By Kenya Robinson, as told to Jennifer Clopton
I was in the middle of a dance move -- leading a class at my Jazzercise studio in October 2019 -- when my hand involuntarily dropped the barbell I was holding and then curled in on itself. I immediately knew something was wrong, but I didn’t want to stop the class and inconvenience my students. So even though I couldn't open my hand and could barely keep my balance, I kept going.
I braced myself against the wall and kept yelling out counts and commands to the class: “Tricep kickbacks, arms straight, you guys look really good!” They all looked at me like I was crazy, clearly worried for me. I’ve been their teacher for a long time, and some have been in my class for years. But I kept insisting, “I’m fine. We’re going to make it through this routine.”
I made it through the routine but did not make it through the rest of the class. After a few moments, I slid down on the floor and quickly started to fade. It turns out I was having a stroke -- and still trying to teach my Jazzercise class through it.
I look back now and that seems crazy. But at the time, I was a woman always on the move. My life was very busy, and I didn’t slow down for much of anything. I’m a wife and mother of three. I owned two businesses and worked at both -- a web support business and the Jazzercise studio. I was teaching up to five classes a week at the studio, and in between all of that, I was running my two youngest children to school every day nearly an hour from my house, plus their after-school travel and club sports.
The pace was brisk, and it was frankly unsustainable. I knew that. I had just told my husband a few days before I collapsed that I was feeling overwhelmed and something had to give. We had promised each other to discuss it the next weekend. I never made it to that conversation.
While I was slumped on the stage, my students called 911 and I remember them asking me if I could smile. I could not. Then I passed out. The next six days are fuzzy. When I finally came to, they told me I had a hemorrhagic stroke. I blew a 3 1/2-centimeter blood vessel in my brain and wasn’t a candidate for brain surgery. We just had to let it heal. Doctors warned me I was unlikely to ever return 100% to the woman I was, but they said that if I was lucky, I might get back to 70% of my capabilities. It was going to be a long road though. I was paralyzed on my right side and in a wheelchair when I left the hospital and went to the rehabilitation center. My speech was slurred, and I had aphasia, which is difficulty comprehending or formulating language, often affecting people after a stroke.
I started speech therapy, occupational therapy for upper body strength, and physical therapy for lower body strength, and I committed myself to healing. And I made some major life changes. I closed my web business. We sold our house and bought a new home 10 minutes from my children’s school. I began to prioritize things differently -- deciding what was most important in a day and pushing everything else back.
In time, my words started to come back, I began walking, and then running. I was in great shape because of Jazzercise, and I think that helped me put the pieces back together. Nine months after the stroke, I returned to my Jazzercise studio and got back in front of a class teaching strength classes. I’d love to return to teaching dancing classes, but I’m not there yet. I still don’t have the balance, stability, coordination and speed for that, and truthfully, I don’t know if I ever will. I also still have nerve-related pain and weakness in my right foot and continue to work on my running and jumping.
I continue to work on getting stronger, but I have no desire to get back to the busy schedule I used to have. After slowing down considerably, I am now finding the joy in a slower pace. Quite frankly, I’m just glad I got the chance to make this life shift. I’m a different woman now. In fact, I look back at that woman who kept trying to teach an exercise class while having a stroke and I barely know who she was. What was she doing?
I certainly wouldn’t wish a stroke on anyone, but the experience has made my life better in so many ways. It helped me reset my life, and it gave me a second chance to create a better one. I'm still a wife, a mother, and a business owner, but I go about it all differently now. I’m slower, more deliberate, and more thoughtful about taking care of myself along with everyone else.
I tell my story now because I think there are so many other people, especially women, out there like me who feel like they’re drowning because they’re juggling so much. They don’t think they can put any of the balls down because they have too much to do, too many people counting on them, and too many responsibilities to shoulder.
Here’s what I’ve learned: You can’t keep that up. That stress and frenzy is not only unhealthy, it’s just not sustainable. You have to slow down at some point. Just like every Jazzercise routine has a cooldown, our days -- and our lives -- need that “cooldown” period as well.
Kenya Robinson is 45 years old and lives in Riverside, CA.