By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION
Chris Richards speaks carefully and haltingly, her speech but not her mind affected by a stroke two years ago that nearly killed her.
But the words are worth waiting for. They tell of the power of determination and faith, the love of a wonderful family, the support and inspiration provided by friends, some of whom she’s never even met.
“You need to have a positive attitude and you can find good in everything,” Richards said. “The stroke has made me a stronger person and I never give up.”
Born in Laramie, Wyoming, a town of 32,000 in the southeastern corner of the state, Richards taught school for more than 30 years in her hometown, where she married and raised two children. On April 4, 2014, she had just arrived at her first grade classroom when her colleague noticed she wasn’t making any sense.
The school nurse quickly figured out Richards was having a stroke and called 911. The local hospital administered the clot-busting medicine IV r-tPA and soon she was on a helicopter to a Denver hospital, where surgeons battled an embolism that shattered within the brain.
“We were told she was in a vegetative state and you think, ‘By God, it’s over,’” said her husband, Loren. “Those first several days when she was unresponsive and we weren’t getting much from the doctors, there wasn’t a day I didn’t lean over her and say ‘Fight! Don’t give up!’”
Richards heard, and she didn’t. “I knew everything going on around me,” she said. “But I couldn’t open my eyes, I couldn’t move my hand, I couldn’t tell my family I’m in here. It was a hard thing to deal with.”
After 10 days, she opened her eyes. In a month, she spoke. And exactly two months after she arrived in Denver on a helicopter, she drove back home to Laramie to learn life over again.
“We just broke it down into smaller steps,” said Richards’ son Dustin, a local attorney. “It was ‘What needs to be done first?’ And once you get the small goals accomplished, keep coming up with new goals.”
The Richards’ family is grateful for the many friends and relatives who pitched in with everything from a welcome-home community dinner and regular visits to lunch dates and shopping trips.
“When Chris got home she was pretty independent,” her husband said. “What she needed was just personal contact.”
But online support proved equally important. When Richards suffered her stroke, the family began a journal on CaringBridge, the website where people post updates about their conditions – and soak up love and encouragement from around the world. Since its founding in 1997, the nonprofit organization said, more than half a million people or their families have opened personal websites at www.caringbridge.org.
My mum had a stroke this morning (4/4/14) and was flown to Denver, began the initial entry from Richards’ daughter Brittany. She’s in critical care now.
“I don’t think any of us had an inkling of what CaringBridge was going to do for us,” Brittany said.
Even before Richards woke up, the family would sit down at the end of the day, assess the situation and decide what to report.
“It became a ritual for us, kind of like taking a deep breath,” Loren said, adding that the online journal allowed them to communicate effectively and efficiently to “Team Chris” without distracting from her care. “CaringBridge was a lifesaver for us.”
It’s also a two-way street. From the beginning, Loren, Dustin and Brittany read Richards the many responses from people she knew and some she didn’t, who came across her story and wanted to encourage her.
After a few months, Richards took over her blog, writing her own entries and seeing for herself how much people cared.
“The comments give me strength and motivation,” she said. “I still like to read them because I have a hard time with some things, and the comments give me strength to carry on.”
By any measure, the recovery chronicled on CaringBridge has been remarkable. With intensive therapy and hard work, Richards went from regaining the ability to write her name to riding a bike and driving a car. She returned to school to teach in tandem with others, although not on her own. She takes trips with her family, including one to Germany. She chuckles when she announces she wants to go skydiving someday, but she means it.
The CaringBridge journal entries don’t shy away from setbacks and frustration. Richards broke an ankle last year. Persistent weakness and an abnormal heartbeat led to two recent ablation procedures, in which a catheter is threaded into the heart to restore a normal rhythm. As much as she loves teaching, the burden was stressful enough that she took early retirement this year, though she intends to return in a less demanding role.
But the biggest remaining hurdle is aphasia, a communication disorder that often results when a stroke damages the brain. People who suffer from it can have difficulty speaking or finding the right words. Some patients have difficulty with reading and comprehension.
“Aphasia didn’t make me not intelligent,” Richards said. “It affected my speech. I know what I want to say, but I can’t say it fast.”
Richards’ speech has improved, but the aphasia may never go away completely. She said it’s made her funnier, a better teacher – “I know how kids struggle and I struggle, too” – and an advocate for building awareness, both among people with aphasia and people who encounter them.
“A lot of people might be embarrassed,” Brittany said. “She’s not afraid to tell people ‘I have aphasia. I’m dealing with this. Be patient with me.’”
Richards concurs, but has a better line.
“I always wanted a British accent,” she said. “Instead I have a stroke accent.”
To inspire other families and continue the stroke education outreach they began seven days after their lives were suddenly changed, the family has teamed up with the American Stroke Association and CaringBridge for World Stroke Day.
We are so thankful for the fast reactions of Chris’ coworkers who detected a stroke and called 911. We ask that you learn what to look for so that if you see someone suffering a stroke, you can help save their life. (Posted on CaringBridge by Brittany, April 11, 2014)