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Neuroplasticity finds new pathways - Interview with Brenda Heartwell

Updated: Feb 14

Tina: Please introduce yourself and your brain injury, talk about as much as you feel comfortable with!

Brenda: I was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer in my left lung. The tumor, unfortunately, was attached to my heart via tube. And so in order to remove the tumor from my lung, the surgeon had to manhandle my heart. That resulted in an ischemic stroke - it created a blood clot. So I had the surgery on June 9, 2017, and on June 15, 2017, I had a massive ischemic stroke on the left side of my brain, which resulted in right side paralysis, completely all down the right side. I then went into neurosurgery where they removed the clot, they got 80% of the clot out. They weren't able to give me the drug to stop the stroke, because I'd had a massive lung surgery and my left lower lung was removed. So if they did give me the drug, I would have bled to death in a matter of moments. I then began the stroke recovery. And the thing that was most challenging about it was that the physiotherapist came in and said, Well, we will put you on a list to get you to GF strong, but it's going to take at least six months to get you there. I am a healthcare professional myself. And I realized, if I was sitting in this vegetative state for six months, I'd spend the rest of my life like that. And I wasn't prepared to do that. So I continued to call GS strong day and night until they got me an appointment. And I began five days a week therapy for about 18 months so I could get back to all my activities. I could read again, I could write again, I could count.

There were some things along the way. For instance, one day, I could barely walk still at this stage, and I was a runner. And I said to my husband, I think I can run and he said, you know you're having trouble walking. I said, Yeah, I know. But I think I can run. So he humored me and drove me down to the park, helped me out of the car and kind of helped me stand straight up so I wasn't wobbling too bad, right. And I started to run and my body completely remembered how to run even though I had a paralysis thing going on. Anyhow, that was fine. I did a 10k race in New York City on June 9 2018, one year to the day of my lung cancer surgery.

Tina: Wow, speedy recovery.

Brenda: So there were lots of things along the way that your brain had forgotten because parts of your brain were destroyed during an ischemic stroke. So some memories are gone, but not bad. You know, it's pretty good. I've returned back to work in 18 months. What I found very difficult was that some people were very empathetic and compassionate and others you could tell they felt uncomfortable around you. Even though anyone that meets me doesn't even know I've had a stroke. So there are a lot of interesting things that I do. Once a month I do a puzzle. And the puzzle helps me with my right hand dexterity because that did lag behind. I have always been a painter, you know painting stuff and I wasn't certain if I could paint. So my husband got me a blank canvas with my brushes. And I remember being very nervous. Oh my goodness. I don't know if I've got this skill. But as soon as I put the brush to the paint and on the canvas, it was like nothing ever happened. So, you know, brain injury is way worse than lung cancer. Brain injury is devastating on so many levels. There's not even a word to describe - like when I see people riding their bicycles without a helmet. I am horrified, I think to myself, if only they knew how hard I had to work for 18 months to get back to me. I mean, I worked constantly to get back to me, you know, because you just can't do what you normally would have done. So I have always been a big water person swimming, snorkeling everything. So I said to my GS, John, I said, I'm not sure if I can swim. So they put me in the pool, and I couldn't. The right side of my body was paralyzed and I had forgotten how to swim. It remembered how to run, interestingly enough, but forgot how to swim. [chuckles] So I would just kind of roll over like a log in the pool. So I said to them, what, what pieces of equipment do I need? So they showed me the equipment, and I bought all the pieces of equipment, and I went in the pool for half an hour every morning at my place and half an hour in the afternoon, till I could do everything and then I could swim again. So I was so determined that I do these things. When I said to Tim, my husband (I was trying to read a recipe) and I thought it said three cans of garbanzo beans. And it was the third cup. He came back and said are you shirts, three cans, I said, I'm sure three cans. He looked and he said no, it's a third of a cup. That's when I realized my numbers weren't very good. So I used things like Rummikub, the game, we have to count to 30 to get on the board, so I use games, card games and all those kinds of things. I will say that I got all kinds of reference books on stroke, rehabilitation, etc, but a brain injury is so devastating to your spirit, or obviously to your mind, it takes you so long to get past that past being exhausted. Like you are so tired, you're just so overwhelmingly tired all the time. And that took a good two years for that to pass. And I remember talking to the stroke doctor at GF strong and I said do you think I will recover? And she looked at me, she was a French lady from Montreal. She said, Well, everyone else has that question and sadly sometimes I have to say I'm not sure. But the thing is I'm pretty certain you're going to recover. Because you are so determined. She says your determination is going to make a big difference. So I have fully recovered.

