Gwendolin O’Connor and her mother, Melanie, at the neuro-rehabilitation unit at Victoria General Hospital. Gwendolin spent six weeks in the ward, recovering from a stroke at the age of 16. (Kendra Wong/News Gazette staff)

Touching reunion highlights remarkable recoveries

Woman shares her story of recovering from a stroke at 16

In the summer of 2010, Gwendolin O’Connor had everything going for her.

She was on the honour roll at St. Michael’s University School, worked at Thrifty Foods, was on a rowing team, volunteered at a seniors home and had already starting making plans for university. Life seemed perfect to the 16 year old.

But that all came crashing down one day. O’Connor had just passed a lifeguard course and went to bed, when she woke in the middle of the night, and couldn’t stand or move her entire right side. When she tried to call for help, no words came out.

Her mother, Melanie, eventually found her and called 911.

“I didn’t know what was wrong, but I knew something bad was going on,” Melanie said.

Shortly after, O’Connor passed out and went into a coma. O’Connor suffered a stroke caused by an aneurysm bleed in her brain. She underwent two major surgeries, one of which was to remove part of her skull to alleviate the pressure on her brain.

When O’Connor woke her right arm and leg were blue and ice cold. As a result of the stroke, O’Connor couldn’t speak, read, write or spell. Even simple math like one plus two was a strange concept to her. She was diagnosed with aphasia, a communication disorder that results from damage to part of the brain and affects its ability to retrieve speech and understanding of language. She was also diagnosed with apraxia, a motor disorder in which one has difficulty performing tasks or movements.

“My mind felt hollow and empty,” O’Connor said. “My legs, my mind, my voice, everything was gone.”

O’Connor’s long road to recovery began when she was transferred from the ICU to the 5 North neuro-rehabilitation unit at Victoria General Hospital.

It was here she started rehab, and after six weeks in the ward, was transferred to GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre in Vancouver for further rehab services, and slowly began walking again.

During her recovery, everything took longer – typing, tying her hair in a pony tail, lacing up her shoes, or getting dressed. Eventually, relearning everything took a toll on the teenager and after months of rehab, O’Connor hit a wall.

While she was improving, her life revolved around therapy. She was exhausted, self-conscious and ashamed of her new disabilities. It was only after another seizure put her in the hospital that she decided she wanted a new outlook on life.

“I wanted a sense of positivity and purpose. I said to myself, ‘suck it up.’ No more crying, no more embarrassment at my body or my speech. As soon as I made that decision, everything began to improve,” O’Connor said.

Now at the age of 23, O’Connor continues to go to physiotherapy and speech therapy, and is working on regaining movement in her right hand. But she’s come a long way in the last seven years. O’Connor is an A student at Camosun College, a member of a local toast masters group and is a board member with Move, a gym for people with disabilities.

O’Connor is one of dozens of patients who were reunited with staff of the neuro-rehabilitation unit earlier this week. The 22-bed unit includes physiatrists, hospitalists, clinical nurse leaders and educators, speech language pathologists and support personnel, among others.

Dr. Paul Winston, medical director for rehab and transitions for Island Health, said the reunion allowed patients to reconnect with the staff that helped nurse them back to health, and was a chance for patients to connect with other people who have gone through similar experiences.

“For me, what’s important when it comes to a reunion is to celebrate people’s successes and understanding that not everybody has a complete recovery, that a lot of them will continue to live with disability,” said Winston, noting there are roughly 600 patients who receive specialized neuro-rehabilitation at the hospital every year.

“There are some people I saw who were delirious in the ICU, unable to recognize their name, stand or sit,” he said. “Seeing some of them now looking absolutely normal, where nobody would know something happened is really exciting.”

kendra.wong@goldstreamgazette.com

Just Posted

Greater Victoria School District adopts new dress code policy

Two years in the making, SD61 moves to more inclusionary guidelines

Legal action against B.C. specualtion tax a last resort

Group of Arizona home owners feel they’ve been swept up in an attack on land speculators

Rock the Rink gives youth once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

Winning band will get to play a set at Rock the Shores

Sooke makes call for regional fire dispatch

Some municipalities decide to take service off-Island

Victoria beaches 1,560 pounds lighter after Surfrider cleanup

200 people came out to clean the beach on Earth Day

Parents call for change to health laws after Oak Bay teen’s death

Accidental overdose has Elliot Eurchuk’s parents seeking change to B.C Infants Act

EDITORIAL: Greater Victoria amalgamation no magic bullet

Taxpaying citizens need to ask tough questions of both sides in debate

Doctor sees healing power in psychedelic plant as Peru investigates death of B.C. man

Peru’s attorney general has ordered the arrest of two suspects in the killing of 41-year-old Sebastian Woodroffe

Toronto police officer ‘gave himself the space and time’ in van attack

Footage shows officer standing up, turning off his siren and talking clearly to the suspect

$1.18 to $1.58 a litre: Are you paying the most for gas in B.C.?

Gas prices across B.C. vary, with lowest in Vernon and highest in – you guessed it – Metro Vancouver

Greater Victoria wanted list for the week of April 24

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

Inquest set 10 years after B.C. woman shot, left to die

Lisa Dudley, and her partner, Guthrie McKay were shot in their Mission home in September 2008

B.C. hockey team to retire Humboldt Bronco victim’s number

BCHL’s Surrey Eagles to retire Jaxon Joseph’s No. 10 in light of bus tragedy

B.C. Hells Angels invited to rally by anti-SOGI organizer

The Culture Guard group has helped Hells Angels in the past, said its executive director.

Most Read