Meet Julia, who uses humor and positivity to flourish after stroke

On July 17, 1997, at the age of 37, I suffered a massive hemorrhage that resulted in a paralyzing stroke. At the time, I was at work, where I was a software support manager. When the hemorrhage occurred, it was like a volcanic eruption in my head. I couldn’t sit, stand, lie down—I could only pace. I had the Administrative Assistant drive me to a local hospital. Now, I tell everyone, if something isn’t right, call 911. Ambulances get first priority over ‘walk-ins’. I didn’t know it at the time, but every time my blood pressure pulsed, it was releasing blood in my brain. This went on for hours until I stroked and passed out. I had emergency, life-saving brain surgery, but as the surgeon stated, I had lost a lot of real estate in my brain. The size of a fist is dead on the right side of my brain.

Before my stroke, I was incredibly independent. I am the only daughter of nine kids. I joke that my upbringing prepared me for what I was going to face later in life. I believe that I am the original ‘survivor’ show because I survived growing up with 8 brothers—that’s a lot of testosterone! I was climbing the corporate ladder as a working mother. We had a 3-year-old birthday party for my son and five days later, I lay dying on an operating table. I was completely paralyzed on my left side and fighting for my life, yet I had this powerful feeling that I wasn’t going to die because I had something important to do.

I am still a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and friend. Those attributes will always be a part of me. The part of me that did change was I could no longer climb the metaphorical corporate ladder. In fact, I couldn’t climb anything, let alone even lift myself out of bed. I had to re-learn everything. I lost all independence—my autonomy.

Today, I still suffer from left-neglect, so I can only see the right side of things, hemi-paresis, or weakness on one side of my body, spasticity, and numbness. I wear a brace and use a cane: the same cane that was hospital-issued 20 years ago. I call him ‘Steady’. My parents bought me a fancy cane to make me feel better, but I gave it back. I said I like Steady. He’ll be with me for the long haul. He has been run over by a car, stuck in grates, closed in doors, lost but always found. He’s scrappy. I guess it identifies my journey and me too. My journey has included rediscovery and reinvention as author, health care advocate and motivational speaker.

I wrote, Don’t Leave Me This Way (or when I get back on my feet you’ll be sorry), HarperCollins Publishers, which chronicles my struggle to regain control over my life and body. Dealing with the medical community and insurance companies while rehabilitating, I realized that my experience was a blueprint for how not to let the system dictate the direction, pace, and objectives of one’s recovery. While I was in the hospital, I told friends visitors to “come armed with a joke and be prepared to laugh. Don’t dare show up with pity written all over your face.” I’ve learned on my journey that happiness is a choice. It’s a lesson I embrace.

I choose to be happy, and the bedrock of my happiness is humor. My book even won the Applied Association of Therapeutic Humor (AATH) award for furthering their mission—humor in medicine.

Since the publication of my book, I have become a motivational speaker, advocating for integrating humanity in all professions. I have presented nation-wide to healthcare professionals, business executives, women and faith-based groups. All my events come to me through word-of-mouth referral. I am blessed that it continues.

I love that I have continued opportunities to spread my message and hopefully transform others to think in a positive manner. I have two other personal goals I hope to achieve. I have written an intended TEDtalk called I’d rather be buried in my wedding dress than a hospital johnny. It is about the parallels of matrimony and patient care. You would be surprised the number of attributes they share! I also hope to write another memoir about growing up with my eight brothers and eccentric Dad. I have written over 100 pages, but that edited is probably only 40 pages—so, long way to go!

Life-altering events can arrive in all forms: physical, financial, emotional—and sometimes it snowballs into all three. One must strive to find a path to transform and re-invent—to not only overcome as a survivor, but to also flourish to maintain a positive quality of life. Stroke makes you roll with the punches—I just keep on keeping on.

Many people are surprised that I celebrate my stroke anniversary. But for me, it is cause for celebration because I’m still here. It allows me to thump my chest and say I won. I’ve enjoyed 20 more years of being a wife, mother, daughter, sister and friend and I’m still going strong.

You can learn more about Julia on her website.

You can also listen to Julia’s interview for Strokefocus Podcast below.