MONMOUTH — Larry Britten knew there was something wrong when he couldn’t understand what his wife was trying to tell him.
His wife, Louise Britten, had gotten up in the middle of the night and taken the flashlight she always used when trying to navigate their darkened home. What she was trying to tell Larry when she returned to bed was that she couldn’t turn off the flashlight.
“He couldn’t understand what I was saying, so he thought, ‘I think I better call 911,’” Louise said.
It was 3 a.m. on March 17, 2014, and life for the couple had changed in a matter of seconds.
Larry’s instinct to call for help immediately probably saved his wife’s life.
Louise, 83, had suffered a major stroke and, within minutes, was on her way to the emergency room at Salem Hospital. She spend nearly three days in the ICU and, after that, began the long process of being “reintroduced” to the left side of her body.
Long hours of physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy helped Louise relearn how to do things she had done all her life. Her brain had to “rewire” itself to compensate for the damage caused by the stroke.
May marks one year since Louise “graduated” from therapy and while she may not be 100 percent the woman she was on March 16, 2014, she’s regained much of what she lost. This month also is “Stroke Awareness Month.”
Louise’s story serves as a good cautionary tale — the Brittens believe her stroke could have been prevented. She also could be a poster child for how to work through recovery — with plenty of support from her husband and team of therapists looking to help her re-establish a normal routine.
“I personally didn’t know anything about strokes,” Larry said, recalling that fateful night. “Both of our families never had any experience with a stroke.”
He didn’t recognize the symptoms, but doctors were able to diagnose it quickly. The likely cause was atrial fibrillation, or an irregular heartbeat, which formed a blood clot that made its way to her brain.
Louise had been aware of her condition, but not that it could cause a stroke. She cautions anyone who has an irregular heartbeat to research it and seek treatment if necessary.
“Find out all you can, because I think her stroke could have been prevented,” Larry said.
Lorraine Brazier, Louise’s speech therapist, said Larry’s reaction in the early morning of March 17, 2014, was unbeknownst to him, exactly what he should have done.
“I think it’s important for the family to realize that the patient, the person with the symptoms, may not be the best person to be making decisions about whether or not 911 should be called,” Brazier said. “I think the person closest to the person having symptoms needs to step up and make the call, because the person with the stroke may not have the insight to realize there is something wrong with them. Louise lost her whole left side and didn’t know it.
“She had to be reintroduced to her left side.”
That process began quickly for Louise, in the form of a physical therapist she nicknamed “Sarge” for her no-nonsense manner.
She appeared in Louise’s room in the ICU on her third day in the hospital.
“‘We are starting therapy this morning. Here’s your walker. I want you to walk to your door and make a left turn and go down the hall,’” Louise recalled the therapist telling her.
Louise looked down the hall and decided it wasn’t possible.
“That’s pretty far for the first time walking (without assistance),” Louise recalled saying.
“She said, ‘Do it!’ … I nicknamed her Sarge, but she had a tender heart.”
Larry was equally amazed when he saw his wife — who hadn’t managed to sit up by herself yet — pushing a walker down the hall.
“They want to get you going. They don’t want you bed-ridden,” Larry said. “They want you to get yourself back to where you want to be.”
A hard worker who had the constant support of Larry, Louise made it to “independence day,” the day they sent her home from in-patient therapy.
“They are very special to me,” Louise said her of nurses, doctors and therapists.
She met Brazier at the rehab center at Monmouth Medical Center, where Louise was very clear with her goals.
She wanted to continue talking to her brother and grandchildren on the phone. She wanted to cook. She wanted to write and read letters and cards again. Brazier and other therapists worked with her on those goal, assigning her “homework” — exercises to do at home.
“Once you are released from the hospital, your therapist gives you a list of exercises to do, do them because it really, really helps,” Louise said.
Months after Louise left rehab, Brazier received a surprise in the mail — proof of the impact of therapy and Louise’s dedication.
“She wrote me a card — one of her goals was to send cards again. She sent me a little ‘thank you’ note in the mail,” Brazier said. “That just warmed me to think you met your goal. You are back writing cards.”
Larry credits Louise’s team of therapists, from the in-patient rehab center at Salem Hospital to the team at Monmouth Medical Center, for helping his wife regain her life.
“These people were awesome,” he said. “I can’t believe how these people helped her so much and saw what her needs were. It’s the most amazing thing I’ve seen in my whole life.”
Do you know?
Key symptoms of a stoke can be remembered using the acronym FAST:
F — Facial asymmetry or weakness on one side.
A — numbness or lack of motor control in one arm.
S — Slurred speech.
T — Time, the faster the patient has medical care, the better.