Unshakeable: An update on Kristina

On Father’s Day in 2008, my father had a massive heart attack. My mother, sister and I were passengers in the car he was driving to a restaurant for dinner when he suffered a full cardiac arrest. I know all of the facts about what happened because I have recited them so many times, but I don’t truly “remember” most of what happened. I remember performing CPR in the middle of the street and worrying that I was not being forceful enough with compressions immediately before I cracked his sternum. I also remember calling my uncle from the ambulance and thinking at the hospital that this was one of those moments that would divide my life into periods of before and after.

There have been a few other moments and I mostly recognize them when they are happening. I did not realize that the week spanning the end of September and beginning of October in 2015 would be one of those. I spend a lot of time reassuring people about their health, including myself, to the point that it is almost a reflex. I assume things will be fine until I am shown incontrovertible evidence that they will not. I trick my body into thinking it’s not scared by donning the physicality of confidence and busy my mind with other things.

I have a practiced eye and I should have been able to see the impending storm last year. On the other side of the horizon, a darkness gathered, spinning and spinning into a fury. But I didn’t. None of us did. I think about it every single day.

Last week, a friend commented that Naples is not too far from where Kristina lives. It’s lucky that she did because I had no idea. Kristina is a mast cell patient and mom of a mast cell baby. She is my friend and part of a group that included me and six other masto moms or patients who shared everything. Kristina suffered a brainstem stroke last October and suffers from locked in syndrome. She is aware and understands everything happening but is unable to control her body or speak.

I visited Kristina yesterday at home with her family. She is still Kristina. She laughed at my sarcasm and bad jokes. I asked her if I could give an update for everyone thinking of her and praying for her. She said I could.

The last ten months have been very challenging for her and her family because she lost all functionality but very limited eye movement in the stroke. Additionally, she is a mast cell patient, which complicates her management and treatment. Her team is aggressively working to teach her brain to make new pathways to control movement, especially in her face, arms and fingers. She is working on sitting upright and spent some time in a wheelchair while I was there.

She has regained some movement in her face and neck. She can turn her head from side to side. She can control her eye movement better, including blinking. She can move some other muscles in her face, including above her eyes and near her mouth. Kristina communicates currently by eye movement and answers yes/no questions or spells words by blinking when the alphabet is recited to her.

Kristina is able to breathe on her own with a tracheostomy, which allows extra assistance to help clear secretions and cough if needed. Her speech therapist tried a new valve on her trach while I was there and for the first time in ten months, I heard Kristina’s voice.

It is not in my nature to be hopeless, even when things are grim. In 2008, my father was in a coma after his heart attack long enough that we were approached about giving him a trach to keep him ventilated long term. We were given a target date for this procedure since he was not expected to wake from the coma before then. Instead, the vent was removed and he woke up on my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary. It has been eight years since that day and I am still grateful for that every day. The fact that my father survived has given me the unshakeable understanding that sometimes, even when it seems hopeless, and even when we can’t explain it, people get better.

Kristina is a tenacious, intelligent and eminently capable person. Her family is amazing. They are so dedicated to her recovery. Getting to hug Kristina, and her mom, husband and son, was easily the highlight of my year. I don’t know what will happen but I am hopeful. I told her that we love her and that so many people think about her and ask about her often. I told her that I was glad to see how well she was adapting to being home and that she was making gains and that I had an unshakeable belief that she would get better, too.

Thank you for keeping Kristina and her family in your thoughts and prayers.