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Tammy Swift, Published May 09 2009

Walking toward wellness: Woman who suffered stroke hopes to fulfill goal of 5k trek

Lynn Miller may not be the first person to cross the finish line at the Fargo Marathon’s 5k run/walk today.

But she won’t mind. Miller knows she’s had to travel a lot further than 3.1 miles to get there.

In November, the healthy, active 29-year-old mom suffered a massive stroke that paralyzed the left side of her body. In the past six months, she has been through emergency brain surgery, a coma and extensive rehabilitation. She’s had to learn to do the simplest things – from walking to cooking to changing the diaper of her 1-and-a-half-year-old son, Cameron – again.

But somewhere along the way, the determined young woman decided she would not only complete a 5k walk this spring, but run in longer, more demanding races in the future.

“From day one, Lynn has been the type of person who isn’t afraid to work hard,” says her husband, Jason, an assistant strength and conditioning coach at NDSU. “That’s how she views this. She wants to get healthy and to recover and to be a good mom and get back to a normal life.”

Unexpected detour

On Nov. 16 Lynn and Jason were at their north Fargo home, planning a day of grocery shopping and errands. Lynn felt the pangs of a migraine coming on, but she shrugged it off, thinking, “I’ve got so much to do today.” She skipped down the stairs to the basement to grab something. Suddenly, for no reason, she fell down. Bewildered, she realized she couldn’t get back up or move her left side.

Wondering what was keeping his wife, Jason came downstairs. He found Lynn lying on her side inside the bathroom. She could talk, but she was cloudy in terms of what had just happened.

“It was really hard to process what was going on,” he says. When he tried to help her up, he realized she couldn’t stand or move her left side. Then he noticed she couldn’t smile. Suspecting a stroke, he called 911.

Lynn was rushed to MeritCare Hospital in Fargo, where neurologists discovered two major arteries were blocked. Lynn was given a Tissue Plasminogen Activator, a clot-busting drug that can reduce the effects of stroke if given within three to four hours of first symptoms.

The next day, Jason was advised to take Lynn to Minneapolis for emergency surgery.

She was slipping in and out of consciousness and in great pain. Her brain was swelling to a dangerous degree.

“You go from having a wife who is healthy and active and less than 24, 36 hours later, she’s going in to have surgery and to have a bone flap taken out,” Jason says. “That’s a pretty big change in plans.”

Inspired by another

It’s rare for someone as young and healthy as Lynn to have a stroke.

Minneapolis doctors said her only possible risk factor was an atrial septal aneurysm – a bulge between the upper chambers of her heart – which could have harbored a clot that later migrated to her brain. Even so, no one could really pinpoint a cause.

“Twenty-five to 30 percent of the population has a hole in the heart, but 25 to 30 percent of the population doesn’t have a stroke from it,” Jason says.

At the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital, neurosurgeons removed a bone flap from Lynn’s skull and cut out a 3-inch dissection of her temporal lobe to alleviate the pressure.

She spent the next month in bed – two weeks of those in a coma – remembering little beyond the sight and sound of 1-year-old Cameron’s curly blond head circling the foot of her bed and saying: “Momma? Momma?”

“I thought this was my life,” Lynn recalls. “I didn’t know what kind of recovery I would have.”

After a month, Lynn was transferred back to MeritCare’s inpatient rehabilitation center, where she received speech, occupational and physical therapy. She needed it; after weeks of inactivity, Lynn had lost 20 pounds and was too weak to even pull herself up in bed.

One day, Lynn’s sister, Jen Beswick, was visiting. Beswick showed her the Web-based Caring Bridge site – www.caringbridge.org, which allows people to check in on different loved ones battling lengthy illnesses. Her sister pointed out the profile of Fargo woman Tonya Becker Bolton, whose story virtually mirrored Lynn’s.

In May of 2008, Bolton had a stroke that paralyzed her left side. Like Lynn, she was young, healthy and had a small child. Bolton wrote about taking part in a 5k – partly by foot, partly by wheelchair – just weeks after being released from the hospital. This year, Bolton said, she wanted to run a 5k.

At the time, Lynn couldn’t even walk the length of the parallel bars in her therapy sessions. But she was inspired by Bolton’s story. “Once I saw that, I realized this isn’t it for me. I can return to where I was before the stroke,” she says.

Bolton, who visited Lynn in rehab, still plans to run the 5k this weekend. She says she’ll be cheering on Lynn today. “I think it’s great she’s doing this. You have to keep thinking, ‘I should be able to do this.’ You have to, or else it will just disable you.”

Step by step

These days, Lynn is at home, doing as many things on her own as she can. Her once-shaven head is growing into a chic faux-hawk. “It’s the only thing I can do with it,” she says, with a smile and a little shrug.

Lynn speaks softly and a bit hesitantly, but her memory and vocabulary are constantly improving. She does Sudoku puzzles to sharpen her cognitive and problem-solving skills. Because the stroke affected her left side, she has to fight what experts call “left side neglect.” For instance, when reading, she must remember to scan the left side of the page, too.

The experience has given Lynn a whole new empathy for the students with special needs she taught in Moorhead’s Early Intervention Program before her stroke. Some of them have tracheotomies; she’s also had one. Some may not feel well because they’re on certain medications; she can also relate to that.

Lynn still needs help with Cameron, as she has little functional use of her left hand and arm. Fortunately, she gets plenty of help from family, friends and a college student who watches Cameron before Jason gets home from work.

She wears an electronic device on her left leg, which reminds her nerves to lift her toes while walking. And now much of her physical therapy has been taken over by her husband, whose vocation qualifies him well for it.

They prepared for the 5k by doing strength exercises and, most of all, walking. Lynn has already walked three miles at a time. “Walking is really best for my recovery,” she says. “It helps with the blood flow and the oxygen to my brain.”

Jason says he trains his wife like he would any athlete. “She’s here to get better and we have just a small period of time, so we’re here to work. That’s what she wants.”

Even so, Lynn sometimes worries about the pressure her illness has placed on her husband. “He’s been a rock,” she says.

But Jason is more concerned about his partner. “With my wife struggling with daily activities, it’s pretty hard for me to look in the mirror and feel sorry for myself after all she’s going through.”

And so today, Lynn will be walking in the 5k, but she won’t be alone. She’ll be accompanied by her husband, son Cameron, her dad, her sister, two nieces and a contingency of workplace friends.

“I want to run across the finish line,” Lynn says, with a shy smile. “That’s my goal.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525