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Jennifer Sets the Pace for Her Recovery

Christmas Day, 2012, was supposed to be a day of celebration for Jennifer Schauer and her family. No one could have anticipated what would happen next.

For over a month, Jennifer had been experiencing intense, debilitating headaches and neck pain which were diagnosed as tension headaches. Driving to her parent’s home, she turned her head to change lanes and heard a crunching sound in her neck. She felt a horrible pain in both her head and neck and then extreme nausea. She pulled off the road until the feeling passed.

At her parent’s home, she rested while talking to her boyfriend, Erik, on the telephone. It was then she realized her left forearm was numb. When she attempted to walk, she veered to the right, unable to walk a straight line. Her father took her immediately to the emergency room.

Jennifer would spend three weeks in the hospital, including time in the intensive care unit, until she was given a diagnosis; vertebral artery dissection and a stroke. She was also diagnosed with Wallenberg Syndrome, a neurological condition caused by a stroke that results in difficulties with swallowing, hoarseness, dizziness, rapid eye movements, and problems with balance and gait. Her physicians’ recommended intensive rehabilitation and Jennifer chose Marianjoy.

“While at the acute care hospital, they had given me a tracheotomy and I had been unable to take any food or liquid by mouth for three weeks. I’m not sure anyone can comprehend what this means until you’ve had to experience it,” she explains. “My right vocal cord was also paralyzed. One of the reasons I chose Marianjoy was because my first goal was to have the trach removed. Marianjoy’s Rose McSweeney Swallowing Center specializes in swallowing and voice issues and I had confidence they could help me. I just wanted to be able to swallow, talk, and eat again.”

The stroke also caused Jennifer to lose the ability to do even the most basic of things. She couldn’t walk, go to the bathroom unassisted, or sit up without falling to the right as her right side had been completely affected by the stroke. She was experiencing double vision and when she closed her eyes and opened them again, the room was upside down. She also suffered from constant dizziness, vertigo, and headaches.

Jennifer’s rehabilitation team at Marianjoy was assembled and a therapy program was developed which included speech, physical, and occupational therapy.

“As with any stroke, it takes time and intensive therapy to help with the recovery process,” states Dr. Sachin Mehta, Medical Director of the Brain Injury Program at Marianjoy. “Marianjoy’s stroke program is a top tier program, fully accredited by the Joint Commission. This highlights the level of commitment our stroke team has in helping an individual through their rehabilitation process. There are so many different types of strokes, and they can affect people in so many different ways. Our team does a great job in creating an individualized program to meet a person’s particular needs and goals. In Jennifer’s case, I could see that she had the desire and drive to move forward in her recovery.”

Jennifer found speech therapy to be especially exhausting. She was constantly dizzy. Her lack of breath control and paralyzed vocal cord drained her stamina, making therapy sessions especially challenging. After several weeks, Jennifer had made significant progress in her recovery. Her trach was removed, and she was discharged from the inpatient rehabilitation program and began outpatient therapy at Marianjoy.

“Jennifer had a lot of anxiety about her ability to eat and drink again,” explains Cindy Burton, Marianjoy outpatient speech-language pathologist. “She feared she may aspirate or choke on food that she swallowed. We conducted several studies with her in Marianjoy’s swallowing center. Using video footage of her actually swallowing, we are able to assure her there was no food sticking in her throat that would prevent her from swallowing safely. We practiced swallowing exercises and swallowing different food consistencies, continually educating her on the strategies she needed to use to make it happen. When she was discharged, we were pleased she was on a regular diet without restrictions.”

The next goal seemed almost impossible.

“My first week in outpatient therapy, my physical therapist, Terri Fetter, told me she would have me up and walking again,” Jennifer says. “I remember thinking, this woman is crazy! But what I needed was her expertise and encouragement to push me week after week, as we worked on strength, balance, and walking. It all paid off. I started out using a walker with her by my side and then graduated to using a cane on my own.”

Prior to her stroke, Jennifer was an avid cyclist, taking two hour bike rides on the weekends. Because of the stroke and subsequent balance issues, she would have to put cycling on hold for the time being. Jennifer had been a runner in the past and Terri suggested this might be a good way to help her work on her balance and coordination.

“Though I was able to walk, I kept over thinking all of the mechanics of taking steps, making it more difficult than it needed to be,” she says. “You take for granted the physical components needed to take a step; your heel placement, how your foot comes down and pushes off again, placement of your legs in relation to your feet. My brain was working too hard, thinking through each step.”

To help her regain her balance and coordination, Terri secured a gait belt around Jennifer’s waist and holding it tight, jogged with her through the hallways. “Sometimes you need to increase the physical activity—for instance, having her jog with me—in order to perfect the level just below it that you are working on, which was her walking,” explains Terri. “By increasing the speed of her movements, her brain relaxed and stopped focusing on each step. Having spent weeks on the mechanics of walking, along with strengthening exercises and core work, her feet just fell into the rhythm of jogging. From my first session with Jennifer, I knew she had the ability to do this. It was just a matter of coordinating all of her movements to get her there.”

Incredibly, after graduating from outpatient therapy, Jennifer trained to run in her first 5k race with several of her Marianjoy therapists at her side.

“Dr. Mehta was honest with me throughout my recovery and told me immediately, ‘You will get out of rehabilitation what you put into it,’” she says. “That scared me. But it also got me out of my wheelchair and into a 5k race seven months later. I realize that everyone’s recovery is very different and that I have been very lucky.”

Before the stroke, Jennifer was healthy and independent. Now, she has returned to work and though life is a bit different and requires some adjustments, she feels comfortable being on her own again.

“My life is still full,” she says. “And, I’ve taken on yet another passion—getting the word out about strokes. Younger individuals are having strokes more often and it’s the leading cause of disability. I want people to know there is life after a stroke and to educate them. After a stroke, you may never be exactly the same but you can certainly live a happy, productive life. And I believe a good rehabilitation program, like the one at Marianjoy, is critical to your recovery. I have a laundry list of side effects caused by the stroke that I work to overcome every day. I was very lucky to have a supportive family, boyfriend, and friends. I believe because of them and Marianjoy, I am much further along in my recovery than I would be otherwise.

“I credit my Marianjoy physician and therapists with helping me through my recovery, but especially those therapists who treated me in outpatient. Their assurance of my ability to recover gave me the confidence to try things I would not have thought were possible.”

Watch Jennifer cross the finish line.