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Home > Medical Services > Stroke Center > Jessica's Journey: Steps of Progress
Nothing added up. Jessica Walters was flying home from a family vacation on March 8 when she started experiencing a terrible headache. One week later, she had difficulty swallowing her food at dinnertime. Then, she had problems drinking water. It all seemed strange to her, but not necessarily alarming.
But, on March 17, Jessica’s concerns rose to another level when she started having problems balancing and walking, and her husband noticed she was speaking very slowly. They made a fast trip to Mercy’s Emergency Room. By the time they arrived, Jessica recalls she had lost the use of both legs; her husband was having difficulty even holding her up.
In the ER, doctors ordered a series of tests, ultimately deciding to admit Jessica to the hospital for further testing and observation.
“I was so scared. My legs didn’t work; I couldn’t walk at all,” Jessica said. “The doctors evaluated me in bed because I could barely move.”
Over the course of the next few days, Jessica had two CT scans and four MRIs, among other tests. Many of her symptoms – trouble swallowing; loss of balance and coordination; leg weakness and trouble speaking – indicated she may have had a stroke. However, stroke usually affects just one side of the brain, causing paralysis only on the opposite side of the body.
But, Jessica had lost sensation and use of both sides of her body, so doctors continued to search for answers. Finally, an abnormality on an MRI of her cervical spine provided the clue they needed for a diagnosis – Wallenberg syndrome, a rare condition in which a stroke occurs in the brain stem rather than in the main part of the brain.
“The brain stem contains lots of fibers that cross over one another; that’s why it affected both of her lower extremities,” said Dr. Carla Schulz, MD, FAAFP, Medical Director of Mercy’s Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit (IRU), where Jessica received care for the latter part of her hospital stay. “In Jessica’s case, both of her lower extremities were not working. It was a challenge for the IRU staff because she was very weak on both sides.”
“I couldn’t believe I had a stroke, let alone this strange version of one. I just froze,” Jessica said. “I knew this could take me down a deep, dark hole, but I decided, ‘no way.’ I decided I was going to get better and walk again. I had so much support. I just knew I had to do this.”
Jessica’s perseverance paid off. With assistance and expert care and guidance from Mercy’s award-winning, interdisciplinary IRU team, she worked on walking, navigating stairs and regaining her balance. Occupational therapists helped her learn how to shower again, worked with her in the ADL (activities for daily living) room, and practiced other tasks she would use in her routine at home.
“Jessica was just a rock star through it all,” Dr. Schulz said. “The IRU team reassured her that her brain and brain stem would start to reconnect with her body and things would really take off. Because this was such an unusual diagnosis, we had to get very creative with different therapies and the timing of them. On top of all the therapies, we tried to give her a lot of reassurance that it would get better. We just dug in and got started.”
Mercy's IRU is accredited by CARF (Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities), reflecting its exceptional quality. CARF-accredited facilities must meet the most rigorous standards and a demonstrated commitment to the best care. Mercy’s IRU has also been recognized among the top 10% of inpatient rehabilitation units in the nation.
“My physical and occupational therapists, the whole team, they were just fabulous,” Jessica said. “My main goal right now is to get rid of the walker and be able to walk on my own. But, really, I have had such a good outcome. There are no words to describe how thankful I am for all the people who have cared for me – and supported me – through this. It all means so much to me.”
An important reminder during May, which is National Stroke Month: By learning and sharing the F.A.S.T. warning signs, you just might save a life from stroke.
The acronym F.A.S.T. (Facial drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulties and Time) is an easy way to remember the sudden signs of stroke.
If you notice these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, you should think and act F.A.S.T. by calling 911 and getting the person to the hospital immediately.