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  • Patty Petrula Clark

Embracing a New Life’s Journey

Have you ever been in a situation where you have been there before but have never stopped to pay attention until now? This happened to me at a training program I organized for my job. I was in an Orlando ballroom filled with about 500 people. I had been in this exact room, organizing the same training and listening to the same stories numerous times. Yet, on this particular day… it was different. Christine, one of my colleagues, was sharing her journey on how she earned her place on the medals podium for the Ironman Triathlon in Kona Hawaii. Her story really resonated with me. The Ironman Triathlon includes a 2.4-mile ocean swim, a 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run. The run alone is a full marathon. Crazy! After hearing Christine’s story, I wanted to challenge myself to do a tri--not THAT ONE--but a LOCAL, smaller one. I wanted to get healthy, but little did I know that hearing Christine’s story that day would help save my life.

When I got back home, I told my husband, Chris, all about Christine’s story and my goal. Then I asked if we could join a different gym. I needed one with a pool so I could start to train. As he sometimes does, and for maybe a good reason, he rolled his eyes at me. This time it was because the holidays were close, so I decided to temporarily put it aside. Later on, with the New Year starting and the holidays behind us, I asked again. And with that, we signed up and I started my triathlon training. I was soon running two miles every other day. My plan was to start swimming by March 1st. But March 1st never came. At least it never came in the way I thought it would.

It felt like thunder exploding in my head

On the night of Feb. 20, 2014, Chris and I went to the gym together. Normally, I would have gone on my own in the morning, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t make it over on my own that morning. As we were running, I just didn’t feel like myself. I told Chris, “I’m not feeling this run," and I told him to continue on without me. My life changed forever in the next few minutes. Not into the run, I decided to lift some weights, but I still wasn’t feeling “right.” This was disappointing, as I had been making such progress and feeling great. I casually chalked it up to maybe not eating enough that day. I put my stuff down on the bench, and the next thing I knew, I was tightly holding my head while experiencing a pain like I had never ever felt before. It felt like "thunder exploding” from lightning that hit way too close. I crashed to the floor. That’s the last thing I remember from that day. Chris would later describe the rest of that day to me.

The miracle of Fred Flintstone feet

It’s still really hard for me to wrap my head around it all. I learned later that my blood pressure had sky-rocketed, causing a brain aneurysm to bleed and unleashed that thunder in my head, which then caused a stroke. The doctors prepared Chris for the worst and told him to have our family and friends come to the hospital. While they kept me alive with a machine, Chris walked my daughter, Shay, into my room to say goodbye. Then a miracle happened.

Now, I don’t have the most attractive toes, but they’re what signaled hope ahead. Chris describes my feet as Fred Flintstone feet, and let me tell you, my “Fred Flintstone” toes moved. And in the process, these teeny tiny movements flashed a massive green light of hope and inspired the doctors to perform surgery to coil the aneurysm and get me moving in the right direction.

My first memory is waking up after surgery in the ICU. The odd thing is that I came out of this surgery talking (not shocking for me). The same on-call doctor from the night before was so confused when he saw me that he doubled checked to be sure he was with the brain patient who had just came out of surgery. My talking proved to be another dose of hope--another miracle. Well, I’m not so sure Chris would say that my talking is a miracle, but he sure did then! I had so many visitors during my 25 days in the hospital that Chris had to keep track in a diary. Some days I would wake up with friends’ post-it notes all over me forming a tickertape of love notes! But once I began to grasp what was happening, I was scared to death: I what? What do you mean I had a stroke? A brain aneurysm?? How is that possible? I’m in great shape and I eat healthy.

I am lucky my speech was okay and I had no paralysis. I dodged a major bullet, but I knew I had a long road ahead. Once I knew I retained the ability to walk, I began begging the nurses to get me out of the bed. In my mind, I still had a triathlon to train for! The doctors basically said not so fast. My last days in the hospital were spent deciding whether or not I was going to need a shunt in my head. The triathlete in me viewed a shunt as a setback. I didn’t want to have another surgery, but, with so much fluid in my brain, the docs decided I needed one. With one last surgery and one crazy hairdo, I was getting ready to finally go home. And it was St. Patty’s Day! Now, I’m not Irish, but I’ve always made this day about me because my name is Patty. So, it seemed totally fitting that this was the day that they were allowing me to “walk” out of the hospital… and I made sure I actually “walked out” of that hospital!! It was truly the luckiest Patty’s Day I had ever known!