Tina: Wow. Congratulations!

Brenda: Like I say there's some lagging in the writing. When I go to write, my hand gets very tired so I have to like for instance, now I use big paper clips, and still the little ones because I can't make them up. But I can read perfectly and analyze, because I've always been at a senior leadership level, reading extraordinarily difficult documents and analyzing them. So I can do all that again. And so I'm very fortunate, I feel very blessed that I've come through this as well as I have. And I feel very sorry for people that were just fortunate to have the amazing, amazing neuroradiologists I had. He refused to give up when I was in the room. And he's trying to pull that clot out. And he just refused to give up. And I thank God that he did that. If not, I will have 20% clot remaining, and with that, it would be we didn't know and it goes day by day.

The thing is that the brain has neuroplasticity. And I read a lot of books on this, so I believe in neuroplasticity, the theory of it. And I utilized it for instance, my right. I couldn't lift my right leg, you know, it was like I would look at it and I’d say ‘lift’, and it wouldn't do anything. So I did 1000 times a day, I'd look at my leg and say ‘lift’, ‘life’, and eventually it lifted. You know, I just kept doing that day after day - it was 1000 or five thousand - I didn't care. I just kept re-making my brain connected with my leg. Because that connection was gone. Yeah. So that's what I've done to recover. I've been very fortunate. Yeah. And I feel that people have to do everything they can in their power not to have a stroke or a brain injury because I found it very frustrating at GS strong when other patients were there and they were talking about their brain injury and and what upset me was that they were talking about their brain injury, but they didn't understand like, there was a young guy was, what 24 years old, and he was riding a bike. He was a courier, downtown Vancouver, he was riding a bike, and a car, and he thought it was the car’s fault. But I asked him were you wearing a helmet, he said no. And I thought to myself, Man, I would have done anything to prevent a brain injury. You know, I can now ride my bike again. It took a while, I was quite frightened about the balance. The other thing I did, because my balance was so off. I went into two years of private tennis lessons. I'd never played tennis before the brain injury. But I thought about it. I thought tennis was going to make me go right side, left side. So whenI went to my first tennis lesson. I'll never forget the look of the Instructor. He said, So what are you here for? I said tennis lessons. He says, Have you ever played tennis before? I said, No. He said, but you want to play tennis. You could see him look at me. You want to play tennis!? It's all kind of wobbling all over. I said, Yeah, I want to play tennis. So after the first year, he said to me, okay, now I can tell you he says I was shocked when you walked in here and wanted to play tennis and get paid for all his money for private lessons. He said, Yeah. I thought, are you crazy? You can hardly walk. But he says you have improved so much. And after the second year, he said, You know what? You're like any other tennis player now. But it was because I kept forcing my body to do it. You know, I never gave up, I just kept forcing my body to do it. Like, I don't like doing puzzles once a month. But I do it. Because it's good for me. You know. And I get lots of rest. I still get lots of rest. When I get tired. I go to bed right away.

Tina: Yeah you are so disciplined and determined!

Brenda: Yeah, I just feel very fortunate. My husband was amazing. He stood beside me like a rock. You know, first I couldn't walk to the front door. And I finally could walk to the front door. And then I can walk to the elevator.

Tina: Yeah. The baby steps.

Brenda: Yeah. And then he had to have a chair and I sat down and rested for 15 minutes for a walk back to the door. Then I can finally go to the corner. And I could walk down to Kits beach, then eventually I could walk like four or five blocks. So I feel very fortunate that for the experience I had, I had amazing doctors, amazing surgeon on my lung cancer. Amazing stroke doctor. Dr. Philip teal was amazing. Dr. Johnny - amazing doctors, I was very, very fortunate to have the best. And the care I received was fantastic.

Tina: That's awesome! I've interviewed like 10 Plus TBI survivors now and none of them have said that they've fully recovered. So one question that immediately pops up is what is your life like after having a brain injury and being able to have a complete recovery? Because most of the time people say their life has changed because they’re still struggling with writing or speech. But for you. What do you think this experience has brought to you?

