Sarah Jane Downton was awake and lucid during her 2017 stroke.
She remembers every detail until the moment she was sedated for surgery.
Her memory goes foggy after the ambulance ride from Wolfville to Halifax, and it doesn’t become clear until her 21st birthday weeks later on April 23.
Downton was a top student in Acadia University’s Nutrition and Dietetics program before a month-long headache revealed a blood clot in her brain. She later suffered a stroke.
But even though she woke up not knowing how to read, Downton successfully completed months of intensive physical and mental rehabilitation and is now back in school and has just four courses standing between her and graduation this May.
“This is my new normal – that’s what I’ve been calling it. But in the grand scheme of things, my new normal is pretty good, and if you were having a conversation with me for the first time, you’d probably have no idea I had a stroke,” she says.
Headache leads to discovery
Downton was in the middle of her first year at Acadia – having previously completed two years of study in her home province of Newfoundland – when she began feeling frustrated by a lingering headache that seemed to only get worse.
After it persisted for a month, she knew the headache could be from more than university stress. She saw a doctor and was prescribed pain medication, but says things became much worse - and very quickly - a few days later, so she went with her roommate to the Valley Regional Hospital, where she was told there was a blood clot in her brain.
"I was like, ‘this is not what Sarah Jane will be – this isn’t it for me,’ and I just got back into it.” -- Sarah Jane Downton.
Downton says she was in so much pain she could barely hold still during the CT scan, and she was immediately sent to Halifax for further treatment.
“I was put in an ambulance because an airlift would have been too much pressure on my brain, and then I had a stroke on the way to the hospital,” she says.
Downton’s parents, siblings and boyfriend flew to Halifax during a snowstorm and soon arrived at the Halifax hospital. She says her family has told her they “said their goodbyes” after an initial operation revealed complications from the stroke meant a risky procedure needed to happen.
But the procedure was a success, and Downton remained in a medically induced coma for several weeks.
Relearning the alphabet
She has been told of moments when she woke up, like when she squeezed her boyfriend’s hand for the first time post-surgery, but remembers nothing until her Apr. 23 birthday celebrations, when she became aware she had trouble speaking.
“I would ask for a tissue, but I’d say cheesecake or milk. At first, I didn’t realize what I was saying to people. And once I realized what was happening, I was even more frustrated,” she says.
Her doctors revealed she had aphasia – she’d lost the ability to express thoughts in her head via speech – as a result of the stroke, and would have to relearn word association, reading and writing from scratch.
“I had to relearn everything – my ABCs and all of it. It was so hard, it takes a lot, and I used to get so tired,” she says.
“It’s like having something that you had a sense of, be completely gone. Relearning how to read – how do you do that? One day you have it and then it’s just gone. It’s very frustrating.”
But after several months of physical and occupational therapy coupled with aphasia-focused rehabilitation sessions with speech pathologists, Downton shocked everyone and went from reading at a Grade 2 level to a Grade 5 level in just four weeks.
‘This is not what Sarah Jane will be’
She is now back at Acadia with a full course load requiring intensive reading and research, and she is set to graduate in just two months. She’s proud to say she’s proven to herself that it’ll take more than a stroke to keep her from finishing her degree.
"I had to relearn everything – my ABCs and all of it." -- Sarah Jane Downton.
“It’s crazy that I’m back in university in my last year, because this all happened in 2017. I’ve done a lot – a lot – of rehabilitation, and I was like, ‘this is not what Sarah Jane will be – this isn’t it for me,’ and I just got back into it,” she says.
“Getting back to my degree was always my goal – the whole time.”
Downton has accomplished other life goals since her rehabilitation in 2017. She worked 75 hours every two weeks at Eastern Health in St. John’s over the summer and is applying to dietetics internship programs across the Atlantic region – her last hurdle before being certified to practice.
She’s also accomplished personal goals like walking up Acadia’s notorious hill despite surgery having left her with a narrow airway, has renewed her driver’s licence, and has learned to adapt to being in loud, busy places – something her doctors advised would be difficult post-surgery.
Downton knows some things, like her aphasia, will stay with her for life, but she says it’s all peanuts compared to what she’s gained from what she refers to as her “traumatic experience,” a life-altering event that now motivates her to help others.
“The thing with me is yes, I almost passed away, but now I can use this experience to help others. I want to be able to help people get through health struggles,” she says.
“I had a health issue, but now I’m OK. I did change, but I think I’ve changed for the good, even though everything was really, really bad. I’m pretty positive and I think that’s helped a lot.”
KNOW THE SIGNS
Face - is it drooping?
Arms - can you raise both?
Speech - is it slurred or jumbled?
Time - to call 911.
Source: Heart and Stroke Foundation