This picture was taken on the day I walked out of the hospital. I used to look at this picture and gasp. But now, I see strength, and it truly empowers me. Unfortunately, my doctors wanted me to walk right out of the hospital and right into a rehab facility. I didn’t want to walk into anything but my own home. Chris really went to bat for me, and told them that we already had a physical therapist and that my girls were at home and my dogs were at home and I had Val, the most incredible mother-in-law, who was already moving into our home to help take care of me.

From the moment I got home, I started physical therapy with my dear friend and therapist, Jerry. He has been with me every step of the way. I was still a little shaky walking. I couldn’t walk up or down stairs, and I wasn’t allowed to drive. Val took me to my doctor appointments. I had made amazing progress, but the triathlete in me said I hadn’t made “that” kind of progress. But I didn’t have to. That’s because Chris, in a very short time, made sure he had made “that” kind of progress so he could run the triathlon in my honor. I was filled with tears and emotion waiting for him to cross the finish line. I was so proud of him! As he crossed the finish line, he looked me right in the eyes … and then he whispered in my ear … “Babe I love you, but I will never do another triathlon ever again!!”

Getting my life back

After months of physical therapy and rest and relaxation, I begged to go back to work. Yes…crazy I know! I went back to work in July--two months earlier than my doctors anticipated. It was not easy, but I wanted a piece of normalcy, and whatever it meant, I was going to find it. I wanted to shower…I wanted to be needed, and I wanted to feel like me. Even though I knew I was not the same person in so many ways, I had become a better person. I felt like a little kid on their first day of school on my first day back. I had no feeling in my hands. The doctors told me this was normal and that it would go away in a few months. I really didn’t want many people knowing this…I wanted them thinking I was capable. I found myself dialing with one finger to call people or actually walking over to their desk instead of sending them emails that would have taking me forever to type.

At the end of July, I had run my first full mile! Amazing. But I told myself “I’ve got this!” I have recovered as well as I have because of where I was before my health crisis. I had made the choice of being healthy and taking care of myself when I started training for the tri. All of my doctors have said that I am where I am today because of the work I had done before. But, I also know it was because I had a few angels looking after me. Six months later, I decided that I WAS going to complete that triathlon.

First, I visited my cardiologist to get his permission to train. He nicely asked if I would consider yoga instead, but finally gave me his blessing. When the big day came, I was the very last person to cross the finish line. Some would see this as a failure. It wasn’t. Not even close. When you have an entire support team…AKA my very own secret service team …you can achieve anything. I may have been last, but I crossed that finish line with Chris, our girls and a few friends right by my side. It wasn’t a loss. It was a victory. And it was just the first. Since then, I have completed THREE triathlons, a Spartan Race and my first half marathon. This year, I will be running in the 2021 New York City Marathon.

My support system, my inspiration

Chris, my daughter Shay, and my stepdaughter Camryn have been my motivation to get out of bed every single day. I can’t imagine not living this life without them. I said whatever happens to me, these girls will know what it means to be a fighter. They know what being strong looks like.

Early on, I joined a survivor group on Facebook. This was so important to my recovery. I learned so much from reading posts from people who were almost exactly like me. The survivor group carried me for many months, as I learned so much from other people stories. I continue to participate in the group, but I also pay it forward by sharing my story to offer inspiration, especially to those experiencing their toughest days.

I hope I can inspire others who may feel a little “tired” to get up off the couch. If I can offer any advice, it would be to please be patient with yourself. Make progress. Don’t strive for perfection. Just keep moving! Those who have had a stroke or an aneurysm will understand when I say “I never feel like me.” There is always a little haze.” I compare it to the flu, but the flu on the day you start to feel good. This is how I feel all the time. Exercise has been the only thing that makes me feel like my “old” self, and exercise has gotten me through my darkest times. I am different from who I was, and sometimes that’s still hard for me to accept. My goal is to push through it and not let it defeat me. I fully embrace this journey. I continue to move and do what I love. I am incredibly grateful that I get to put one foot in front of the other every day. I hope to help those who are “down” to understand that your brain and your heart can get you through just about anything … I am proof of that, and clearly, I didn’t get here alone.

I mentioned before that my recovery came with the help of angels. Some of those angels were “divine,” but many are right here on earth. Like Jim one the first responders, the doctors and hospital staff, those who have done research … and those who continue to fund the research they continue to do. I am here today because of them … and what they do.

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