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Sandra Cohen
Intelligent, funny, a bit weird
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20 years and counting: My stroke

My life didn't turn out as I expected, which is painful, but on this 'strokaversary,' I celebrate the blessings made possible by my miraculous medical team
Rabbi Cohen, in her study. (courtesy)

It was a Friday morning, and I was sitting at my desk, writing a bulletin article for my small shul’s newsletter. Suddenly, in the middle of thought, things went wild. My left arm grew heavy and immobile, unknowingly pushing my pinkie finger on the “x” key; when, hours later, my husband returned to my computer to shut it down, he found row after row of x’s on the screen. My head was alive with pain, indeed the worst headache of my life. I stumbled to the bedroom, to the phone. I called 911, and then Ben, my husband. My speech was profoundly slurred and I was weeping hysterically, in pain and in fear.

“Is it Shira?” he asked immediately, worried about our 4-year-old, who was at preschool. “No,” I managed to reply. “I’ve called 911.” “I will be there soon,” he promised, “hang on.”

And so, the emergency folks arrived , questioning me as though I was drunk and crazy. Fortunately, my husband arrived, affirming that this was not me, that something was terribly wrong. They put me in an ambulance and ferried me to the nearest trauma center. The doctors examined me, ran tests, and said, “You are having a stroke.”

Wow. Not what my 34-year-old self-expected.

“We would like to treat you with a new, clot-busting drug: TPA.” Ben and I looked at each other and nodded; we had heard of TPA on the television show ER. Probably not the best way to make a medical choice, but we did.

And it worked. My left arm regained functioning, my speech returned, the headache subsided. Amazing.

A congregant got me into an amazing rehab program: PT, OT, social services and more. 20 years later, I still have the chronic migraines brought by the stroke. I am chronically fatigued. I have vestibular issues (dizziness and balance). My mental health issues are much worse.

But I am here.

Some wonder why it is that I celebrate my “strokaversary.” The stroke changed so much of my life. I am no longer able to be a congregational rabbi, a role I cherished. My depressions are worse. I so often feel useless, that I am sick more than I am well, that I need so much and contribute so little. I cannot tell objectively what I give versus all that I need.

On the other hand, I have seen my daughter grow from a preschooler to a young adult, who will, Gd willing, graduate from law school in May. I have a husband who loves me, who cares for me in ways I did not think possible. My circle of friends, while small, is caring and nurturing and joyful. So many blessings I might have missed without the miraculous nature of my medical team.

Many are the days when I feel left out of life. Too tired to do this, too depressed to do that. I get caught up in my losses, rather than counting my gifts. My life did not turn out the way I expected it to. But, when I look around, I realize that this is true for everyone. We all have disappointments and loss. We expect one thing and receive another. Life is not like restaurant. We cannot return the sundae because it has vanilla, rather than chocolate, ice cream. It is so trite to say, “life is what you make of it,” or “play the hand you are dealt.” Sometimes we hate those cards in front of us. Sometimes gratitude lists just make us feel ungrateful as well as discontented. At times, I wish I could start over, shuffling the cards and dealing myself a new hand at life, just as I do with solitaire on my computer.

Psalm 30, read each morning, teaches that “tears may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”

Today, I celebrate the morning. While it is cloudy outside, the sun peeps through, giving light to the dark spaces. Gd bless those who saved me 20 years ago. And I thank Gd in return, for the sparks of light in my life.

About the Author
Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado.
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