Preparing for her annual meeting with members of Congress to seek more funding for Alzheimer’s research, Ann Walters Tillery needed a strong Wi-Fi connection for the video meeting.
She was working from home earlier in the day, but decided to go to the University of Nebraska Foundation office. In a quiet conference room, Walters Tillery set up his laptop and started talking.
Since losing her mother to Alzheimer’s disease in 2014, she has been a volunteer spokesperson for the Alzheimer’s Impact movement. She is comfortable with public speaking. However, during her third meeting and her last pitch, she noticed that something was wrong.
Suddenly his words started to come together. In her photo on the screen, she noticed that the left side of her face was drooping.
“And then, just like that, my left arm got heavy,” she said.
Walters Tillery, 61, knew the acronym FAST, which teaches that if you see someone with a droopy face, arm weakness or speech difficulty, it’s time to call 911. She was now witnessed of his own stroke and knew that time equals brain tissue.
The video call ended and Walters Tillery grabbed his cell phone and stood up, but fell to the ground as his entire left side was already paralyzed. Only five minutes had passed since he had recognized the first signs of stroke. Fortunately, she had her phone in hand and called 911. Realizing her heart was racing, she tapped into her 12 years of yoga practice and began deep yogic breathing to calm her body.
Paramedics arrived and transported Walters Tillery to hospital within 25 minutes of the onset of symptoms. A CT scan showed she had had a hemorrhagic stroke – brain bleeding – in her basal ganglia, a part of the brain that controls movement, procedural learning and executive function. This type of stroke can be caused by uncontrolled high blood pressure, and her readings were extremely high.
Doctors gave him medication to lower his blood pressure, and then Walters Tillery tried to figure out what had caused the spike. She suspected her interrupted lifestyle during the pandemic had contributed negatively.
“My sleep quality and duration had been significantly affected,” she said. “My meals included more processed foods than my typical Mediterranean diet. My exercise routine was off. And I never worried about my blood pressure, but I should have.
Walters Tillery’s daughter, Heather Wolf, drove four hours from Kansas City, Kansas, to be with her mother, as did her daughter Kristen Dawson two hours away in Kearney, Nebraska.
“She was awake and scared when I saw her, but in a relatively decent state of mind for what she had just been through,” Wolf said.
After two days in intensive care, Walters Tillery moved on to acute inpatient rehabilitation. She spent 13 days regaining strength and coordination and learning to stand, bathe and dress. Ten days after her stroke, she was walking on her own. When she was strong enough to go home, she continued occupational therapy, physiotherapy and speech therapy on an outpatient basis, working on strength, endurance, fine motor skills in her left hand and fingers and executive functioning capabilities of the brain.
“Do you want to work?” asked an occupational therapist early in his recovery.
“Throw it at me,” she replied. “I want to be pushed with as many therapy sessions as it takes to get back on my feet and regain use of my left arm, hand and fingers.”
Her first goal was to attend the Cattlemen’s Ball in her hometown of Columbus, Nebraska, two weeks into therapy. She practiced walking on uneven surfaces that mimicked farmland.
“And by the grace of God, they brought me to the ball,” she said.
Her three-month goal was to meet up with her lifelong girlfriends in Estes Park, Colorado to go hiking and paddleboarding.
“They brought me there too, and I had a wonderful time laughing and reconnecting with friends,” she said.
Four months after her stroke, she went to Disney World with her daughters Wolf and Dawson and their families. She took over 100,000 steps that week.
As great as the trip was, Walters Tillery also came away with a bigger lesson.
This vacation was something they “one day” talked about, but after suffering a stroke, they made it happen.
“Replace the word ‘one day’ in your vocabulary, because tomorrow is not promised,” she said.
Walters Tillery believes his quick call to 911 and his active lifestyle were key to his recovery. At first, she feared she would never regain full use of her left hand. Now, 15 months later, she’s doing yoga poses like chaturanga and side plank that require upper body strength. She also regularly monitors her blood pressure at home, in both arms, as recommended.
Wolf said his mother’s attitude was crucial. “She turned everything into a challenge,” she said. And when a therapist gave her optional “homework” in the evenings, she did.
Walters Tillery urges everyone to learn how to spot a stroke through the acronym FAST, especially since it’s hard to tell if someone is in distress in a virtual meeting. And if you’re alone, she said, always have your phone with you so you can call 911 if you have any problems.
“In our new standard of virtual environments, you need to be prepared for a medical emergency,” she said. “Learn how to spot a stroke. The life you save can be yours.
Stories from the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates. Questions or comments about this American Heart Association News story should be emailed to [email protected]