Two years ago, Rachel Owens was just like any other healthy woman: The 34-year-old was an avid runner (with marathons under her belt). She had a full-time job as a vice president at a tech start-up and was in the process of starting her own company. And she had a baby on the way.
Then, one morning, her life changed. “I woke up to go for a run, and I was paralyzed on my left side,” she says. “I assumed it was the way I slept—I blamed it on the maternity pillow.” After all, she was active, careful about what she ate, and had no health issues like high cholesterol. “You would think, ‘What could go wrong?'” she says. Unable to move even a finger or toe, Rachel woke her husband and told him to call her running partner: She would be late. Fortunately, the pair soon realized the seriousness of the situation at hand, so they dialed 911.
It turns out Rachel was having a hemorrhagic stroke; doctors believe it was caused by a ruptured arteriovenous malformation (AVM), which occurs when a tangle of abnormal blood vessels bursts. She would go on to spend 4 weeks in the ICU—and 2 years (and counting) rebuilding life as she knew it.
The immediate aftermath
Strokes aren’t just an old person’s problem. In fact, about 10% of people affected by them are under the age of 50, suggests research published in JAMA. When the paramedics arrived, they knew immediately what was going on, and Rachel went into surgery as soon as she arrived at the hospital.
Since she didn’t lose any oxygen, doctors reassured Rachel that her unborn daugther would be fine, and that she could carry her baby to full term without complications. “I was worried still,” Rachel says. “I kept thinking, ‘I hope she’s going to be OK’ and that the medicines I was on wouldn’t negatively impact her.”
Doctors believe Rachel survived her stroke because she was so healthy; her body could manage oxygen well. But this was just the beginning of a long recovery. “With a brain injury, your brain repairs itself over the course of your life,” she says.
Luckily, her family was more than supportive. Rachel’s husband spent weeks in the hospital, her father moved into her guest room, and her brother relocated his family to the New York area. Meanwhile, her mother took a month away from her business to be with her full-time in rehab, and her sister (who was also 7 months pregnant at the time) began maternity leave early to spend her days by Rachel’s side.
While doctors would typically use an angiogram to ensure the AVM that caused Rachel’s stroke had been destroyed, the procedure isn’t recommended before 31 weeks of pregnancy. So, to avoid further complications, Rachel scheduled a C-section on the morning of July 7, 2014, and delivered a healthy baby girl.
“Emotionally, it was a very tough time,” says Rachel. “I went through the fives stages of grief sometimes in a day, or sometimes in a month,” she says. “You think, ‘Oh, why me?’ ‘Oh, why it did happen?’ ‘Now I’m angry.’ ‘Now it’s time to fight.’ It’s a cyclical process.”
Recovery for mind and body
About 32 weeks after her stroke, Rachel left acute in-patient rehab. She spent 5 months in a wheelchair, unable to walk distances, and another month in ankle orthotics. After about 18 months, she got rid of the cane she was using to help her walk.
Today, 2 years after the incident, she’s back to working full-time and building her new company, mBand. A ring that doubles as a security device for women, mBand was the brainchild of the early morning solo jogs that were a regular part of Rachel’s routine before the stroke.
However, rehab is still a constant part of Rachel’s life. Three days a week, she goes to physical therapy and occupational therapy for her arm and hand. She also supplements with Pilates and one-on-one yoga instruction. “They help my brain process movement in a way traditional therapy cannot,” she says.
Nothing is easy. While her ability to walk is improving, it’s “still obvious it’s not normal,” says Rachel. “I have to pay a lot of attention to what I’m doing. Every step takes forethought; walking isn’t second nature.” And that makes sense: She’s making new brain connections. Through videos of herself, Rachel tracks her improvement.
“Physically, a big part of recovery is taking the subway again,” she says. She and her husband also bought a third-floor walk-up apartment, something Rachel wanted to do for the challenge.
Of course, recovery goes far beyond relearning how to walk. Since a stroke is a brain injury, Rachel has to “use it or lose it” when it comes to various motor skills. For example, although she’s a righty, she’s teaching herself to write left-handed. “You have to force yourself to use your affected side,” she says. “The reason I have weakness is not because the muscles ‘broke,’ it’s because the nerve connections in my brain got damaged.”
But here’s the other thing about the brain: “As long as you don’t give up, your brain keeps recovering,” says Rachel. “So you just have to keep fighting.”
And she does. “Every week, I see improvements,” says Rachel. “They are slow—slower than anyone at 36 with an almost 2-year-old would ever want—but they are there.”
These days, Rachel’s daughter likes to dance with her. “She will try to open my hand and get me to clap,” she says. “She’s starting to be old enough that she’s aware of what’s going on. She starts pulling my fingers open. It’s cute, but it’s also motivating,” she says. “Those are things you have to fight for.”
Rachel’s other battles: “To make sure that one day I can run with my daughter, that I can put my hair and her hair up, that I can go out and run with mBand on my finger, and that one day, when I walk down the street, I blend in and it’s not so obvious that I’m different.”