BRAIN WAVES

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Stroke Survivor Offers Message of Hope for World Stroke Day

Stroke isn’t something you plan on. Just ask Jennifer Kirchen.

Stroke Survivor Offers Message of Hope for World Stroke Day

Stroke isn’t something you plan on. Just ask Jennifer Kirchen.

On November 16, 2010, she was a 35-year-old mom, social worker, volunteer, and volleyball enthusiast. In fact, she was in great shape, having played volleyball for decades. She had no clue how her life was about to change.

That afternoon, she brought her oldest daughter to volleyball tryouts. Then, without warning, it hit. Jennifer explains, “I was tossing balls for a hitting drill when I felt the first symptoms, tingling in my hand. Within minutes, things progressed and I was unable to use my hand. Ultimately, I was left paralyzed on my right side and unable to speak. I was fortunate that I recognized the signs of my stroke and sought immediate medical attention.”

She was rushed to the hospital, where a CT scan revealed no brain bleed, which would have indicated a hemorrhagic stroke. The doctor realized it was likely a clot and gave her tPA (tissue plasminogen activator), a clot buster. Fortunately, it was administered within two and a half hours of her first symptoms; if it had been beyond three hours, it would not have been administered due to the increased chance of fatal bleeding after this window.

She subsequently learned she had been born with a venous anomaly, a pocket of veins where blood had pooled up, which caused the clot and resulted in an ischemic stroke, also known as a “silent stroke.” Experts said there was less than a 1 percent chance this could have happened.

Once out of ICU, she had to relearn how to walk and talk, as well as regain dexterity in her arm and hand with Physical, Occupational, and Speech Therapy. Speech was the most difficult for her and continued to affect her even after she was released from the hospital.

“I had lots of support from my friends and family; however, my daughters had trouble accepting that I was less than invincible. Eventually, they came around and were proud and encouraged my recovery. They would work with me with flash cards, repeat sentences, and listen to me read out loud.”

Stroke isn’t something you plan on. Just ask Jennifer Kirchen.

Although she welcomed the help, Jennifer would get frustrated when people would try to do too much for her, like finish her sentences. “I knew I needed to rebuild pathways in my brain. I’m very self-motivated and would say, ‘I can do it for myself.’”

Before long, “I can do it!” became her rallying cry. Always a team player, she became involved with the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance. She started running and completed the Twin Cities Marathon’s 10K and 10-mile races, created a team for annual walks, and raised thousands of dollars to create awareness that stroke can happen at any age.

World Stroke Day is October 29 and Jennifer wants others to learn from her experience. “I am pretty passionate about getting the word out about acting FAST – Face, Arm, Speech, Time – to educate the community to recognize the signs of stroke both for themselves and others.  Without acting FAST, I feel I wouldn’t have recovered to this degree.”

More specifically, this acronym refers to Facial drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulties, and Time to seek medical treatment. Jennifer also advises stroke victims not to lie down and wait for symptoms to pass. See a medical professional as soon as possible.

She notes another sign that someone is experiencing is a stroke is their inability to stick out their tongue straight. If they stick it out and it goes to one side, they’re likely experiencing stroke symptoms.

In 2017, she and her family moved to Arizona, in part to escape the brutal Minnesota winters. Since many are unaware of the connection between brain injury and stroke, she has partnered with the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona to make media appearances and speak to groups to promote her mission of stroke awareness. Her message is threefold:

  • Stroke can affect people of any age, regardless of physical condition
  • If you believe you’re having a stroke, get medical attention immediately
  • After you’ve had a stroke, reach out to people and organizations who will help you navigate the journey to recovery, especially around the complex issues of recovery from brain injury.

Jennifer uses her recuperation as an example to others. “I played volleyball exactly one month after my stroke.  Granted it wasn’t my best performance, but I was able to get my overhand serve over the net, which is no small feat for someone that couldn’t use her right arm thirty days previous, let alone walk.”

Her advocacy is being cheered on by the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona.  Executive Director Carrie Collins-Fadell notes that non-traumatic acquired brain injuries, like those that result from near-drowning, stroke, or overdose often don’t get the attention they deserve. “The brain injury community needs survivors of all types of brain injuries to be active and speak out,” said  Collins-Fadell. “Not only is Jennifer’s story an inspiration to others, but it also showcases the similar path that stroke survivors can travel along with those who have had a traumatic brain injury.”

ABOUT BRAIN INJURY ALLIANCE OF ARIZONA

The Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona (BIAAZ) is the only statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of adults and children with all types of brain injuries through prevention, advocacy, awareness and education. BIAAZ also houses the Arizona Brain Health Resource Center, a collection of educational information and neuro-specific resources for brain injury survivors, caregivers, family members and professionals.

What began in 1983 as a grassroots effort has grown into a strong statewide presence, providing valuable life-long resources and community support for individuals with all types of brain trauma at no charge.

The Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona:

  • Works with Congressional Brain Injury Task Force
  • Houses Arizona Brain Health Resource Center
  • Hosts Statewide Opioid Use Disorder & Cognitive Impairment Workgroup
  • Has Statewide Opioid Use Disorder & Cognitive Impairment Response team with peer support, training, and family wraparound services
  • Facilitates Brain Health Advisory Council
  • Manages statewide Neuro Info-Line: 888-500-9165

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