In May, with the flowers of spring and the sunny days, my mother would spend time tending her garden and feeding the humming birds out back. While visiting my brother’s family in Portland she had a major stroke. She started acting drunk and stumbling, insisting nothing was wrong with her. Peggy, my sister-in-law, recognized the symptoms immediately and called paramedics, who got there within ten minutes. They loaded her into the ambulance as the right side of her body started freezing up and dragging. “She looked pretty bad,” my brother said to me later.
Providence Medical Center was only a mile away, and was one of the best hospitals in the country for treating stroke victims. The doctors were ready for her when she arrived. She was given the highest priority among the patients and hustled into an emergency room. Doctors had to do a CAT scan to find the location of the blockage. After a thorough, yet swift diagnosis, they injected her with a clot-busting drug to open the blocked artery deep inside her brain before the lack of blood caused the affected area to die. It was quite amazing actually what they did for her. Within less than thirty minutes of her initial signs, she had been treated. Response time is crucial for surviving a stroke without any long term paralyses or brain damage, so my dear mother was extremely lucky. Not only had she been a mile from the right hospital, but she had been around people who got her prompt treatment.
But the drug didn’t get the entire clot, so doctors had to go into her brain and remove it. They stuck a catheter into an artery in her groin and went all the way up with a device I think was called a Merci Retriever. The artery had caved in, creating an occlusion, which was causing the clot to build up behind it. They shored up her artery with a temporary stint and then pulled out the clot the same way they had gone in. Twenty years ago, patients with this kind of stroke would have died or become a vegetable, but my mother, at seventy-two, had a strong heart and blood vessels from walking and eating oatmeal for breakfast every day. They were surprised to find out that she had only been taking one prescribed pill a day when most people her age were taking all sorts of medications. She was the strongest patient on the floor nurses said.
I dropped everything when I got the call and drove there from Cottage Grove. My father and two brothers were in the waiting room looking somber when I arrived, waiting for her to come out of surgery. We were scared as hell. “Should know something soon,” my brother said. My third brother was on his way down from Seattle. We didn’t know quite what to expect. We knew her situation was critical, but we didn’t know that much about the surgery, just that they had to go all the way up an artery, find a tiny clot in her brain, and drag it back out. I had a bad stereotype fixed in my mind about stoke victims. I envisioned people who had lost the ability to move half their bodies, had droopy faces and slurred speech, or died from complications. In my mind, stroke victims just didn’t live a normal life, and I felt horrible for my mother, a saintly woman if ever there was one. She was always giving and happy.
My mother and father had been married for over fifty years and had lived in Roseburg, Oregon pretty much all that time, in the same house where I was born. Two of my brothers were born in Roseburg. My parents raised us right on Chinaberry Street when there were only a few neighbors. We played outside for hours, in the fields, on the hills, and in the creek. My mother would call us in just after dark. We always had dinner to look forward to when we were tired and hungry. My mother was the corner stone of our existence. She worried about us and watched over us. Now we were worrying about her.
The operation was a success. When we went back to see her, she was coherent and moving all her limbs. She was joking and laughing, like the carefree optimist she had always been. My mother would say things like, look at my new puzzle, isn’t this a neat plant, or I won a thousand dollars at Seven Feathers. My mother was a complete optimist among a family of five pessimistic males, and she stood out among us because of this light she had. It was she who allowed us to see the bright side of things, and now it was no different. Except she was lying in a bed and we were standing around feeling gloomy and sarcastic. She hadn’t remembered the surgery or even that she had had a stroke. She still thought she was getting prepared for surgery, but she didn’t seem that afraid, like she knew things would turn out okay. She was always that way. “You already had it,” my brother said.
“I did. I thought I still had to go in,” she said.
“They went into your brain,” my brother said, cringing a little. “All the way up your artery.”
“But now you’re fine,” I said trying to reassure her a little. “Everything was fixed, nothing to it.” Once she heard from the doctor that the prognosis was really good, she got even more positive and happy, smiling and sticking out her tongue – loving life.
She survived without any long term paralysis or brain injury. Dodged a bullet the doctors said. My other sister-in-law, who passed away over a year ago said she would always take care of my mother when she got old. She had just been offered a high-paying job at Providence before she died, and my mother said, “Maybe she was watching over me like she said she would.”
My mother returned to Roseburg about ten days after her accident. She was worried about her garden and her dog. When she saw her doctor in Roseburg he told her if this stroke would have happened in Roseburg there wouldn’t have been anyone able to perform the procedure they did in Portland. Luck, or maybe some other higher calling was on my mother's side. It wasn’t her time yet.