Allison Zmuda was watching her 5-year-old daughter run across the soccer field. At 38 years old, stroke was the farthest thing from her mind. Allison tried to jump from her chair to cheer her girl on, but her foot had fallen asleep, or so she’d thought. Instead of standing, she collapsed. Luckily, those nearby realized what was happening and called 911.
Within 30 minutes of her stroke, Allison received a clot-dissolving drug called tPA at Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital, the nearest certified stroke center. When that didn’t work, Zmuda was transported to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital. Dr. John Agola, an interventional neuroradiologist, was waiting to retrieve the half-dollar-size clot from Allison’s brain.
In many ways, Allison wasn’t a “typical” stroke patient. She was young and healthy and didn’t have obvious risk factors for stroke. Allison was also an accomplished consultant known for zigzagging across the U.S. and Canada, working with teachers and administrators. Pre-stroke, she could deliver a keynote speech, field questions, and play with new ideas inspired by a conversation. At the time of her stroke, Allison was a bestselling author of five books, with her sixth book expected back from the publisher any day. She had just launched a radio talk show.
“I was horrified that I had lost my ability to communicate,” says Allison. “I also had significant gaps in my memory that impacted my ability to retrieve information and ideas.”
Paul Fisher, her speech therapist at the hospital, understood Allison’s desire to regain these skills.
“She was definitely the most motivated person I’ve ever worked with. She had high hopes and high dreams. Not everyone we see does,” says Paul.
He worked with her as much as possible in the hospital, but without any of the lasting physical impairments of stroke that often keep people hospitalized, Alison was released after one week.
“She was supposed to be giving key note speeches for national groups. To get back to that level, she was going to need much more than five outpatient therapy sessions provided by her insurance. She wanted my help,” Paul says.
He worked with Allison in person and by phone, text and email.
“Sometimes she’d call me from the road during a conference with real-time feedback on a session she’d just delivered,” says Paul. “I’d consult with her on strategies she could use to improve upcoming sessions.”
“Paul was my saving grace,” Allison says. “He gave me his time. That was a huge sacrifice he and his family made, and that was quite a personal commitment on his part.”
Paul and Alison rarely see one another now, but they are connected by a deep friendship that grew out of tragedy.