I have been a teacher for the past 26 years. I am also the mother of two wonderful and amazing children. My daughter, Lauren, is 20 years old and completing her senior year at the University of Arkansas, majoring in Information Systems. My son, Zane, is 16 years old and about to start his junior year in high school.
On November 30, 2000, I was in my classroom teaching, just returning from Thanksgiving break. I was 7 months pregnant with my second child. It was third trimester, and I was feeling fatigued. Like many other dedicated teachers, I was trying to “do it all” while carrying a baby.
That afternoon, I started getting dizzy spells, shortness of breath, and blurred vision, so I went to the school nurse to check my blood pressure. I really thought I just needed bed-rest. Boy, was I wrong! The school nurse immediately sent me to the hospital; my blood-pressure reading was extremely high. When I got to the hospital, tests were run and the doctor came in and informed us that I had a stroke. I was only 31 years old.
My health took a declining turn. The blood clot that traveled to my brain came from my placenta. Another blood clot traveled to my left arm. This left me paralyzed on my left side. I could not see, sit up, walk, or swallow (as my left side vocal fold was also paralyzed). My prognosis of survival was very poor.
The part of my brain that was damaged was the brain stem—an area that has very little room for error. After a few weeks of amazing care by the doctors and nurses, I was eventually able to breathe and swallow. The rest would hopefully return with the help of intensive physical therapy.
Once my executive functioning skills returned, I had to endure several months of rehabilitation to learn to walk again. My daughter was in kindergarten at this time and when asked what her parents did, she said, “My daddy is a stock-broker, and my mommy is in rehab.” I had to teach her to say Physical Therapy! I am thankful now to be able to find humor in this sad situation.
Anyway, by this time, my son was learning to walk too, but the WAY we learned to walk was very different.
Zane learned to walk like most babies do through trial and error—get up, take a few steps, fall down, get back up, repeat. My husband would scoot back and beckon him to “come to daddy.” While this was very typical for new walkers, it did not work for me in my situation at all!
Because the stroke damaged the part of my brain that controls my motor functions, these messages had to learn to re-route to other areas that are functioning normally. Those messages needed to travel to my legs and arm in coordinated synchronicity, so I could take steps or pick up an object with my left hand. In order to execute these movements, messages in my brain had to re-route. I had to learn these seemingly innate procedures step by step. The process of taking a step forward has several interlocking procedural actions that have to work in a systematic way in order to allow me to take just one successful step forward. To do this, I had to practice A LOT!
So in between helping Zane with walking, my husband had to help me too. His practice with me was much different. We would go to the track near our house. He would push my wheelchair to the starting line, pull me out of the chair, and help me stand up so that we would be face to face. Then he would repeat those procedural steps to me as I executed each movement. “Move your foot forward, weight-shift to your left, bend your knee, pull your hip forward, weight-shift to your right, repeat.” This took incredible patience and perseverance. It usually took me at least 30 minutes to go around the track one time. I was exhausted. Of course, eventually those 30 minutes got shorter, and with more and more purposeful practice, I was able to walk on my own again.
Because of the stroke, the area of my brain that coordinated motor messages was no longer functioning correctly. Consequently, other parts of my brain had to learn to do that job through a step by step procedure. This experience has shown me what it is like for a struggling reader learning to read, especially when the part of the brain that controls reading is not working properly. In order for other areas of the brain to successfully take over, step-by-step procedural skills must be taught in a systematic, repetitive way. Even then, it will not be effortless.
Still today, 16 years later, I have to be mindful of every step I take. I must wear shoes to support my balance and use hand rails going up and down stairs. I cannot run and I have to take precaution when walking on certain surface. I must have accommodations to help me walk safely, just like a struggling reader needs classroom accommodations like extra time to read.
It is amazing what the brain can do, and learn to “re-do,” especially, how it works to execute everything we do. My experience really opened my eyes to what struggling readers face every day.
Difficulty reading is often a hidden and misunderstood condition. There is an acceptable reason for my struggles and rarely am I blamed or chastised for walking slowly or taking extra time to go down a flight of stairs, but sometimes people are not as patient with struggling readers. Thank you for this opportunity to share my story. It is my sincere hope that I was able to put you in their shoes, if only for a few minutes.
Samantha Brooks, MSE, Dyslexia Therapist
Samantha Brooks is an Instructor with Brainspring Educator Academy.