasting for me.
ICU is a strange place to be in for an extended time. There were cots scattered all around you with limited privacy. A man ahead of me had only a torso. Everyone was at their worst.The nurses constantly reminded me "you have a hole in your head." The time spent there was surreal. I don't remember visitors, or much of anything. My Mother was the glue that kept me hanging me on.
I was restless. Subconsciously I didn't understand why I was there. I tore the monitoring stickers off me. It got so bad the nurses put mittens on my hands, fearing I would yank the tube out of my head.
This entire time while my life Is on the verge of slipping away from me, I don't recall much. But I can say with a degree of certainty that I didn;t sense Iwas dying. However, I felt l strongly that I was fighting for my life. I could feel the danger, but I had no idea what awaited me.
I remained in ICU nearly a month.
July 31st I moved to the hospital's rehab unit. I'm strapped to a machine that is feeding Coumadin, a blood thinner, in my body. It was the only visible reminder that I was still very sick. I was clueless to what kind of rehab I needed. I thought because I was out of ICU, I'was fine, right? Wrong, wrong, wrong. The second day it was clear when an occupational therapist (OT) came in to help me get dressed. My family was told to bring loose pants and tee shirts for me to wear. To my surprise, I couldn't put my bra on. I looked at like a foreign item. It didn't make sense anymore. Neither did the tee shirt. I studied it then put it on backwards. The therapist told me to place the shirt on the bed on the backside, lift it up, find the hole, put my head in, then find the entry way to the sleeves. Later, I struggled with my underwear, putting both legs in one opening and backwards. By now I was beyond frustrated. "What the butterfly!"Instead of of using cprofanity, I always use the word butterfly. It has become such a "Jackieism that now close family and friends use it too.
All this confusion was obvious to everyone, but me. I was showing classic symptoms of someone who has had a right hemisphere stroke. My visual perception is impaired. I am confused about time and space concepts. Getting dressed will never again be a mindless task. My left side, from my face to my feet felt like the nerve endings had been snatched out. It felt like harden piece of clay. Fine motor skills, like buttoning a blouse was amazingly difficult,which had me praying to God, "please take me out of the tee shirt world." I have dozens of French blouses from Paris with delicate buttons. It is my signature. A minor ordeal to be on my mind, but I didn't want to let what makes me, me go. Forget about post earrings. Too butterfly hard!!!!
I have left field visual loss and left neglect . Another common symptom. I am constantly bumping into people and doorways on the left. I see alright, but my brain isn't registering this information to me. Everything on the left was virtually ignored. When I ate, the food on my left was untouched. It was the same effect when I' read or saw numbers. $121to me was $21. This cognitive impairment lasts long after I leave the hospital. Last year I aw this beautiful trench coat in Banana Republic on sale for $99. I can't believe this treasure I've found. No questions, I was buying it. I took it to the register and the sales associate said $199. I told her I'm sorry. I have a left side neglect (as if this meant anything to her) and don't always see all the numbers. Life after a stroke means always making excuses for your behavior.
The therapists found me a handful because another symptom is you deny that anything is wrong. Inside, I still felt like me. Jacqueline, the investigative reporter with seven Emmys. 30 nominations, an Edward R. Murrow investigative award, and a Masters Degree. I was named one of the top two reporters in the country by NPPA, National Press Photographers Association. I am not book smart, but I work hard. I am probably one of the most creative TV reporters around. I have a unique and fast pace way of telling stories. Another signature. In rehab, this accounted for nothing. I was relearning the basic necessities. I might as well be a high school dropout.
Rehab was about visual perception exercises, maps, mazes, games, and what they call pathway finding, which Is done in physical therapy (PT), which I still haven't figured out why this was PT. The therapist hands you a map and says take me to this place in the hospital. You can't ask the therapist any questions. The hospital is color coded. You follow the signs looking for the color floor you need. The first time I failed miserably. I was so confused that I had to ask someone in the hospital for directions. I told the therapist afterwards, I couldn't do this pre-stroke. Maps are not my friend. However, I can take you anywhere you want to go in Paris, New York, and D.C. by subway or walking. Over the years, I have developed a directional skill or routine that works for me. It does not include maps. I argued about all the games and visual exercises too, telling the therapists this is not me. I don't do games. They insisted these exercises that bogged me down would be a piece of cake pre stroke. I don't get how this will help me i real life. By August, I was ready to get back to work, enough of this therapy. In OT, Twas cooking, something I rarely do. To me, it was more beneficial to help me use my left hand so I can type again. I need to type to go back to work. Talk about major denial. The psychology report written on me in December 2008 says "visual reasoning abilities, previously severely impaired, are still markedly borderline range." "She did best in an untimed measure of deductive logic, falling in the low average range, well below premorbid functioning for this news reporter."
'BACK TO THE REAL WORLD... READY OR NOT'
I underwent six months of intense speech and OT before I returned to work part-time. I only did so because my job forced me to back or go on disability, which meant an 80% loss in pay and no health insurance. Four hours a day, 5 days a week, surely I could handle this. The station even bought a voice dictating software program to help me with typing. As it turns out, it was more efficient and probably more therapeutic to type with my left hand , regardless of how long it took me.
Typing with the left hand is like using a claw. Too butterfly annoying.
My news director did' know what to do with me I didn't either. The decision had already been made to have me do general assignment, which meant daily reporting on deadline. There was no way I could jump into that frying pan so quickly. I was put back in the investigative unit, and I attended the morning news meeting to get back acquainted with the newsroom. No one would say it, but I could tell fro many my appearance had broken the myths of a stroke. I return looking more like I've been at a spa resort than a stroke victim near death. I was 70 pounds lighter, looked younger (the shorter hair gets some credit), walked perfectly and had no speech problems. The first day ,co-workers showered me with compliments and told me how I did't look like anyone who had just had a stroke. Later in my recovery, I found this to be a big problem. Because I looked like a picture of health, no one could see the cognitive damage hidden in my brain. Or as my friend Derek LeBeaud jokes " I was two sandwiches short of a picnic."
I managed to do two really good investigative pieces, but it was much more difficult than before and I needed more help from the producers than normally. My organizational skills, which made me a dynamic reporter, had been buried by the stroke.
I was at work, but not really. My brain was so not ready. I was mentally overwhelmed I sat idly at my desk, looking through emails . I didn't have the energy to pull a story together. My desk was just as I left it. My organized mess. But I didn't remember the system.
Getting to work alone was a chore. I was unable to drive because of all the brain damage that had yet to heal. So, my Jaguar sat in the garage while I took two buses from the city to the suburbs. Just figuring out the route and schedule times was exhausting therapy. Not to mention it was brutally cold, and after I got off the first bus I walked six blocks to catch the suburban bus. While in the hospital, I asked my mother what terrible thing had I done for God to punish me like this. She assured me God had not punished me. Instead he had saved me. Waiting for those buses in the pre-dawn cold hours sure felt like punishment... by someone.
THE ROAD TO RECOVERY