Brenda: I believe the reason I'm fully recovered is when I realized there's something I couldn't do, the whole theory of neuroplasticity is knowing that the brain has the ability to develop new areas, like let's say mathematics. Yeah. So here's an example. I'm out with my girlfriends at lunch and we always play this game Rummikub after lunch. And I sat down. I knew the word rummy cube, but I have no memory of what it was. So I said to my friend, she's just a retired CFO, and so it's my turn to go. And I said, What am I supposed to do? She said, you know, put, put things together to equal 30. I said, 30. I said, What numbers make 30? She looked at me, she's kind of lashed out, Brenda, you know what 30 means! And I said, No, I don't actually remember. So people show me at the table, right? So on the way home, I stopped and bought the game and went home to my husband. Okay, we're gonna play Rummikub. You have to teach me how to add to 30 again. And we played that night and day. I'm an expert at Rummikub now. [chuckles]

I think it's about understanding that your brain has the capacity to heal. And I mean, it depends, every stroke is different. And that's the thing is every stroke is completely different. And I think I was not prepared to accept that anything wasn't gonna work again. You know, doing a 10k run in New York. It was the hardest run I've ever done in my life. By far. I've done many half marathons and made 10k runs. But that 10k Run in New York, and I knew that race route. I'd been on that race route many times in New York.

Tina: So I'm in New York too, like currently.

Brenda: So you know, the 10k in the park.

Tina: Central Park?

Brenda: Yeah so I've done that race many times for many things over the years. And so I knew it like the back of my hand, but it was the hardest race I've ever done. I remember coming around the corner of the end. And I just thought to myself: Brenda, just stay upright and keep breathing, because my body wanted to go flat on the ground, right? And I thought no, stay upright. And when I came across a line, I said to my husband to come, he came right away. I said just hold me, cuz I was afraid I was gonna go face down! But anyhow, I think I'm not sure if I answered your question. But I think believing in yourself, not giving up on yourself. And also being kind when you can't do something. figure out what it is that I can't do. I can't add to 30. Okay, what can I do to start adding to 30? Like coloring, my son in law brought me a coloring book and pencils. And I colored to help my hand hold a pencil again, you know. And resting, resting really well. And understanding that you know what, even if you've lost a portion of the brain capacity. There's still lots of brain working. And I've always been a lifelong learner. And I continue to learn constantly, you know, I was just reviewing a huge document here, a big legal document. And I think never giving up on yourself is so, so critical. Like I don't, I don't tell people now that I've had a stroke. Because if anyone sees me they in fact, if I do happen to mention they'll go you did!? They're so shocked. But if I get tired, then I might limp a little bit, my leg doesn't want to go as well. But that's it. I'm tired. So when you get that tired feeling you go to bed? To me, life is back to normal. I'm very grateful.

Tina: But give yourself some credit! You’ve taken up so much as well and although there are people helping you…

Brenda: Oh all the staff at GS strong are amazing! You cannot say enough good things about these people. They're all wonderful. They're so caring, they're empathetic, they're encouraging. Before I had my stroke, I was always a hyper energetic person. You know, get up, do 10k run in the morning, shower, walk 15 blocks to work, go for a walk at lunch, in the afternoon, do your work and walk back 15 blocks home, you know, cook a nice gourmet meal and have all kinds of energy that night, but I can't do that anymore. But I just accept that. You know what? I just can't do that anymore. But I can do a lot of other things. Sso accepting is what it is, you know, I think, to me the acceptance. And think of how fortunate I am. I have much more than most people do. And I'm grateful. But I have to say, when I see someone, were you riding a bike without a helmet? I just can't believe people would do that.

The thing is, I think I've always had a very strong fortitude. Many years ago, I was riding my bike on Vancouver Island on the galloping goose trail. And I got T-boned by a 100 pound massive dog that was running at high speed. And when the dog hit me, all I saw was black fur. I thought it was a bear, who was underneath. My bike was on top of his back before it crashed. And I thought it was a bear. And it was a 100 pound Mastiff. I still had 20 kilometers to complete the trail. But I didn't want to quit, because I'm not a quitter. So I got back on my bike with my bleeding knees and everything else and my elbow. And I rode the 20k, because that was my goal that I set out for myself initially, right. And I remember when I brought my bike back to Kits, took it to the bike repair shop, and they found hair from the dog grounded into the metal. He said that dog hit you at a very high speed. Because that and he showed me: see! this Dodgers embedded in the metal? So I think you know, never giving up on yourself is so critical. Never give up on yourself.

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