I would like to take this opportunity for this month’s blog post to share my story. How my survival also led to my revival as a teacher.
As many of you know, I have been a teacher for over 30 years. I am also the mother of two wonderful and amazing children. My daughter, Lauren, is 24, and my son, Zane, is 20 years old. It’s the story of my son’s miraculous birth that I want to share.
On November 30, 2000, I was in my classroom teaching, just returning from Thanksgiving Break. I was 7 months pregnant with my second child. In the third trimester, I felt fatigued with all the normalcy of trying to “do it all” while carrying a baby, or so I thought.
That afternoon, I started getting dizzy spells, shortness of breath, blurred vision, etc. 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.
What?? A stroke? But I am only 31 years old--how???
They prepped me for a C-Section to save the life of my 29-week baby boy. My son, Zane Harrison Brooks, was born 11 weeks early, weighing a mere 3 pounds.
My health took a declining turn. The blood clot that traveled to my brain came from my placenta. I threw another blood clot 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 brainstem—an area that leaves very little room for error to occur. 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. Cute sidebar: My daughter was in kindergarten at this time, and when asked what her parents do, she said, "My daddy is a Stock-Broker, and my mommy is in rehab!” Oh my! We had to teach her to say Physical Therapy!
Anyway, by this time, my son was learning to walk, too. It’s the WAY we learned to walk that is different. Zane learned to walk like most babies do, trial and error. Get up, take a few steps, fall down, get back up, repeat. Then my husband would scoot back and beckon Zane to “come to Daddy.”
It was not so natural for me, as I had to re-learn how to do what used to be such a mindless, automatic task. 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 then those messages needed to travel to my legs and left arm in coordinated synchronicity, so I could take steps or pick up an object with my left hand. To execute these movements, messages in my brain had to be re-wired. 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 systematically 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 than the way he practiced with Zane. We would go to a 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 we were 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.” Repeating this sequence aloud as I took each step.
This took incredible patience and perseverance. It usually took me at least 30-45 minutes to go around the track one time. I was absolutely exhausted. Of course, eventually, those minutes got shorter. After months of more purposeful practice, I was eventually 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. Other parts of my brain had to learn to do that job with a step by step procedure.
This experience has shown me what it is like for a struggling reader learning to read when the part of the brain that controls this is not working. Other areas take over, but they have to have the step by step procedural skills taught in a systematic, repetitive way. Even then, it will not be effortless.
Still today, 20 years later, I have to be mindful of every step I take. I must wear shoes to support my balance and use handrails going up and downstairs. I cannot run, and I have to take precautions on certain walking surfaces—so, I must have accommodations to help me walk safely. Just like a struggling reader needs classroom accommodations like extra time and tests or assignments read aloud. The brain is amazing in what it can do, and learn to “re-do.” My experience has really opened my eyes to what struggling readers face every day.
Difficulty reading is such a “hidden” condition. There is an acceptable reason for my struggles and rarely am I blamed or chastised for walking slow or taking extra time to go down a flight of stairs. Sadly, this is not as accepted for a struggling reader. They are often made to feel ashamed. That it is their fault for not being able to read, this creates malignant self-esteem that can be a lifelong burden to carry.
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.
Written by Samantha Brooks, MSE, CDP
Samantha is a Brainspring Instructor.
Brainspring has proudly supported the educational community for more than 25 years.