My 30-year-old husband had a stroke on our babymoon
Dave Levy turned to his wife midflight, en route to their Hawaiian babymoon — one last getaway before the birth of their daughter.
“Does my right eye look weird?”
His five-months-pregnant wife, Allison Pataki, looked at her college sweetheart’s eye. It was large and black and extremely dilated.
“I can’t see anything out of it,” he said.
“Dave, are you having a stroke?” she joked. After all, how could her athletic 30-year-old husband — an orthopedic surgery resident at a hospital in Chicago — be having a stroke?
“Maybe,” he said, quietly. Minutes later, Dave lost consciousness.
As the plane descended 30 minutes later for an emergency landing in Fargo, North Dakota, and passengers whispered with concern, Allison clutched one of Dave’s shoes, which someone had removed for fear of swelling.
“And then the question popped into my head: ‘Would I ever feel anything that had been warmed by Dave’s body again?’ ” she writes.
Allison, the daughter of former New York Gov. George Pataki, recalls that harrowing experience in her new memoir, “Beauty in the Broken Places” (Random House), out May 1.
In the book, she recounts the hours spent worrying whether Dave would survive, as well as the tough road to recovery and life with a man who was not entirely the person she married.
It turns out Dave was having a stroke on June 9, 2015 — a rare midbrain ischemic one, which occurs when the artery to the brain is blocked by a clot. Unbeknownst to Dave, where he should have had hundreds of small arteries feeding oxygen to his brain, he had just one big artery. His brain was literally being suffocated because of the clot.
That first day was a whirlwind of confusion. The doctor, shocked that Dave had survived, couldn’t tell Allison whether he would wake from his coma — or in what condition he’d be.
“At one point I asked my mother if I was going to be a widow, if my baby would grow up without ever knowing her father,” Allison writes.
The next morning, however, Dave blinked. Allison leaned in close and asked him to squeeze her hand if he knew how much she loved him.
“You squeezed and squeezed and squeezed,” she writes.
Her parents and in-laws soon arrived, and her dad, who was running for president, temporarily suspended his campaign. After four days, Dave was stable enough to be transferred via plane to his workplace, Chicago’s Rush Medical Center.
Dave could take a few steps with a walker, stand to brush his teeth and remember that he and Allison had been married for four years. But he couldn’t conjure the word “pen” when his doctor showed him one.
His father, a neurologist, warned that there would be serious roadblocks ahead. Dave could not be expected to make new memories or process new information due to the damage to his brain, which now had two holes in it — “two harrowing graveyards of dead neurons,” Allison writes. “And those neurons were, in a large part, what had made Dave Dave.”
She recalls having to feed him while he wore a bib, ordering him to “open up.”
“It was scary to see my brilliant husband’s body and mind kidnapped by this new helpless, disoriented foreigner,” Allison writes.
In a flash, she had lost her confident, driven, vivacious husband — and didn’t know if he’d ever return.
Dave was struggling, too. He should have been preparing to start his fourth year of a surgical residency, but the former Yale varsity lacrosse player now couldn’t go to the bathroom without an escort. Allison feared for him.
When he was transferred to inpatient rehab, she looked around his room, which had hooks hanging from the ceiling, and wondered: “What if Dave tries to hang himself?”
The first few weeks there were tough, as Dave couldn’t name more than three fruits and vegetables in the span of a minute. Slowly, his personality began to reappear, but so did new traits — such as the propensity to “curse like a sailor at random passersby,” Allison writes, thanks to his newly diminished impulse control.
‘It was scary to see my brilliant husband’s body and mind kidnapped by this new helpless, disoriented foreigner’
Still, one month after his stroke, doctors announced that he would make a full recovery. Because Dave was young, he still had plenty of neuronal plasticity, which allows the brain to adjust to injury.
He was in the room when Allison delivered a baby girl, Lilly, four months after his stroke. Back at home, however, Allison had to act as caregiver to both a newborn and a husband. Struggling to comprehend how her Type-A partner had turned lethargic — she even had to remind him to check the mail — Allison wept to friends: “I don’t know if I’ll ever get my husband back.”
But Dave urged her to be patient and, little by little, their life began to regain normalcy. Even their dog, Penny — who hadn’t recognized Dave at rehab and cowered behind Allison — cuddled with him again. Eight or so months after the stroke, he flew solo to a work conference in Florida. (He now works as a medical consultant and has decided not to finish his orthopedic surgery residency. The couple is expecting their second child in August.)
And Allison learned to accept the changes. “The life we knew, Dave, before the stroke — that’s gone . . . ” she wrote in a note to her husband one year after his stroke. “It’s all been replaced by something new and different . . . but, as different as the world and the family and the people in it may appear, things can still be good.”
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