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Two Days After Giving Birth, I Had a Stroke

photo of sarah grace richardson and family
August 25, 2020

By Sarah-Grace Richardson, as told to Stephanie Watson

At 24 years old, the last thing I expected was to have a stroke after giving birth.

My near-death experience was especially surprising, considering how easy my first pregnancy and labor had gone. I felt great the whole time. But a month before my second pregnancy, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a type of inflammatory bowel disease.

It was difficult to find an IBD medication that was safe to take during pregnancy. Every medicine I did try gave me terrible side effects. As a result, I was in an active flare throughout my entire pregnancy.

I was so sick. Every time I had a bowel movement, I lost blood, which made me anemic. My body wasn't able to properly absorb nutrients from the food I was eating. I kept losing weight throughout my pregnancy. I was so scared. Thankfully, my baby was gaining weight just fine.

Losing Control

My son, Everett, was born on Saturday, April 18. He weighed in at 7 pounds, 3 ounces, and was perfectly healthy. The same couldn't be said for me.

The first sign of a problem came a couple of days before my delivery, when I started experiencing severe headaches. It felt like my brain was being struck by lightning. It was especially weird, because I don't typically get headaches. We just figured it was fatigue because I wasn't sleeping well from the pregnancy. Then, in the hospital, I started vomiting like crazy.

Everett and I only stayed in the hospital for one day. Because of COVID, they wanted to get all the new mothers back home as quickly as possible.

On Sunday evening at home, I felt like I was losing control over my body. I would try to step over the baby gate, but I couldn't lift my leg all the way. I knew what I wanted to make my hands do, but I just couldn't move them. I realize now that those were signs of a stroke. But that didn’t occur to me in the moment; being 24, a stroke was the last thing I expected.

Then I woke up from a nap to find that I couldn't move the entire right side of my body.

Am I Going to Die?

My family rushed me to the emergency room of a hospital near our home in Greensburg, Indiana. When they did a CT scan, they discovered that I had multiple blood clots. I still don't know the exact number. They sent me by ambulance to IU Health Methodist Hospital. By the time I got there, the only part of my body that I could move was my left foot. I was completely paralyzed.

My doctors told me that I'd had a stroke. They said sometimes, when a woman reaches the end of her pregnancy or during labor, she can experience a surge in hormones that causes blood clots to form, which then cause a stroke.

Because of COVID, my husband, Thomas, and my father-in-law couldn't come into the hospital. They stayed the night out in the parking lot. The doctors told them, "If something happens, we'll let you come in."

I remember asking my doctor, "Am I going to die?" He said, "I don't know."

I remember feeling so sad -- not for myself, but for Thomas and my children. I wondered, "Who is going to raise my babies?"

While I was in the ICU, so many people on Facebook were praying for me. I tried to keep them updated as best as I could. Through it all I just kept thinking, "God is good and he has a plan. If it's his will for me to be healed, he will work miracles." And I felt peace.

Recovery

After a few days in the ICU, I was moved to another room and given medicine to stop my blood from clotting. Then they sent me to an inpatient rehabilitation program.

I did physical therapy and occupational therapy, as well as vision therapy because I had really awful double vision from the swelling in my brain. It was pretty intense, because when I first got there I had barely any movement. I could only move my right fingers and my left foot a little bit. I was like a baby -- I had to learn how to do everything all over again.

It was crazy how quickly I progressed in rehab. First they had me stand up while holding on to someone. I was semi-walking, but the person was moving my feet for me. A few days later, I was taking steps. And just a few days after that, I was walking. Once I got to the point where I could walk alongside somebody, I started working on my balance.

I'm a homemaker and a mom, so we also practiced some of the activities I would have to do at home. I practiced crawling on the floor and getting up off the floor. I cleaned using a broom, and washed windows. I swaddled and changed a baby doll. It was hard at first, because I could barely move. Even something as small as changing the baby's clothes left me drenched in sweat and exhausted.

The craziest part was that, throughout my time in the hospital and rehabilitation, I wasn't able to see my husband and sons. Fortunately, we were able to talk every day over Facetime.

Going Home

When my husband picked me up at the rehab facility, I felt like I was going to cry. It had been weeks since I'd seen him up close. On the ride home I couldn't stop staring at him, because it didn't feel real. When we got home, my oldest son, Bear, threw his arms around me and wouldn't let go for the longest time. I was so glad to be back with my baby, Everett, and hold him, because I hadn't been able to hold him in the hospital. I had very little memory of him from that time.

I was in outpatient rehab for a month. My therapists were amazed by how much progress I made. When I first got to rehab, my physical therapist's goal was to get me into a wheelchair. Later she said, "No wheelchair for you!"

I feel fantastic now. I still have some weakness in my left hand. My fine motor skills aren't quite what they were before, but they're improving every day. The only thing I haven't been doing is driving, because I'm still not comfortable with it.

My primary care doctor said that, medically and scientifically, there is no reason why I should be here right now. All of my doctors figured that if I did live, I'd probably be in a nursing home for the rest of my life, needing other people to do everything for me. It's honestly a miracle that I'm alive and able to do all the things I never thought I'd be able to do again.

Since my stroke, I've been thinking about what's most important in my life. I don't take the small things for granted anymore. I'm filled with gratitude for every little thing I'm able to do. I focus on spending time with the ones I love, and doing the things I love.

While I never would have chosen to have a stroke at the age of 24, I wouldn’t change anything that happened. I know this was part of God’s plan for my life – and that makes everything worth it.

Sarah-Grace Richardson is a stay-at-home mother of two, and an amateur painter and singer who enjoys performing in church.

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