Surviving A Stroke At 22 Gave Me A New Outlook On Life

Madeline Niebanck
Surviving A Stroke At 22 Gave Me A New Outlook On Life
Photo: Maddi Niebanck. Art: Cierra Miller/STYLECASTER.

On May 20, 2017, I had just one thing on my mind: college graduation. It was a blissful day of celebration, and at the time, I had virtually no idea I was just ten days away from surviving a life-threatening stroke. I had been looking forward to beginning a new chapter of life as a college graduate, not a stroke survivor—regardless, in seven days’ time I’d be both.

On that day, I processed across Healy Lawn, the grassy front yard of Georgetown University, my four-year home, and received my diploma, the coveted piece of paper that symbolized the pinnacle of my academic achievement. I remember it all quite vividly, my splitting hangover a token of remembrance from the previous night’s bacchanal with the rest of the senior class. In my post-grad state of glee, I called to mind all the fun times I’d had in school, and dreamed of the amazing experiences I knew lay ahead.

At the end of the summer, I was to move to Boston and start my career. I’d already found roommates and a beautiful apartment—all that was left to do was spend the next three months relaxing and enjoying some carefree time off. Before my new life could begin, though, I had one small thing to deal with. Brain surgery.

Okay, so maybe not such a small thing, but at the time, I treated it as such. Since the age of seven years old, I had suffered from debilitating, long-lasting migraines that more or less controlled my life. When a migraine struck, I was down for the count. No medication could help me, and the only thing I could do was rest in a dark, quiet room and hope for the best. At 14, I suffered a migraine that lasted 24 days—a new record for me.

After it seemed my migraines would never cease, a neurologist’s MRI revealed that there was more to my suffering than I’d previously thought. The MRI showed that I had a rare arteriovenous malformation (AVM) in the right occipital lobe of my brain. An AVM is an abnormal tangle of blood vessels, and while a person can live a long life with an AVM, they are essentially always at risk. The doctor told me there was a 50/50 chance that my AVM would burst during my lifetime, and if it did, there was a 10% chance it would kill me. Best-case scenario, I’d have a serious, life-threatening stroke.

I didn’t enjoy living with the risk of rupture acting as a ticking time bomb in my brain, so I decided to opt for surgery to remove the AVM. My only condition was that the surgery take place after I graduate from Georgetown. On the morning of May 30th, 2017, little more than a week after receiving my diploma, I checked into New York Presbyterian Hospital for brain surgery. I wasn’t worried; my doctors had told me I would be fine, and that I could spend the summer recovering at home with my family before my big move in September.

Here’s where it gets interesting—while I was in the hospital, one of the pre-operative procedures caused a blood clot to burst, causing me to have a massive stroke. What I’d thought was a necessary precaution to prevent a stroke ended up causing one. Ironic, huh?

The last thing I remember was complaining to my mom about what I described as “the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life.” After I lost consciousness, I was rushed into the ER and my neurosurgeon was paged. He had just left the hospital to get a good night’s sleep before my operation the next morning, and when he made his flustered return, he leveled with my parents, telling them my situation was grim. He said he couldn’t guarantee I’d make it, but that he’d do everything he could.

7 hours and 6 liters of blood transfusions later, I lay in a hospital bed in the ICU completely paralyzed, the left side of my body completely paralyzed. This was never supposed to happen, I thought to myself over and over again. As the surgeon reminded me how lucky I was to be alive, I wondered if I’d ever be able to control the left side of my body again. I would to some degree, the doctors assured me, but I’d have to rebuild from ground zero.

It was unclear what recovery from my hemorrhagic stroke would look like, and I hated the uncertainty of it all. Gone were my dream job, my big Boston move and my new apartment. Devastation doesn’t sum up the intensity of my emotions at this time. But I decided early on I would give recovery my best effort—the only other choice was to give up, and I’d come so far.

At first, I wanted nothing more than to be back to “normal,” but before I could run, I had to walk, and before I could walk, I had to be able to sit up in my wheelchair. That wheelchair was the bane of my existence. At first, I could barely manage to sit for five minutes at a time, but I worked at it and strengthened my endurance until I was able to manage no problem.

As much as I hated my wheelchair, and the cane that I later relied on as my recovery progressed, being forced to rely on these mobility devices taught me all about the power of attitude and perseverance. Things I had once taken for granted, like the ability to stand on two feet or even write my name, had been taken from me. I could let this harsh, unfair reality get to me, or I could invest in myself and my recovery, and give it my best shot.

I decided early on to go with the latter, and looking back, I’m glad I did. While it hasn’t always been easy, I vowed then and there to never give up, and while I am not fully recovered physically, my mindset is stronger and more determined than ever before. I wrote a book, and then another, and started an Instagram account related to my recovery, through which I was able to connect with others in the stroke survivor community. For me, the journey became bigger than just myself. I wanted to get better for everyone who has ever dealt with adversity that seemed impossible to overcome.

 

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Obstacles are opportunities, and I believe that within my struggle there existed an awesome opportunity to empower others, and to derive meaning from hardships. Of course, not everyone has suffered a stroke at a young age, but every person faces their own challenges on a daily basis. And right now, we collectively face a massive hardship—a global pandemic that affects our mental and physical wellbeing.

Recovery is always possible. Overcoming challenges is always an option. It all starts with your attitude. How you approach life (be it in reaction to a life-altering injury, a global pandemic, or a more minor obstacle) ultimately influences how you suffer and thrive. When everything I took for granted was taken away from me in an instant, I found a genuine appreciation for the abilities that remained. It was the perspective I needed, and I don’t think others need to have a stroke in order to experience a similar wake-up call.

Every day, I wake up motivated to live my life to the fullest and appreciate the little things that make it worth living. Even now in quarantine, exactly three years to the day since I had my stroke, I have found reasons to celebrate and enjoy each day, be they as simple as daily walks outside with my mom or game nights with my family. Activities I once considered mundane are now filled with new meaning. I wouldn’t wish my injury on anyone, but if I can help others achieve the same understanding and appreciation for life I have now, my struggle will have been for something great.

 

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