Angela Wright was 38 years old and the picture of health when she experienced the worst headache she ever had. An accomplished, graduate school-educated vice president in investment management, she had no risk factors for stroke. Other than the excruciating headache, she felt fine. She had been travelling for work at the time and was in Smithers, BC with a client.
Angela endured her headache (or what could have been “a bad hangover,” she recalls) for most of the day. She took out her contact lenses, thinking that was making her head hurt and opted for glasses instead.
It wasn’t until dinnertime when a friend noticed her glasses had fallen onto her lap and her left ear was two inches lower because the muscles in her scalp had let go. Her speech was also starting to slur.
She was rushed to hospital in Smithers, then Terrace, where a CT scan confirmed she was having a hemorrhagic stroke, which occurs when a weakened blood vessel ruptures and causes bleeding in or around the brain. She was then transferred to Vancouver General Hospital for surgery.
Post-operation, Angela contracted meningitis and had a severe allergic reaction to the antibiotics she was given, causing a fever of 103 degrees that lasted two weeks. She spent six weeks in the intensive care unit, followed by another two in the neurology ward, before starting physiotherapy and rehabilitation at GF Strong.
Although she was paralyzed on both sides of her body, Angela managed to regain all mobility over time with extensive rehabilitation.
During her recovery, she started thinking about what she would do with the rest of her life – how could she help others? “I had been off work for about a year,” she explains, “and during my rehab process I started taking some courses to supplement my MBA. But I wanted to do more.”
Her friends, family and clients all had the same answer for her: she should share her story. “Everyone suggested I become a public speaker,” she says.
Angela got involved with the Patient Voices Network, then found out about Stroke Services BC and its Stroke Rehabilitation Collaborative. “They were looking for patient advocates and at first I wondered if they really wanted to hear from a patient perspective. Were they just ticking a box? But I couldn’t have been more wrong. They really valued my participation and they did want to hear my story – the whole story, ‘crunchy’ bits and all.”
As Katie White, manager of Stroke Services BC, says, “Angela’s participation in the collaborative truly demonstrates the crucial role that the patient voice plays in improving the health system. In addition to telling her story, she was a member of the collaborative faculty and planning group, she facilitated sessions and she participated in various plenary discussions. Her perspective, and the perspectives of the other patient partners that were involved, positively impacted both the direction and success of the Rehabilitation Collaborative. Though the collaborative is over, Angela’s commitment continues as an ongoing partner in the work of Stroke Services BC and we are incredibly grateful for her leadership.”
Angela has recounted her story as a young stroke survivor numerous times over her past two years as part of the Stroke Services BC collaborative, sharing her experience with hundreds of health authority employees across BC.
“I’ve had staff come up to me and tell me that they’ve made changes because they heard my story,” she says. “I had started this thinking that sharing my story would help people, but an unintended result has been that it’s really helped me through my own healing process. It’s been very cathartic.”
Angela has since gone back to work and has completed a solo four-month trip trekking over 600 kilometers in Nepal, India and Bhutan – just two years after doctors told her she wouldn’t walk, work or live independently again.
“There were many days on the mountain when I felt like I might just die up there,” she says. “Then I would remind myself that two years ago I was using a wheelchair to get around, and I would be grateful for the physical pain I was in with every step, because those were steps that I was told I wouldn’t be able to take.”
Angela hopes to continue to spread the word about young stroke survivorship and the different needs younger stroke patients have when it comes to prevention, treatment and rehabilitation. In addition to her work with Stroke Services BC, she is also on the board of directors for the Stroke Recovery Association of BC
She started a young survivors’ group that meets monthly and invites young stroke survivors from all over the province to participate and give feedback on a system that doesn’t necessarily always fit their needs. “I just don’t feel like I’m done with this work yet,” she says. “I have so much more to give.”
June is Stroke Month. Do you know the signs of stroke? Think FAST and learn more about what to look for here. You can also find out more about the work of Stroke Services BC here.