I’ve known actors who have cut themselves on the scenery while performing, but kept going until they could get stitches after the show. I’ve known actors who have forgotten their lines, missed an entrance, fallen off the furniture in a passionate embrace, fallen down the back steps and broken a wrist mid-performance, and fallen OFF THE STAGE into the orchestra pit. I had a stroke.
It was a normal Saturday night. I had on my sparkly blue shoes and detective badge, ready to lead the audience through a fun-filled dinner/murder mystery. (You should come see us, really. I hardly ever have strokes onstage. This was a one-off. www.thedinnerdetective.com)
I never saw it coming. And it came fast.
I felt PERFECTLY NORMAL beforehand. Let’s get that right. Nothing was amiss at all. I am a 44-year-old white female with no family history of strokes who happens to be 30-40 pounds overweight. (Or, I’m just too short for my weight.) I try to eat healthy, do crosswords, and read about 50 books a year to keep my brain active.
We were three lines away from the end of the first act. I had been speaking, pacing, bantering with my co-star. It was my turn to speak.
And suddenly I couldn’t.
I opened my mouth, and a small grunt came out. The only sensation in my head was an extraordinary dizziness and confusion. You know that feeling when you stand up too fast? Multiply that by about 50. It only lasted maybe 10 or 15 seconds. That was the only time during the entire experience that I could not think. My mind was a spinning blur. Then it cleared, and I could think again. I knew I was supposed to ask the audience a question. I sort of staggered, and tried to say my line again. Only a small sound came out.
My co-star, bless him, thought I’d merely bitten my tongue and couldn’t speak (good thing he didn’t go into the medical field, HAHAHAHAHAHA). He finished the rest of the lines, and I walked back to the greenroom. I could still walk. I could think perfectly clearly. But my speech was gone, and I couldn’t move my right arm. I sat down, and my lovely brain, my gorgeous brain that had gotten me through college with a magna cum laude and watched hours of ER and read hundreds of books and was given life by a pharmacist father and an RN mother told me:
This is a stroke.
I’M TOO YOUNG FOR THAT, I frantically thought back.
By now the inability to speak had me completely terrified. All I could do was drawl. I was weeping hysterically. But when you can barely open your mouth, the sobs take on a sub-human quality. I sounded, at least to myself, like the keening of some lunatic chained to the wall of an asylum in the 18th century. I couldn’t stop. I didn’t know what to do. I tried to write “stroke” on a nearby pad of paper for my two friends who were trying to calm me down and figure out what was wrong. The writing barely looked human. It leaned and jerked; it fell down the page, like blood dripping down a wall. I couldn’t communicate. My humanity was being stolen, second by precious second.
I have never been so scared in my entire damn life.
My co-star fetched a nurse from the audience.
I grabbed onto his arm like the literal life preserver he was at that moment. He shined a light in my eyes and had me try to squeeze his hands. I was still making the most unnerving sounds, panting with distress, wanting to scream hysterically but trying to be calm. He told my friend Christy to call 911. It might’ve been — I don’t even know — how long before one of us had thought to do that. He helped save my life. I will thank God for him every time he crosses my mind.
The EMTs showed up in minutes, strapped me to a gurney, and rolled me into the ambulance. I’d never been in an ambulance before. Now I was alone with these people trying to help me, still playing this farcical game of them asking me questions as simple as my name, and me being unable to respond. All I could get out was “Aaaaauuuaa.”
You can’t imagine the frustration and fear and powerlessness and hopelessness of not even being able to say your own name. You are trapped.
I arrived at the hospital within minutes and was rolled into the ER. I was still wearing my costume, including my blue sparkly shoes. They stared up at me mockingly from the end of the gurney. My fake handcuffs were still stuffed in my pants pocket. (I can’t imagine what the nurses thought.) I suddenly felt quite stupid. Blood pressure, blood draws, questions asked, tears still rolling down my face. I did not stop crying for three hours.
Then my husband was there.
I liked when the neurologist asked me yes-or-no questions, because I could answer with a nod or a shake of the head. My friend Christy, who had also materialized, put her arm around my shoulders, prayed with me, talked to me … as I clung to her, desperate for anyone to assure me that I was not slowly dying. (She’s moving to the Czech Republic to be a missionary. I’d say she’s damn qualified.)
This is where — if possible — shit got even more real.