Inspiring Stroke Survivor Fights Back to Reclaim Life, Career
Allison Zmuda's life drastically changed after she collapsed while watching her daughter's soccer game nine years ago. This accomplished author, keynote speaker and educational consultant has been working diligently ever since to restore what a stroke attempted to take from her.
The paralysis on Allison's right side wore off within a few days of her life-saving surgery to remove a half-dollar size clot from her brain, but difficulties with speech and comprehension took time, patience and therapy after she returned to her Virginia Beach home.
"If you've got a tower that's been knocked down and now you have bricks all around you, you have to decide how to build something back up again," says Allison, who was only 38 and perfectly healthy when she suffered the shocking stroke. "I had to build my speech, my thinking and my memory all over again."
Quick Response Aids Prognosis
Paramedics who arrived on the soccer field when the stroke occurred in 2010, immediately diagnosed it correctly and coordinated with Allison's medical team at Sentara Healthcare, based in Norfolk, Va. When a clot-busting medication known as tPA failed to work, doctors prepped her for the five-hour surgery to remove the clot.
Allison, now 47, calls it an "act of grace" that she was in the right place at the right time to receive prompt treatment that allowed her a high quality of life afterward. She had no obvious risk factors. She ate healthily, exercised, didn't smoke and was at a healthy weight, so the stroke came as a surprise to all.
"Strokes do not discriminate," says Allison, whose doctors still aren't sure what led to the stroke but believe stress from her busy lifestyle, a genetic predisposition and birth control may have been possible factors.
Making Progress, Changing Her Outlook
Frustrated and heartbroken, Allison worked with a speech therapist at Sentara to put the pieces back together. Besides overcoming speech difficulties, following conversations and trains of thought were extremely challenging.
"Being creative and helping clients solve problems had always been my superpower," says Allison, who owns her own business and frequently travels to consult with schools, principals, teachers and others in the education field. She has also written 11 books.
"In the beginning of my stroke recovery, I could come up with an idea, but I couldn't nurture it. It took me four or five years to be able to hold an idea and give form to it," Allison says.
Because of that, Allison adopted a more collaborative approach with clients. She now involves them in brainstorming and problem solving, bringing the energy of others more often to the table.
"I became much more empathic to their challenges and situations," Allison says. "It became much clearer that my work is a process of connecting and co-creating as we create something together. This also relieved me of the burden of the one who had to generate all of the ideas."
As she has learned to empathize with clients, she also saw the need for students to look at and solve problems differently and to learn more effectively.
Loyal Support System
Allison credits her husband of 20 years, Tom, and her two children who were 5 and 8 at the time of the stroke, for giving her strength and confidence during her recovery.
Tom, who was a stay-at-home dad even before her stroke, managed to put on a brave face throughout the ordeal. The family used a sense of humor and their strong bond to make it through the hardest challenges.
"The level of compassion and understanding that they demonstrated with me was inspiring," says Allison, who didn't realize how frightening it was for them until she helped a friend who had suffered a stroke.
To prevent another stroke, Allison takes cholesterol medication and blood thinners. She wears compression socks and takes a strong blood thinner on flights that are more than four hours. Equally as important, she – and her friends and family – keep a close eye on her stress level, which she says had intensified before her stroke as she was trying to manage work and home life.
Yoga, breathing techniques and journaling are all tools she uses to chip away at stress.
"I have a group of folks who will tell me candidly that I'm doing too much, going too fast, going too far," Allison says. "I listen to them. You can easily get seduced into old habits and patterns. But they help get me centered again."