Wisconsin family pulls together after woman's stroke

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BELOIT, Wis. (AP) — No one ever expects to have their partner's life in their hands, including John Belke.

As his wife, Carol Belke, lay in the hospital bed at Beloit Memorial Hospital, one side of her face limp, her brain swelling and her condition worsening, the doctor asked John if he wanted to have the shot administered — one that would either save her life, or kill her.

"I just looked at her and I said 'She's gotta have the shot,'" John Belke said.

Carol had been getting sick all night Feb. 2, 2014. The flu-like symptoms had taken over and she couldn't stand up, even with help, the Beloit Daily News (http://bit.ly/1PsFIGg ) reported.

As John struggled in the dark to help his wife stand in the middle of the night, he had no idea just how bad her situation was. He drove her from their Beloit home to the emergency room, thinking she was just weak from dehydration.

"She didn't even want to get out of the car," John said. "The nurse happened to see her face and she said, 'Oh no, honey, you need to get out now.'"

The nurse quickly wheeled Carol into the emergency room and then came out to get John. It was then that he found out his wife — only 49 at the time — was having a stroke.

"When I walked into the room, that's when I did notice the side of her mouth drooped, and that's when I lost it," John said. "I knew I had to gather myself together because even though the doctors are there taking care of her, I knew I had to be there for her."

As Carol lay in bed, brain cells dying every second due to lack of oxygen, John's thoughts also turned to his daughters Ashley and Michelle.

"Basically, Carol was fighting for her life and if she did survive, at that time we didn't know what kind of life she would be able to lead," he said.

One of the toughest decisions John ever had to make still lay ahead.

He had to decide whether or not to give her the tissue plasminogen activator or tPA shot, which would break up the clot from her ischemic stroke and restore blood flow to her brain.

Brenda Williams, the stroke coordinator for Beloit Memorial Hospital, explained that if doctors wait too long (more than three to four and a half hours), too many brain cells die and the drug becomes ineffective. A person also could bleed out because of the drug's use to break up the proteins involved in creating a clot.

John made the life-saving choice for his wife. After receiving the shot, Carol was quickly prepped and then flown to UW-Madison to be treated by one of the best neurologists available.

In the weeks that followed, Carol received numerous surgeries to help with the brain swelling. She was on a lot of pain medications, but they weren't enough. John remembers keeping a cold pack or washcloth on her head nearly 24 hours out of each day to help. Although she was conscious, the pain medications kept her foggy.

As soon as she was well enough, Carol was moved to Meriter Hospital in Madison to begin therapy: physical, occupational and speech.

The slow progression of therapy was tough for Carol.

"It's like I reverted back to being a child because I was doing, you know, ABC's and 1, 2, 3's and kindergarten stuff and learning things like that and ... all these little kid games," she said. "I just thought, 'I can't believe I'm doing this.' I kept thinking, 'This is not real.'"

The stroke had left Carol paralyzed on her left side, which was tough for the southpaw. From the first day she was in the hospital, John said he decided he wanted to stay with her.

"Every day I got to see some progress," John said. "You kind of look at it like this doesn't look like they're making very much progress, but after you look back (you have to realize that) you have to make all those little baby steps to get to where you want to be."

Carol said she prayed daily and talked with medical staff to help her during times when her family and friends weren't there. It was a combination of those things, she said, that got her through.

But Carol wasn't in the clear once therapy began. One day while practicing walking, Carol began to get pain in one of her legs. Scans of both legs revealed that she had two clots in each of her legs. A team of doctors determined that she had a congenital blood clotting disease called Factor V Leiden.

Carol now has to be on blood thinners the rest of her life, but the diagnosis could save the lives of others in her family, she said. Many have now tested positive for the condition. Doctors have to treat patients with this condition with extra care when they have surgery or are pregnant because it could be fatal if the doctor isn't aware.

Carol said despite all the tough times and hard news, she kept her chin up during her 3-4 hours of therapy each day. She said her biggest triumph was changing her attitude about the situation.

"Somehow, I have managed still to laugh every day and I would always try to say something positive at the hospital," she said, adding that talking to a psychiatrist also helped.

After a few weeks, Carol slowly began getting feeling back in her left side, but it took great effort and concentration. Feeling in her left arm and hand has not returned, but she remains positive that it may.

"I still have hard days," she admits. "It's still hard because I feel like a part of me has died because, you know, I'm not my old self, she said, her voice cracking. "I feel like I'm this whole different person."

After she was discharged from Meriter on March 19, 2014, Carol continued therapy until the insurance ran out. Now, she does exercises and helps around the house to stay active and improve movement. She has started going to a support group too, which she says she enjoys.

As she sits upright in her easy chair in her living room, it's hard to guess that Carol came so close to death.

The impact on Carol's family has been deep, but there have been great changes.

Carol's daughter Ashley gets up with her each morning to get her ready for the day. But that doesn't stop Carol from trying to help Ashley.

"She'll be out there making me coffee or throwing something in the microwave for me when I'm rushing in the morning," Ashley said, adding that her mother is often trying to help with chores.

Ashley also has started running 5Ks with her mother, pushing her along. She said seeing what her mother has gone through has been eye opening.

"I value my health, my life, my family and what really matters in life," Ashley said. "(I think about) what's really to stress about and get worked up about when there's way worse things that can happen.I've learned so much from this."

John has gone through some changes too. He said the family used to be very tidy, cleaning up right away. But, that doesn't seem to be as important anymore.

"What's important for me is to sit and have a conversation with her," he said. "That not only makes her feel good but that makes me feel good."

Sitting in the living room, talking about her continuing recovery, Carol seems a far cry from the woman she has been talking about for the last hour.

She said without her family, she never would have survived.

"Both daughters have been there, taking care of me, and my husband ... I can't imagine not having any one of them.

"Honestly, I think it's you that get me through each day," she said, looking at her husband.

"You get me through each day," John replies. "You're my life."


Information from: Beloit Daily News, http://www.beloitdailynews.com

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Beloit Daily News

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