One Friday morning in August I woke up in the ICU to the sound of a constant beeping of a heart monitor, a million wires hooked up to me, and an automatic blood pressure monitor that kept squeezing my arm really hard every 15 minutes. I reached over to the table, grabbed my computer and ever so slowly typed in my journal “Aww man. I’m in the hospital. It’s crazy. I think I had a stroke…”
The night before I had been rushed to the ER because I suddenly lost my ability to speak. I had gotten up to use the restroom, and when I came out, Helena showed me a drawing on her iPad, and I wanted to compliment it… But I couldn’t… I walked away and sat down on the couch for a couple seconds, confused. I thought for a second maybe I was just getting emotional… It was a beautiful drawing. — but I didn’t expect to be literally speechless.
After a few seconds, I got up and motioned for Helena’s attention because I knew something was wrong. I had my phone on me and made hand signals that she should get hers as well.
She was standing right across from me, and I texted her.
“Hospital. I can’t really talk.”
She said, “What’s wrong?”
I texted “Stroke”.
“Should I call an Uber?”
I shook my head violently and texted.
Helena called 911, and when the EMS arrived at our apartment I was still able to walk, and I felt completely normal except for when they asked me questions I could barely get out one-word answers. Because at that point my only symptom was my inability to speak fluently I don’t think the EMT’s were convinced I was having a stroke. They thought it was something like low blood sugar. But over the course of about an hour being in the ER and eating a sandwich and drinking orange juice, I definitely wasn’t getting better. At that point, my vision was getting so blurry that I could barely understand things right in front of my face and the right side of my body was getting numb and my fingers weren’t responsive. And the ER nurse kept trying to have me read things out loud, and the more I concentrated on them, the blurrier my vision got. Finally convinced it wasn’t my blood sugar, they started the procedures for treating a stroke.
So they wheeled me in for an emergency brain scan to check and make sure that I wasn’t hemorrhaging in my brain. When the ER doctor confirmed that wasn’t the case, the ER doctor got on a video chat with a neurologist and told him they wanted to administer a medicine called tPA that dissolves blood clots. The neurologist approved it, and they started warning me the risks of this medicine. They explained there was a 5% chance that I could get hemorrhage and bleed out. And I’d have to be bedridden for 24 hours because if I fell and cut myself I would probably bleed out because my blood would be so thin. I’d never been faced with that kind of serious life or death split-second decision before, but after a minute it seemed like the best option, so I slowly signed a piece of paper in what is probably my sloppiest signature to date.
I went to sleep that night wondering what state I’d be in the next morning. Would I be totally fine, would I have to re-learn to talk and walk, or would I basically wake up a vegetable? I spent a lot of the night googling on my phone facts about strokes. The statistics weren’t very reassuring.
The Next Morning
When I woke up that morning I could identify any object, but I had trouble actually pronouncing a lot of the words even though in my mind I knew exactly the sound of the word (and could even spell it), but my tongue felt thick and numb. My vision was still a bit blurry but wasn’t as bad as the night before.
But the most problematic part of it all was I had basically lost the ability to form complete sentences in my head. Verbally or written. I knew the names of all the things around me, but I couldn’t create a sentence around them without some serious effort. I could text/email people… but barely…. I had to spend what felt like eons crafting extremely basic responses to the friends/family members that were texting me to ask me how I was doing.
A great example of this was when I was eating, and I wanted Helena to pass me a napkin. A normal person would have just said: “Can you pass me the napkin?” But I sat there for probably 15 seconds, and I eventually gave up and could only come up with saying “napkin” and point.
So over the past couple of months, I’ve had the unique experience of learning to speak my first language again. I know I learned how to talk as a little kid, but I’m sure like most people, I don’t remember that experience at all. And today I realized when I was practicing some Spanish on Babble that it was just like the hard part of learning a foreign language. The easy part is memorizing the vocabulary. The hard part is learning all the words that make up a complete sentence. The little pronouns. The verbs. The endings. I’ve known banyo and agua for basically all my life, but every time I actually try to gain enough knowledge to speak sentences, I always forget
So how did I get better after forgetting how to speak? Of course, I watched hours of Netflix in the hospital! (Seriously!)
Talking was so slow and frustrating that I couldn’t do that but for so long every day in the hospital. But I had a lot of free time that week, and a great thing with watching Netflix was that I could basically parrot anything that I heard. So I would watch shows and try to repeat everything the characters said.
But the things that helped me really flex my speaking muscles were after I got out of the hospital talking to Helena, FaceTiming with my parents, and more importantly writing so many emails for work. (I also met with a wonderful speech therapist for a few weeks.)
And one the great things about being a developer is that people sometimes expect you to be curt and emotionless in your communication/tone. I pride myself on trying to add as much enthusiasm and emotion in my emails, but for a couple of weeks, it took all my brain power just merely to communicate what I needed to communicate in complete sentences. Sometimes I felt like a caveman: “Code good. Deploy on Fridays bad.” I didn’t have the time/energy to phrase things in a particular way. I just had to get the information out there.
I was fortunate at that time too that despite my English skills being at a middle school level, my technical abilities and programming languages were unaffected.
The thing that set me back from work primarily was just being in the hospital for about a week. Sure it was nice getting served three meals a day in bed and the free wi-fi… But if you thought that open office plans were the worst work environment you don’t know what an awful work environment is until you’ve spent a week trying to get a few hours of work done in-between nurses coming to check on you every hour, people randomly poking you to take your blood at all hours of the day and night, having multiple IV’s stuck in your arms at all times, and never knowing when you’re gonna be wheeled to another part of the hospital for some sort of scan or test and how long that will take. Oh, and it doesn’t help that I forgot how to speak my first, and only, language.
After a lot of tests with a lot of doctors, they ultimately declared it a “cryptogenic stroke,” which is a code word for “we don’t really know what caused it.” But I’m on some medicines that should lessen the chances of happening again. And that was almost 3 months ago now, and I can objectively say I’m 99.999% recovered. Physically and mentally I really feel totally normal. I was initially self-conscious about my slightly awkward speech, but I came to realize that even before the stroke I was a bit socially awkward anyway, so that’s “normal.”
Thank you to all the friends, family, clients, and coworkers that checked on me and supported me through the past couple of months. Hard times like this remind me of how fortunate I am for so many good people I have in my life.