Lawnae Hunter was ecstatic to escape snowy Oregon and her hectic schedule for a 10-day Christmas vacation with her son, daughter-in-law and then-9-year-old granddaughter in the Turks and Caicos Islands.
The foursome savored lounging by the pool, combing the beach for seashells and sampling the seafood in the remote Caribbean nation.
Over what was supposed to be their final breakfast, they reminisced about how much fun they'd had, then headed to the pool one last time. Lawnae's granddaughter, Lauren, begged her to go down the pool slide with her.
"I wanted to be that hip Nana," Lawnae said. "I said, 'Sure, honey, let's go.'"
Hand-in-hand, Lawnae and Lauren climbed the steps to the windy slide. Lauren went first, squealing as she sped down, then Lawnae eased herself onto the slippery slide and raced toward the water.
"When I landed in the pool, I was choking and I couldn't breathe," said Lawnae, who was 65 at the time in 2014.
Lifeguards rushed to help. When her son, Dan, reached her, he said, "Mom, your face has fallen. You had a stroke."
Dan told Lawnae he was calling an ambulance.
"Don't you dare," she said. "I'm in my bathing suit."
Lawnae insisted on returning to her room, where her daughter-in-law, Kim, helped her change clothes. When Lawnae arrived at the hospital an hour and a half later, the left side of her body had gone limp.
Doctors said they weren't equipped to treat stroke patients. So Dan arranged for an air ambulance to take her to Florida. In the air, Kim held her mother-in-law's hand.
"They were sure I was going to die," Lawnae said.
Nearly 10 hours after the onset of the stroke, Lawnae arrived at a Florida hospital. Due to the delay in treatment, Lawnae experienced complications and required a breathing tube. When it was inserted, she suffered a damaged trachea.
Her family surrounded her day and night, balancing fear and frustration.
"It was a wait-and-see situation," Dan said. "We were truly frightened we might lose her."
It wasn't the Christmas they'd imagined.
Lawnae's condition stabilized and her trachea became the focus. Lawnae had a tracheotomy and couldn't speak. Although her left side remained immobile, she's right-handed so was able to scribble notes in a spiral-bound notebook. She also prayed: "Dear God, if I have any brain cells left, help me get out of here and to a place that can help me."
She wrote in the notebook, "Take me to Stanford." Lawnae knew Stanford's reputation as a top hospital and she wanted to be there for her care.
Her family arranged for another air ambulance to Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto, California. Doctors there removed four centimeters of her damaged trachea. After four months of rehab learning to speak and move again, "my trachea is as good as yours," she said.
Along the way, Lawnae also learned the likely cause of her stroke: a benign tumor pressing on her brain. The tumor was removed. Her left side remains compromised; her arm remains limp, but she is able to walk with a cane.
The most difficult part of her recovery was accepting that her body may never work the same. In rehab, she learned to reflect on her accomplishments from the prior day and the blessings in her life.
"Finally," she said, "I just came to a place of peace."
She also had invaluable help from her younger brother, Patrick, who flew in from Colombia. For six months, he drove her to doctors' appointments and helped with tasks like cooking.
Seven months after her stroke, and back in Oregon, Lawnae returned part-time to her job in real estate development. She also became a stroke advocate for her community.
"Throughout my journey, I kept thinking, 'What can I do to help people who come after me?'" she said.
Lawnae and a doctor co-founded Stroke Awareness Oregon, a nonprofit organization that educates people and connects local stroke survivors. Her group plans to bring stroke education into local schools, and recently received a grant to publish educational materials in Spanish.
More people need to know the signs of a stroke, she said. Since learning the details, she realized that she missed them herself. A month before her stroke, she had a brief episode of not being able to speak while on the phone with a friend.
"I couldn't make sense of why I couldn't talk," Lawnae said. "But it passed and I didn't go to the ER. Would it have changed my outcome? Yes, it probably would have. I relive this every day."
Her son wonders about it, too.
"Were there signs earlier that day we should have noticed that something was amiss?" Dan said. "What if we hadn't encouraged her to go on that waterslide?"
Lawnae continues to do physical therapy, acupuncture and water therapy. Because various sorts of therapy have been so important to her recovery, she encourages fellow stroke survivors to get the therapy they need.
"This is a hard road, but it's not the end of the world," Lawnae said. "But how we recover, it's really based on our attitude."
Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.
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