Stricken by stroke: And coping with a new way of being

  • Ormond lives in an apartment in downtown Northampton which is not far from a bus stop she can get to using her walker. She no longer can drive. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Katherine Ormond of Northampton has had to make many adjustments to be able to live independently following a series of strokes she suffered eight years ago. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Ormond says one way she has reduced her isolation is by joining a support group consisting of others who are rebuilding their lives after suffering strokes. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Katherine Ormond inside her apartment in the Michael's House near downtown Northampton, July 25, 2018. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Katherine Ormond inside her apartment in the Michael's House near downtown Northampton, July 25, 2018. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Katherine Ormond inside her apartment in the Michael's House near downtown Northampton, July 25, 2018. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Katherine Ormond inside her apartment in the Michael's House near downtown Northampton, July 25, 2018. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Katherine Ormond inside her apartment in the Michael's House near downtown Northampton, July 25, 2018. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo

Monday, July 30, 2018

Taped inside the front door of Katherine Ormond’s apartment at Michael’s House in Northampton, right next to the doorknob, is a sheet of paper on which the word ‘keys’ is written in large black letters. Underlined.

It’s there because, without a reminder, she’s likely to lock herself out. And in the past when that’s happened, she’s had to pay for a locksmith to come and open the door.

Eight years ago, Ormond, 71, suffered a series of strokes that changed her life forever. Being forgetful is just one of the repercussions she lives with, along with an inability to handle stressful situations, trouble focusing and difficulty balancing.

To continue to live independently, she’s had to make adjustments, like taping written reminders around the house or avoiding chaotic social situations.

“You’ll have to excuse the plastic ware,” she said the other day during an interview in her home. “I don’t use glass, because if I cut myself, I won’t stop bleeding.”

Among the dozen pills she must take every morning is one that stops her blood from clotting and forming an embolus.

She closes the cupboard and fills a plastic cup with tap water to help swallow the pills.

“I’m still learning how to de-escalate a conversation I'm not comfortable in, and to speak up a little bit more," she said, noting, “Patience is just not in my makeup.”

Since the strokes, which were caused by blockages in her arteries that temporarily cut off oxygen to her brain, Ormond has slowed her life drastically. Now, the Northampton native reads a lot of murder mysteries, tends to the plants on a deck outside her apartment, and is mostly limited to the Michael’s House grounds and the short distance from there that she can travel with her walker. Luckily, that includes the bus stop at Pulaski Park. She had to give up her driver’s license.

 And while she has family members who look out for her — daughter, Tracy Fialli, stepson, Joe Fialli, and granddaughters, Joanna Fialli, 22, and Andrea Fialli, 19 — they live in the eastern end of the state. Experiencing a stroke, and living with its after effects, is isolating, she says. 

“It was scary. I felt very alone, even though I had my family, and at that point, I was afraid I was dying.”

To help alleviate that feeling of isolation these days, Ormond says she turns to local support groups like the one that meets once a month at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton.

“You're in a room with others who know what you're going through,” Ormond said. "It's helpful. And we don't feel that we're odd. We know we've got problems.”

Finding support

Finding others who can relate to the experience of having a stroke is an important step in recovering from one, said Diane Stephan, nurse manager for Cooley Dickinson Hospital’s emergency department. As part of her job, she coordinates treatment for strokes, which includes making sure quality standards are upheld, and overseeing the group, which she started in June.

Based on where a stroke occurs and how soon treatment is received — which includes medication that breaks down a clot if the stroke is caused by an obstruction, or clotting medication if it’s a brain bleed — different parts of the brain can be permanently damaged from the lack of oxygen, Stephan said.

“Sometimes, a stroke survivor won’t be able to add numbers anymore, because it touched that part of the brain.”

Stephan noted that long term repercussions can include trouble speaking, muscle weakness, or difficulty controlling emotions.

Strokes are the fifth leading cause of death and disability in the United States, she said. They often happen unexpectedly, and in someone who appears healthy and active. Suddenly, they face disability.

“If you have a disability from stroke, some people don’t want to go out in public,” she said. And because of that, learning there are others who can relate, and who struggle with the same things, is an important step in regaining independence, and finding happiness. 

Stephan said that 87 percent of strokes are caused by a blocked vessel, like the ones that Ormond experienced.

Sudden, drastic change

Before the strokes, Ormond was an avid runner. She spent a career in credit collections working in accounts receivable at businesses across New England. She had a busy life. Then one December day while working at United Natural Foods in New Hampshire, she was sitting at her desk when all of that changed.

“I don’t know if you've ever experienced when you have the spots come in front of your eyes. I was getting a lot of them, to the point that I couldn't read the screen,” Ormond recalled. “I was going to get in my car and drive home, because I didn't know what was wrong. I got out to the lobby, and I collapsed.”

Ormond was rushed to Brattleboro Hospital, where doctors took scans of her brain, couldn’t find anything and sent her home to Greenfield. There, Ormond felt overheated. “I opened the front door and stood on the front porch in just my clothes, and I could not cool off," she continued. “And we're talking in December.”

When her daughter, Tracy Fialli, arrived from Reading, Ormond finally realized what was going on. 

“I sat down on the couch, and we were talking. All of a sudden, the whole top of my head felt numb. Like you lay on your arm and it goes to sleep, it felt like that,” Ormond said. “My face drooped. My arms went down.”

She was rushed to Baystate Franklin Medical Center, and from there, to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where she experienced a third minor stroke. Soon after, while in the waiting room to get a stint put in to prevent future strokes, she had a fourth, “massive” stroke, during which she lost consciousness.

“I remember feeling the clot going across my chest. It felt like there was something inside traveling across. A bubble or something,” Ormond said.  “This still gives me chills to this day, and I'm eight years out. Everything got quiet. There was no light at the end of the tunnel. There was none of that. My mother's beautiful face came in front of me, and it was just so peaceful. It was so peaceful. I've never felt such love and peace.

“And mom said to me very clearly, she said, 'Kate, not now. Go back.’ ”

For weeks after, Ormond went through intensive physical and speech therapy to regain the use of weakened limbs, re-learn simple tasks around the house like organizing clothing, and re-learn how to talk well. And while she regained her independence, today, she still has trouble saying words with more than two syllables in them, has to use a walker to move around, and posts reminders everywhere to keep herself on track.

Through the ordeal, Ormond said she has learned to lean on others for support, such as those in the Cooley Dickinson group, look to God for peace when the going gets tough, and rely on her own mettle to overcome day-to-day challenges.

“You find out what you’re made of. You really do. I never thought I was this strong.”

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@gazettenet.com.

How to connect

The goal of the stroke support group at Cooley Dickinson Hospital on Locust Street in Northampton is to promote an atmosphere of caring and cooperation, encourage new goals and friendship, renew hope and encourage independence, according to Diane Stephan, nurse manager for Cooley Dickinson Hospital’s emergency department. Stephan started the group. All stroke survivors, family members and caregivers are welcome. Attendance is free.

The group meets monthly every fourth Tuesday beginning at 10 a.m. in the obstetrics conference room near the hospital’s Childbirth Center. The conference room is on the first floor and is accessible by wheel chair. For more information, call Stephan at 413-582-5039.