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Surviving a Stroke: The best birthday present ever

Lorra Dorr

The last day of March 2003 seemed like any other day for Lorra Dorr. Little did she know that by the end of it she'd be in a hospital bed fighting to stay alive. Despite a life-threatening stroke – and thanks to quick responses by her husband and UnitedHealthcare network doctors – Dorr is alive to talk about her ordeal.

A day unlike any other

The day started early for Dorr. She drove her daughter to the airport and headed to YMCA in Winter Park, Fla., where she took yoga and water aerobics classes. Next up: a care plan meeting for an aunt in a nursing home. "Later on, the [nursing home] staff told me that I wasn't my usual self," Dorr explains. "They said I kept repeating myself and just wasn't the person they normally saw, but they didn't know what was wrong."

A nagging headache that had hung on for a couple days was her only symptom. "I kept thinking it was a sinus infection. It was a different kind of headache than I'd ever had before," she says. "But, I just assumed sinuses were causing it."

Finally, overcome by pain, Dorr went home. She declined her husband Oscar's offer of lunch and lay down on the sofa. Oscar went to work on the computer, but couldn't concentrate. His wife just didn't seem like herself. Concerned, he went to check on her. The sofa was empty. Dorr was gone and didn't answer when he called for her.

Oscar's concern turned to dread when he found her clothes in the guest bedroom, but not his wife. He located her in the living room – confused and agitated. Realizing she had more than a headache, he helped her to bed. Suddenly, she became unresponsive. Oscar's dread became full-fledged alarm. He dialed 9-1-1.

A quick response

From the moment Oscar called the ambulance, Dorr's fate was in the hands of others. An alert emergency response team identified the problem instantly upon seeing Dorr. As the ambulance raced to the hospital, they sent a stroke alert to Florida Hospital in Orlando. When they arrived, doctors were waiting to whisk Dorr to a CAT scan. The scan revealed a hemorrhagic stroke.

A hemorrhagic stroke – commonly the most deadly – is when a blood vessel in the head bursts, and blood leaks into the brain tissue. The brain is very sensitive to bleeding. Serious damage can occur rapidly. The leaking blood also increases pressure in the head, which can harm the brain by pushing it against other structures, such as the skull.

By the time Oscar arrived at the hospital, doctors were already addressing the bleeding in the third ventricle of Dorr's brain. Ventricles are spaces in the brain that are filled with spinal fluid. A neurosurgeon performed a ventriculostomy, which is when a soft tube is inserted into the ventricle to drain the blood and relieve pressure.

But then, the doctors delivered Oscar the sobering news: despite their best efforts, his wife had slipped into a coma.

A family waits

Dorr's family and friends hovered near at all times. Their bedside vigil included bringing a birthday banner, stuffed Easter chicks, family pictures and other familiar items. The doctors and nurses explained that any external stimulation can sometimes help a stroke victim recover. So, family and friends talked and read to her every day.

Dorr firmly believes that stroke victims know what is happening around them and can hear and sense loved ones in the room. To illustrate, she describes her reaction – despite being in a coma – when doctors informed her son Greg they would insert a feeding tube in her stomach. Greg told her she became agitated, actually reacting to the doctor's words. Dorr believes that if it gets to the point that a feeding tube needs to be inserted into the stomach, a person will not recover and will remain in a vegetative state. "There was no way I wanted that to happen, so I must have tried to let them know my objection," she says.

Oscar waited by her side day and night, keeping her in his prayers and coaxing her along with his love. Although his wife's condition was grave, Oscar took heart knowing the hospital was providing excellent care and treatment. "The frankness of her doctors was all important to me," he recalls.

A monumental birthday

The loving vigil paid off. On April 9, her 65th birthday, Dorr awoke from the coma.

Greg was there when his mother regained consciousness. Overjoyed, he shouted for the nurses and family to come quickly. The nurse asked Dorr to raise two fingers on her right hand. "That's a complicated brain test [after a stroke], and I was able to do it," Dorr says. Oscar recalls tensing when the nurse issued the command. Dorr laughs as she explains why Oscar held his breath. "He was worried because I've always had trouble remembering right from left," she explains conspiratorially.

Dorr does not remember what happened from the time she lay down on the couch. Her first clear memory is of being transferred to the rehabilitation section seven days after regaining consciousness – banners, pictures, Easter chicks and all piled on her bed. That trip was the road to complete recovery. Her rehabilitation went so well, in fact, Dorr left the hospital without a wheelchair or walker. Who would've known just weeks before, she had been lying in a hospital bed in a coma? Physical therapy three times a week after her return home fine-tuned her dexterity, balance and cognitive skills.

She feels blessed by her complete recovery. At the same time, she credits Oscar's call to 9-1-1 for saving her life. Without that call, she is aware that her outcome may not have been so good. She offers this advice to anyone who suspects they are having or are with someone who may be having a stroke: "Don't delay and don't just assume someone will sleep something off. Call 9-1-1." As an example, she points to a friend who had a stroke and was taken to the hospital by family instead of the ambulance. "It was four hours before [emergency doctors] got to her. She didn't fare nearly as well as I have. She still suffers to this day," Dorr says.

In fact, Dorr's recovery seems so miraculous, she has become a minor celebrity around the hospital. Medical personnel are amazed when she tells them she had a hemorrhagic stroke and was in a coma for 9 days. Dorr chuckles as she recalls one doctor's reaction. "I went back to see the neurosurgeon who performed the ventriculostomy," she says. "When he walked into the examining room, I was sitting up on the table. His jaw actually dropped [when he saw me]." The surgeon never expected Dorr to be out of the coma, never mind sitting upright on an examining room table.

A "Wall of Fame" in the intensive care unit (ICU) bears a picture of Dorr, the first hemorrhagic stroke survivor in many years. ICU staff told her that statistically, "only one in three people survive a hemorrhagic stroke," she explains. After a brief pause, she adds with wonder, "It truly is a miracle that I survived in such good condition."

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