A day after performing 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' this radio announcer couldn't speak

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg, American Heart Association News

Stroke survivor Karen Moyer (right) with her son, Edward. (Photo courtesy of Karen Moyer)
Stroke survivor Karen Moyer (right) with her son, Edward Rich. (Photo courtesy of Karen Moyer)

Radio announcer and producer Karen Moyer was exhausted after putting in long days on the air at Dallas' classical radio station WRR over Labor Day weekend.

Sunday was the station's Picnic In The Park at the Dallas Arboretum. Moyer, an accomplished singer, sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" accompanied by the Dallas Wind Symphony. She shook hands and took photos. She also noticed she was having a hard time remembering people's names – even co-workers she saw every day.

She chalked it up to lack of sleep, not linking it to the frequent headaches she'd been having. The next morning was Labor Day. Moyer, who was 48, did some chores around the house. Then she got back in bed to rest. A single mom, she was about to wake up her 15-year-old son, Edward Rich, when she felt an odd shift inside her eyes. She blinked.

When she opened her eyes again, Moyer couldn't see clearly. She swung her legs over the edge of the bed and tried to stand up. But her right side was weak. She collapsed to the floor. She called out to Edward, but her mouth wouldn't form words.

Edward thought it strange that, at 10 a.m., his typically energetic mom wasn't already out of bed. He went to check on her. Her speech was incoherent, and she struggled to get up. Edward thought she might be having a heart attack and called 911.

At the hospital, doctors put Moyer in a medically induced coma for two weeks. When she woke up, she went in and out of consciousness. She spoke, thinking she was making perfect sense. But her words were jumbled and incoherent.

Moyer learned she'd had a hemorrhagic thalamic stroke. It's a type of stroke that involves bleeding – hemorrhaging – in the brain's thalamus, a part that controls sensation, balance and memory.

She stayed in the hospital for more than two months doing speech and physical therapy. She couldn't walk or communicate with words. "I was extraordinarily lonely," she said.

Doctors told her that if she hadn't been healthy otherwise – Moyer exercised often, ate a mostly vegetarian diet and drank alcohol infrequently – she likely would have died. They linked her stroke to having taken birth control on and off for decades.

Just before she was discharged from the hospital, Moyer wrote thank you notes to the doctors and nurses who helped her. Using her left hand, it took close to an hour to write a single sentence in script. "I think that stubbornness and determination is the only reason I'm functioning," she said.

She left the hospital in a wheelchair. Two weeks later, while at outpatient therapy, Moyer learned her father had died. Friends helped her pack a suitcase and get to Michigan for the funeral. An only child, her mother had died from cancer years earlier.

Moyer couldn't walk or talk for a year, and her left eye turned images upside down. It took several years and help from a neurological ophthalmologist and prism glasses before she could see more normally out of both eyes.

Her synagogue, where she sings in the choir, organized a committee to help her with daily tasks and getting to and from doctors' appointments. "If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't have made it as far as I have," Moyer said.

Part way through her recovery, she moved into an assisted living facility because it was too hard to care for herself in her home, a two-story 1920 colonial. She stayed there for over a year. Edward moved in with his father.

Finally, with continued therapy, Moyer was able to walk with a cane. People understood her speech. She believes her master's degree in vocal music performance and vocal pedagogy helped her understand the science behind the voice and the tools for self-repair.

"I got better with every passing month," she said.

Now, 15 years later, Moyer is 63 and living independently in her own apartment. Her right arm and leg are partially paralyzed, and she wears a brace on each. When she buys shoes, she has to purchase two pairs because she needs a larger size for the braced leg.

Her world, though, is smaller. She used to ski, hike and lift weights; now she doesn't even feel safe walking on uneven pathways. "I've lost much of my strength and my life is much more sedentary," she said.

Still, she exercises. She walks a path around the lake near her home. She's started going to a health club. A trainer volunteers to help with exercises. She gets around in an adaptive car. She's dedicated to a healthy diet, too – smoothies, salads, cauliflower pizzas.

She enjoys spending time with her three cats, and recently visited Edward in Brooklyn. He rented a motorized wheelchair for her to use during the trip.

"Medically, I feel like she's doing very well," said Edward, who's now 30. "One thing that has saved my mother from the trap of hopelessness during the slow recovery from her stroke is her levity. She has an innate silliness about her. She's goofy and sweet, and the beauty of her humor has shined throughout this grueling process of recovery."

Moyer spends the bulk of each day now looking for work as an organizational director. Getting a job has been a challenge. While she's had part-time jobs since her stroke – as a voice teacher at a music conservatory and a music teacher – she hasn't been offered a full-time role, even after applying for more than 500 jobs.

Despite her employment and physical challenges, she's thankful for how far she's come. Therapy has been essential. "The goal is to move," said Moyer.

Edward is grateful, too. "Sometimes, I forget how lucky I am to still have her," he said. "Fifteen years after her stroke, I'm still able to hug my mother and tell her I love her, and that's something I hope to never take for granted."

Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

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