By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
In the fall of 2011, Abby Anderson, Blake Ephraim, Madeline Mudd and Molly Ogden were among several thousand freshmen starting high school in the Kansas City area.
They had things in common, as would any four teenage girls. But their interests didn’t overlap enough that they’d ever met. And they went to different schools, making them even more distant.
Then came a traumatic series of events, all in a two-year span.
Each suffered a massive stroke.
Each had part of her skull removed to ease pressure on her swollen brain.
Each went through extensive rehabilitation to once again learn basics skills like walking and talking.
Each returned home with what seemed like a shattered life. Some things could be glued back together, but not all. Nothing would ever be the same.
Family and friends tried comforting them, but couldn’t truly understand what they’d been through.
What they needed was someone who’d been down the same bumpy path.
And then, they found each other.
Saying they became fast friends would be an understatement. It’s more like each discovered a long lost sister – only, make it three sisters.
They are always there for each other, a text, call or Snapchat message away. They recently began wearing the same bracelet: a leather strap featuring a silver center engraved with the words “Be Brave.”
This weekend, the foursome will slip back into a crowd of their peers. They’ll be among thousands of seniors in the Kansas City area receiving their high school diploma.
That’s right, despite all they’ve endured, each is graduating in the Class of 2015, as they were supposed to back, well, “before.”
Like all graduating seniors, they’ll be entering the next phase of their lives. For these girls, what they want to be when they grow up has changed since, well, “after.”
Here are their stories.
Blake started dancing at 2, moving up to competitions by third grade. She loved the stage and worked hard to be good at it – and, she was.
She tried cheerleading in eighth grade. The rush of tumbling and stunting exhilarated her. She became captain of her school squad and joined a competitive team. She dreamed of owning a gym.
“Cheer was my life,” she said. “I know when people say that it’s really dramatic, but it really was all that I did.”
That’s why it was so strange that she was reluctant to perform at a “parent show-off” the first Saturday of November 2013.
The day before, she woke up with a headache to go with an earache she’d had all week. She managed to cheer at a football game that night, then hours later a sick stomach joined her list of symptoms.
She skipped a cheer clinic Saturday afternoon and wanted to back out of the show-off. Figuring it was only 2½ minutes, she did her routine. She walked off the mat “in so much pain I couldn’t even speak.”
When her parents got home, they found her in her room, moaning in her sleep and crying inconsolably. She soon had such a confused look that they rushed her to the hospital.
Doctors found a clot in her brain and ongoing bleeding. She underwent the skull operation followed by an induced coma. Doctors ultimately discovered that Blake carried a gene that causes clots.
She awoke with symptoms of damage to the left side of her brain. This especially affected her speech.
She could only say “yes” and “no,” and not always appropriately. She also said many words that weren’t actual words. Visits with friends were excruciating for everyone. Once she grasped what had happened, the next 48 hours were awful.
Then her competitive spirit kicked in.
“I knew that if I wanted to have a full recovery, it needed to be because of what I did,” she said. “So I worked extremely hard. … I wanted to be independent again.”
She returned to school in January. She even resumed cheering … sort of. Unable to tumble or stunt, she gave up competing.
She also scrapped the dream of owning a gym.
“I think it’s really important for me to go into nursing,” she said.
She’s earned a nice head start on her new dream: a partial scholarship from the hospital where she was treated.
“I’ve learned so much in this last year and half about stroke awareness,” said Blake, who also maintains a blog. “It’s really nice to have a story to tell.”
In the summer of 2013, Madeline was easy to find.
If she wasn’t hanging out with friends in her basement, playing with her cats Libby, Gizmo and Keefer, or working at either of her two jobs, she likely was on the ice.
“Everybody knows me as the ice skater girl,” she said.
Synchronized skating was her specialty. Her sole goal was to be part of the juggernaut synchro program at Miami (Ohio) University.
She was practicing on the ice one morning when a headache forced her to the locker room. Vomiting and seizing followed. An ambulance took her from one hospital to another, then Life Flight took her to yet another hospital once doctors uncovered the problem: a ruptured aneurysm in her brain.
Doctors told her parents she was down to one sign of life, dilated pupils. Her parents also received this warning: “One-third of people with this die before they get to the hospital. One-third die during surgery. The one-third that survive have severe deficits.”
She walked around her hospital floor the day she left. It may have taken two therapists and a walker, but she did it, a signal to everyone – including Madeline herself – that she was going to beat the odds.
Recovery was a challenge, though, slowed by problems with her short-term memory.
“Every day I’d learn these things,” she said. “And then every day I’d go home and forget.”
While remembering was tough, comprehending what she’d been through was tougher. See, until this happened, Madeline had been like most 16-year-olds in that she didn’t know anything about aneurysms or stroke.
This disorienting mix kept her emotions at bay until, finally, it clicked.
“I was like, `Whoa! OK,'” she said. “And then I started understanding the severity of it.”
Another crusher was returning to school.
“My friends were all there in the beginning, they all wanted to hang out with me, come see me all the time,” she said. “When I came back to school, it just stopped. I was like, `Wait? Where’d you guys go? Where’s my best friend?’ I lost everyone.”
Madeline has rebuilt a peer group and even returned to the ice. Short-term memory lapses continue, so learning programs is difficult. Still, she recently performed a spring senior solo.
Was that her career finale? Maybe. Regardless, skating in college is out.
Her new aim is to work for a charity, perhaps something stroke-related.
“I just really want to raise awareness because no one expects a 16-year-old to have a stroke,” she said. “I want people to know it can happen, and it does.”
