That Girl Was Me

My name is Catherine. Let me tell you my story…

Imagine a healthy girl suffering the debilitating effects of a stroke: re-learning how to walk, talk and put on her clothes by herself. All of the things she once knew how to do with her eyes closed, seemingly lost within her brain. Imagine her finding out that she had a hole in her heart that she never knew about, and had it surgically repaired only to suffer another stroke.

Catherine Zalewski, her husband, and two children posing for a family photoThat girl was me.

At age 28, I suffered my first stroke. I really do not like even using the term “suffered”; I prefer to say that I survived! I do not want anyone to feel sorry for me because I certainly felt sorry enough for myself while I was recovering and undergoing my therapies.

I spent months at JFK Rehabilitation Center, retraining my brain to do all of the things I once did without even thinking. I distinctly remember having an alarm placed underneath me as I laid in the hospital bed with the words “fall risk” written just about everywhere in the room. I remember having to take a shower with an aide because I was a “fall risk.”

It was July and I remember calling my husband who was taking care of our newborn with the help of his mother, speaking to them and thinking that this was not how it should have been. I should be there with them, holding my baby and hugging my husband but I couldn’t be. I remember sitting there in my wheelchair, just crying my eyes out. It was all I could do.

I remember my husband coming to the rehab center every single night, reminding me of all the good things I had to live for, the biggest one being our daughter Ava. It was not until Nana (my mother-in-law) spoke to a nurse who told her to bring Ava to see me, which she did even though it was not allowed. A lot of my recovery I owe to that nurse because she knew that I could do it if I had the right motivation. And seeing my daughter was a powerful motivator in my recovery.

After what felt like a lifetime at the rehab center, I was finally discharged to continue doing my therapies at CentraState and eventually was able to resume a “normal” life.

Fast forward 5 years later and history repeated itself. I had given birth to my son 4 months earlier before surviving a second stroke. This one was dramatically different because I was given tPA, a drug that helps break up blood clots. As a result, my physical and speech were not as affected as the first time, but I was still required to do occupational therapy.

I think about the wonderful “teams” that helped me get to where I am today. In a word, I feel grateful every single day.

Grateful for all of my amazing doctors and extremely humbled and grateful to the nurses, medical technicians and fantastic aides for providing such great care to me. Without them and their excellent care, I would not be where I am today. So much so, that I now find myself giving care to seniors through my work at Right at Home of Central New Jersey. I have such passion for caring for seniors that all stems from my personal experience with stroke. I have a very unique perspective in the care that I provide because I have been there before. I know the challenges that our elder population are facing: Alzheimer’s, dementia and of course stroke to name a few.

It is a complete 180-degree change from where I was 11 years ago to now. I still live with side effects of my strokes - memory issues and more notably double vision. But I have created ways around my issues and worked out little ways of helping myself get through my days. The most important lesson I learned is to stay positive. Believe me, it is not easy but you have to find the good in each day and in every situation.

So when I tell you that “I have been in your shoes”, know that it is the essence of why I do what I do for Right at Home of Central New Jersey. I know how valuable and important those who cared for me and helped me recover and supported me made all the difference in my life. They allowed me to move forward, be with my husband and children, and use my skills to help other families who may be dealing with a loved one who has suffered a stroke or is dealing with other serious medical issues. And if I can now do that for others, to let them know that “I have been in your shoes” and that I will work as hard as I can to help them, I will know that I have made a difference.

Surviving 2 strokes all before age 35 has given me a renewed sense of energy for life. Only by the grace of God am I here and I refuse to waste a second. If telling my story helps just one person then it will all have been worth it.

Catherine Zalewski and Right at Home Central New Jersey
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