By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
Merideth Gilmor knows what it’s like to train hard, perhaps even more than some of the professional athletes she handles publicity for.
Exactly a year to the date she suffered a debilitating stroke that nearly killed her, Gilmor completed her first marathon, running 26.2-miles around New York City.
“I crawled through my stroke recovery inch by inch, day by day, until I crossed that finish line of the marathon, but the problem with a stroke is that every day is a marathon,” she said. “So you’ve got to pick your finish line every day, and they change. One day it might be just trying to hold a fork.”
A year later, Gilmor still can’t use her left arm, making even minor tasks like pulling her hair into a ponytail impossible without help. She only recently figured out a workaround for her left hand so she can tie her shoes.
She had planned to run the marathon for a second year in a row until she came down with the flu and bronchitis shortly before last Sunday’s race.
Gilmor was only 38 when she and her husband, Mark, returned to their hotel room following her best friend’s wedding in the early morning of Nov. 1, 2014. Everything seemed normal when she crawled into bed until she felt an odd ticklish sensation, similar to the one before a sneeze. She then felt “as though I’d pushed a dandelion up my nose,” before everything turned black.
Gilmor had suffered an ischemic stroke, which occurs when a blood clot blocks an artery and prevents it from supplying oxygen to the brain. At the hospital, doctors had her husband bring in their 9-year-old son, Colin, to say goodbye.
But Gilmor pulled through and weeks later, she returned home to a very different life.
Before her stroke, Gilmor embraced a break-neck work pace and traveled extensively. The founder of a communications firm that represents athletes including one of the world’s top tennis players and two of NFL’s most prominent quarterbacks, Gilmor was constantly on the move.
“I burned the candles at both ends. Sleep was not at the top of the list,” she admitted.
After her stroke, she could barely get enough of it. Exhaustion consumed her. The left side of her body felt numb, and she had trouble speaking.
She began physical and occupational therapy and slowly regained her balance and some of her strength. Several months later, she ramped up her rehabilitation after a conversation with her worried son, who confessed he couldn’t see his mother improving.
“We had a long talk about it and I said, ‘You know, Colin, what’s it going to take to make you believe that I’m better?’ And he said, ‘Run. I want to see you start to run,’” she said.
Gilmor agreed. An avid runner before her stroke, she decided she would take on a marathon, an item she had on her bucket list but never had time to train for.
Suddenly, she had the time, but not the stamina.
“I couldn’t even walk to the end of my driveway, let alone to walk around the block,” she said.
After going online to look up races, Gilmor noticed the New York City Marathon was scheduled on the one-year anniversary of her stroke.
“I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to turn one of the worst days of my life into one of the best days of my life,’” she said. “I wasn’t going to let that stroke break me.”
Gilmor got the green light from her doctors, who felt that running might help speed her recovery by increasing the blood flow to her brain. At physical therapy, she practiced skipping and retrained her body to pick up her feet. Eventually, she started jogging, first making her way around the block and then working her way up to a mile – and farther. She also built up her muscles by going indoor rock climbing with her son.
On Nov. 1, 2015, with her husband by her side the entire way, Gilmor ran the New York City Marathon. Every time she thought about quitting, she pictured her son waiting at the finish line, along with other loved ones who had been praying for her survival a year earlier.
“Everyone who was in that hospital waiting room the night of my stroke was at the finish line yelling and cheering me on. It was a great moment to turn that day into something positive,” she said.
Gilmor finished the race in 6:04:47. This year, she had hoped to clock in under five hours. But finding the time to train was more difficult. She returned to full-time work – and she’s also a caregiver for her father, who had a cardiac arrest and stroke with multiple infarctions 19 days after last year’s race.
“I’m basically doing the second marathon as a caregiver. I’m a stroke champion, but not just as a patient now,” she said.
Gilmor was diagnosed with a cryptogenic stroke, meaning doctors don’t know the exact cause, but she believes it had to do with the constant trips she used to take. She still travels frequently but now wears compression socks. She also takes a baby aspirin daily and carves out time to volunteer for the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association.
“I was an active healthy woman. I didn’t know I could have a stroke. So my big message for stroke champions and stroke survivors is don’t give up. Think about the three P’s: patience, positivity, and progress,” she said. “Even if the progress seems small, it’s inch-by-inch, day by day. You will keep moving forward.”