Upon waking up paralyzed on the left side of my body post-surgery, I spent a grueling 15 days in the ICU, mostly laying on my back. It took all my strength to just sit up in a chair for five minutes. I wasn’t sure how I could possibly bounce back from this, if at all. I could foresee an incredibly long and hard journey in front of me, and knew this wasn’t going to be something I could recover from in a few weeks or even months. This was going to take years of hard work and dedication, and I wasn’t sure I could do it.
After two weeks, I built up enough strength to be transferred to Kessler Institute, a subacute rehab hospital in West Orange, New Jersey. By the end of my five weeks inpatient, I could walk with a cane and was ready to start outpatient therapy.
Fast forward two years, and I am still learning how to do all the things that I once took for granted, like walking and using my left arm and hand. A big accomplishment for me this month was learning to zip a zipper with both hands! But more on that later.
In late 2017, while going through rehab, I had a conversation with one of my former Georgetown professors and good friends, Eric Koester, who encouraged me to use my time while rehabbing to engage myself cognitively and explore interests I’d never had the time to explore prior. After all, when was I ever going to have this much free time, with no obligations apart from (literally) getting back on my feet? I wasn’t able to work a full-time job yet, and I had some blocks of time to fill. You can only practice rehab exercises for so many hours of the day.
And so I sat down and did some brainstorming. I had a nice long think about what my interests were and where I wanted to see myself in a few years. And it struck me that I had never really taken the time to invest in this productive exercise. In college, I tended towards over-commitment. I like to be busy. I have always thrived under stress (or at least that’s what I told myself every time I was up late studying the night before a test), so I was anxious to get back to feeling productive, and writing a book seemed like the perfect way for me to scratch that itch.
After some brainstorming (and frantic phone calls with my professor), I decided to pursue fashion, a topic I had always been casually interested in. I interviewed entrepreneurs, writers, models, and business owners to learn whatever I could about the industry. I condensed all my interviews and takeaways into a book, which was published in September 2018, Fashion Fwd: How Today’s Culture Shapes Tomorrow’s Fashion. I wrote about where I saw the fashion industry heading, with the hopes of using my book as a vehicle for expanding my professional network in an industry I cared about, and as a tool to demonstrate my expertise and knowledge.
That post-stroke, pre-book conversation I had with my Georgetown professor, where he encouraged me to just go for it, was hands-down the best piece of advice I ever received. I am so grateful that he pushed me to make the most of my time while recovering.
In my first book I also documented my experience with stroke rehabilitation, and wove in anecdotes from my experience with recovery. Because ultimately, my book had a more selfish motive. I was writing to stimulate myself cognitively in a way that simply going to therapy couldn’t.
I received great feedback from my readers that they enjoyed the personal stories I shared, and so I’ve decided to go through the process again, this time writing with a primary focus on my rehabilitation. I’m sharing my journey and the stories of other patients and healthcare professionals who have experienced similar challenges. I aim to use this blog and my Instagram account (@maddistrokeofluck) to educate others on the challenges of life post- stroke and brain injury, and share strategies of living and hopefully inspire and empower others to find the courage to repurpose their lives in the face of challenges.
I feel so fortunate to have been able to receive such quality rehabilitation and have such amazing therapists who have been fully invested in my recovery. But I know that there are so many people less fortunate who don’t have access to quality therapy programs or care. I have a greater appreciation now for life as a gift and each day as a blessing, and I would like to work my hardest with the time I have been given back to make a difference for others who have experienced stroke or brain injury.
If you are a stroke or brain injury survivor, caretaker, or healthcare professional and would like to share your story with me, I’m all ears. I can be reached via Instagram (@maddistrokeofluck), Facebook (Maddi Niebanck) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Obstacles are opportunities, and I think that this crazy obstacle of mine may just be a blessing in disguise, a beautiful opportunity to repurpose and make a positive impact in the lives of others. In the coming weeks I’ll be sharing posts about my biggest takeaways from my experience recovering from stroke and how it has helped me to grow as a person, as well as the stories and life strategies of other survivors. I hope you enjoy.
Last photo of me taken in the hospital right before my stroke.