Woodland Heights resident Brenda Erickson credits her survival to a series of miracles – and being at the right place at the right time to get the care she needed.
Nineteen months ago, Erickson was at home working on a real estate deal after spending the night in the emergency room with her mother, when she found herself struggling to find the right words. She knew something was wrong and called her husband into the room, but she resisted calling 911.
“I didn’t want an ambulance,” Erickson said. “And I didn’t want the neighbors to see me. I wanted to get my deal done. I was in denial.”
Even though Erickson started to feel better, an ambulance came to transport her to Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center, where she spent the night. The next day, after an uneventful evening, Erickson was getting dressed to go home when she felt dizzy.
“My head was so cloudy and foggy,” Erickson said.
Even when doctors determined she was having an ischemic stroke, with a block to blood flow in her brain, Erickson was in disbelief.
“I was not in pain,” she said. “In fact, I thought they were wrong.”
Erickson, who then lost movement in her hand and leg on her right side, soon was given tPA, a medication that dissolves blood clots that was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1997 to treat ischemic-type strokes. It is not effective for hemorrhagic strokes and has to be administered within a certain window of time after the stroke to be effective.
A news release by Memorial Hermann said that when given promptly, one out of every three patients who receives tPA medication experiences major improvement in stroke symptoms, or sometimes, the symptoms resolve altogether.
The medication helped Erickson, who spent one week in intensive care and then entered the acute inpatient rehabilitation unit at TIRR Memorial Hermann Greater Heights.
Dr. Richard Huang, the attending physician at TIRR Memorial Hermann Greater Heights and assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, said it is very beneficial for stroke patients to attend an intensive, comprehensive inpatient rehabilitation program soon after a stroke.
“People tend to make most of their improvements in six months,” Huang said, adding that continued improvements can happen after that time. He said spasticity, which is a condition in which certain muscles are continuously contracted, might affect rehabilitation and once that is treated, improvements will follow.
“We focus on re-educating the brain to restore normal body movements by strengthening weak muscles and fixing abnormal body movement patterns that may occur after a stroke, all in an effort to improve functional mobility and self-care skills such as eating, grooming, dressing, toileting and showering,” Huang said in the release.
Erickson said she gained a new appreciation for the disabled.
“I just wanted to turn over a quarter, or roll out a piece of clay,” Erickson said. “I wanted to wash my face and blow my nose. In 20 years, I hadn’t been to the hospital. Your life is upended.”
When she left inpatient rehab, Erickson was in a walker and could barely get down her driveway. She said she now has regained most of the mobility she lost and, because she is left-handed, could eat and brush her hair easily as well as continue to be the drummer for The Redan Street Blues Band – also known as The Devil Ate My Sandwich on YouTube.
She also visits with new stroke survivors at the hospital to help give them hope. A former smoker, she has given up cigarettes as well as take-out pizza and Burger King.
“It is veggies, chicken and fish now,” Erickson said.
She exercises at the Harriet and Joe Foster Family YMCA and loves the Silver Sneakers class with Eliot Perez.
“He’s such a goofball, you’re in a good mood (and) he is good with distraction because sometimes it is hard,” Erickson said.
She also uses the treadmill and has a trainer, focusing on exercises that involve repetition.
“I have to make my nerves reconnect around the affected area,” Erickson said. “I still have all the muscles and strength.”
Erickson said her husband, John – also the lead guitarist in the blues band – deserves all the credit for helping her to acclimate and that she is lucky to have been able to remodel their Heights bungalow, adding a second bathroom and moving the washer and drier in from the garage. The luckiest thing for Erickson was her location at the time of her stroke.
“I’m so grateful I was already at the hospital,” she said.
Huang said the initial sporadic nature of Erickson’s symptoms is not unusual. He said one cause could be a transient ischemic attack (TIA), which occurs when part of the brain experiences a temporary lack of blood flow.
“It can be a precursor to stroke, or a risk for stroke,” he said.