As soon as Lori Murphy hung up with her mom, she went to her closet and pulled out a cute skirt and matching top. She took her time applying makeup and getting each strand of hair exactly where she wanted it.
A trip to an emergency care clinic.
Lori woke that morning in Savannah, Georgia, with a series of symptoms she blamed on a lingering stomach bug. Her mom, a nurse in Atlanta, called to check on her. Lori complained about numbness in her arm and face. She gave in to her mom’s request that she see a doctor, but in her disoriented state she equated that with a date.
Mom’s fear was correct: 31-year-old Lori was having a stroke. And it turned out to be an unusual, brutal kind.
In addition to losing control of her left side, the part of Lori’s brain that controls sensory signals such as touch was thrown out of whack, triggering a condition called central pain syndrome.
“I now live with the devil in my body,” Lori said. “As long as I’m awake, I’m in pain, head-to-toe, on the left side, where the stroke affected me.”
But it hasn’t stopped her. She long ago accomplished her two biggest goals, putting her hair in a ponytail and walking in flip-flops without the left one falling off. Her walking stride is so fluid nowadays that there’s no hint of her compromised left side.
Add her efforts to rally and inspire fellow stroke survivors, and her tale is perfect for the spotlight of American Stroke Month, a time for heightened focus on the No. 5 killer of Americans and a leading cause of long-term disability among adults.
Better still is appreciating her on May 14, National Cycling Day. Having taught herself how to ride again about four years ago, every time she climbs aboard a bike is another reminder of her primary message: How fortunate I am for all that my body can still do.
“June 21, 2006, is not the day I died – it’s the day that I lived,” Lori said.
Born in Mississippi and raised in Guatemala, Lori has rarely followed a traditional path in life.
Her parents went to Central America as missionaries – dad a church planter, mom doing health promotion and women’s ministry. Lori and her older sister attended an English-speaking school but otherwise were immersed in the local culture and language.
They moved to the Atlanta area in time for Lori to start fifth grade. Girl Scouts, video games and even drinking out of water fountains were foreign concepts to her. Peers initially had trouble relating to her, unable to fathom life in a faraway country.
She grew up wanting to be a flight attendant, like her aunt, so she could travel the world. She became a social worker in San Antonio, assessing moms and newborns for high risk of abuse and neglect, then moved back to Atlanta and learned the HR world of benefits.
A client lured her to Savannah. The job went back to Atlanta a year later, but Lori stayed, switching companies. Three months into her new job, she had that stomach bug and the morning when she woke up thinking she’d slept on her arm.
As she got ready to look her best for the emergency clinic, Lori knew some things didn’t make sense. She just didn’t know which.
On what should’ve been a 10-minute drive to the clinic, she forgot where to go. She called her friend Liza Smith for directions, only to drop the phone when she lost use of her left hand. Lori pulled over, described what she saw out the window and Liza came to her rescue.
Liza took Lori not to the clinic, but to the ER. A doctor there said, “There is no way a young, healthy, 31-year-old female would be having a stroke.” She was sent home and told to see a neurologist the next day. As soon as that doctor saw Lori, she said, “What are you doing here? You’ve had a stroke.”
Tests revealed much more.
Lori has an inherited blood disorder known as Factor V (Five) Leiden, which predisposed her to forming blood clots. That condition, perhaps heightened by the birth control she was on, triggered a clot.
The clot slipped out of her heart through a small hole that was supposed to have closed soon after birth but didn’t. This is called a patent foramen ovale, a congenital heart defect known to cause a stroke. Worst of all, that clot worked its way to the thalamus, an area of the brain which controls sensations.
“It’s like a perfect storm,” Lori said.
To that point, Lori was a hard-driving, emotional person.
This news left her … flat. No tears, no anger, just a dulled personality.
She spent about a year trying to make it on her own in Savannah, somehow even waiting tables despite her pain and limitations. She then moved into her parents’ house in Atlanta, where she lives now.
In addition to seeing a pain management doctor, she saw a pain psychologist. That doctor forced Lori to acknowledge and accept the differences in her life pre-stroke and post-stroke.
“I was trying to get back to where I was, being in the working world 9-5 and doing things in my social circle, and it finally it hit me – I’ve got to let that go,” she said. “My body won’t allow me to do that anymore. And I’m OK with that.”
Soon, she looked forward to naps, rather than feeling slowed by them. She accepted constant pain as a fact of her new life – “It doesn’t go on spring break or take off Christmas Day,” she said – and stopped pestering doctors about if or when she might regain fine motor skills on her left side.
“I know that life is short and precious,” Lori said. “If I have a pile of laundry to do and shoes all over the floor, it’s no big deal. Pre-stroke Lori went crazy over a line at the grocery store.”
Then she laughed and added, “My sister says I’m a more pleasant person now.”
In her earliest days of rehabilitation, Lori sat on a stationary bike and did some pedaling. Then came the day at a friend’s house when she sneaked a bicycle outside to see if she had enough balance to ride – and did!
“It reminds you that sometimes the only thing holding us back is ourselves,” she said.
Lori occasionally rides a stationary bike at her gym. She’s also become involved in CycleNation, which offers indoor and outdoor cycling events benefitting my organization, the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association.
“My limitations are huge parts of me but they’re not who I am,” Lori said. “I’m still a person who wants to have normal things, wants to live a normal life. I just have some special parts of me that are challenges.”