In her sophomore year of high school, Molly navigated the two most common worlds of teenage girls: Both the girly-girl who fussed over clothes and her Taylor Swift-esque hair, and the athletic type, riding horses and excelling at distance running. Her dad ran track on scholarship at Kansas State and she expected to do the same.
One Sunday afternoon in November 2012, Molly was in her element by playing in a powder puff football game.
She dove for a pass, landing on her head and shoulders so violently that some feared she wouldn’t get up. She did, insisting she was fine. That night, she collected canned goods door-to-door with her church’s youth group and went to a bonfire.
The next morning, she got up for school and went to the bathroom.
“I found her about 10 minutes later exhibiting the classic symptoms of stroke,” said her mother, Alison Ogden. “However, when I saw them in my 16-year-old, I didn’t realize at all that it was a stroke.”
Molly fractured a tiny bone in her neck, presumably during the football game. That caused a tear (dissection) in the carotid artery, triggering the stroke. Doctors also discovered a clotting disorder.
A surgeon performed a clot-retrieval procedure. He got about 90 percent.
“We were very optimistic,” Alison said. “However, that was when the swelling began.”
Molly came away with damage to her brain’s communications center. This makes it difficult for her to turn thoughts into words. The condition is called aphasia, and it’s somewhat common among stroke survivors. The cruel part is that her intelligence is not affected, so she can follow along in conversations but can only offer words in short bursts – usually, though, with a smile.
Her right arm and leg are also compromised. She’s learned to use her left hand for the things that matter: putting on mascara, writing, texting and more.
Horse riding is part of her therapy. Her family lives in a rural area and owns four horses; Ranger is her favorite.
“Fast!” she said.
When people meet Molly and ask why she wears a brace, she tells them she’s a stroke survivor. Reactions vary, but they usually involve pity.
“Stop, stop,” she tells them. “Move on.”
She certainly has.
Molly became a photographer for her school yearbook and joined her church youth group for a mission trip to a flooded region in Colorado last summer. She works in a preschool and would like a career of helping kids, perhaps as a teacher.
“We don’t have our plans set, but, definitely, whether she’s on a more traditional schedule or on Molly’s schedule, she’s going to get there,” Alison said. “I have no doubt she’s going to be successful.”
On Oct. 24, 2011, during her very first day of high school PE class, Abby had to run a mile. She remembers getting thirsty along the way, then crossing the finish line.
She vaguely remembers passing out and hearing sirens. Her next memory?
“Thanksgiving,” she said.
Abby learned that she went through many of the same things as the other three girls, from confusion over where to treat her to a long, slow recovery. Like Molly, her stroke was caused by a torn carotid artery.
She’s the only one of the group who didn’t have a medically induced coma.
She also was the youngest, just 14 at the time.
“I did go through little parts of sadness and depression,” she said. “Just because, you know: What did I do to get stuck with this?”
Walking without a cane was her first major victory. She wears a brace below her left knee because her ankle remains weak.
She can move her left arm and hand, but can’t really use them. There was about a week when she could control her thumb, which gives her hope.
Her speech is fine. However, she has trouble paying attention for long periods.
Abby returned to high school for the end of her freshman year. Midway through her sophomore year, she suffered a seizure. She spent the rest of high school at an off-campus learning center.
Only nine weeks into high school when she had the stroke, Abby had yet to envision any grand plans for her life. This ordeal has helped her figure it out.
“I really want to be a physical therapist,” she said. “With children.”
Abby believes the stroke has made her a “stronger and a better person.”
“My message for other kids or adults who’ve had strokes is just to never give up,” she said. “Always have hope.”
At first, the girls only knew of each other.
Some of their faces were familiar through rehab and various stroke survivor events. Then Lisa Wilcox, Blake’s mom, took matters into her own hands.
Her older son worked at the clothing store managed by Alison Ogden. Wilcox used that connection to set up a dinner among the four families.
In February 2014, they all met at Blake’s home in Olathe, Kansas. They were there again a few weeks ago, happily recalling that night.
“It was the first time I ever met Molly, and I didn’t know how bad her speech was or how good her speech was. And she just comes in with all this energy and is just so happy to meet everyone,” Blake said. “Maddy comes in and she’s telling her story. You walk away and then she tells it again and you’re just like, `I’m OK with that.’ Abby and I connected because we both went to Olathe schools. So it was really cool.”
They had a sleepover that night, the first of many as a foursome.
During another get-together, they all went out for ice cream. They were sitting outside, in a crowded area, chatting about this and that when Madeline brought up the scar from her skull operation. The conversation seamlessly continued in that direction.
A man and his son were sitting nearby. They couldn’t help but overhear. You can imagine how stunned they were, both by the subject and how casually the girls discussed it.
They love that story because it shows how something so common in their lives was so out of whack to others.
“We found the humor of a situation that a lot of people don’t understand,” Blake said.
The anecdote underscores the uniqueness of their relationship. They can talk about “all of our issues and normal girl things, too,” Madeline said. For instance, during the group interview for this story they giggled about Molly’s silver Jeep and her crush on country singer Brett Eldredge; Madeline’s love of her kitties, and Blake and Abby’s infatuation with One Direction.
“I always look forward to hanging out with these girls because they understand me,” Madeline said. “We all get each other.”
Added Abby: “It was kind of weird how we met, all of us having an aneurysm or stroke. But because of it, I’ve found three best friends for life.”
Added Molly, “Best.”
Here’s a longer version of the teens telling their stories:
Photos courtesy of the families, except as noted