Stroke: 2-time survivor now helps others

Emma Fox-Gatica
Emma Fox-Gatica, a two-time stroke survivor, volunteers at University of Iowa Comprehensive Stroke Center.

The morning Emma Fox-Gatica had the first of two strokes, she had no idea a new life journey was beginning to unfold. She was just very dizzy–so dizzy she couldn’t get out of bed.

“My husband at the time came back to the bedroom to get some change for the parking meter and he knew something was wrong as soon as he saw me. I was sweating profusely. When I told him I had vertigo, he said, “let’s go” and we went to the emergency room.

“I had no health problems. My cholesterol was normal. My blood pressure was fantastic. The strokes were my genetics catching up with me,” says Emma, whose father died of a stroke at age 69, and whose grandfather also had a stroke.

“When your father and your grandfather have strokes, you become very aware,” she says. “I knew I had risk factors, but I don’t think you’re ever prepared for a stroke.”

At first, doctors at the emergency room in her then-hometown of Dubuque, Iowa, thought she had an inner ear condition, but an MRI quickly dispelled that diagnosis.

“After surgery, they came in and said, “We have some bad news. You’ve had a very serious aneurysm.” The doctor also told Emma’s children that their mother probably would not walk or talk again. This was 18 years ago.

“Little did they know who they were dealing with,” the effervescent Emma laughs. “I never give up and I don’t believe in bad luck. My first stroke surgery was on Friday the 13th … oh, and I have two black cats!”

Emma followed a physical therapy regimen for four months and took anti-depression medication for six months. “I had surgically induced depression, which is common when surgery is done in a certain place in the brain, the place where I had my stroke. After six months, I was done with the medicine. I didn’t need it anymore.”

Emma persevered, even after a second stroke 10 years later when she received care at the University of Iowa Comprehensive Stroke Center, formerly directed by neurologist Harold Adams, MD.

Today, she says her strokes were blessings in disguise.

“I was led here. I am supposed to be here,” she says, referring to her volunteer work at the UI stroke center, where she meets with every stroke patient and his or her family.

“I call them my children,” she laughs. “They can be 19 or they can be 99, it doesn’t matter. I have developed so many wonderful relationships with people I met here in the hospital. They know they can call me at 3 am if they want to talk.”

Speech can often be disrupted by stroke, or as Emma says, “cause the words to not come out right.

“I have found that I can ‘speak stroke.’ Maybe it’s because my dad and grandfather had strokes, or maybe it’s because I’ve had two. I can often understand what a stroke survivor is saying when no one else can. I tell patients and their families that stroke doesn’t happen to one person. It happens to everyone around that person. I tell them to stay optimistic, never give up!”

Emma says one of the most important needs stroke patients have is to be touched.

“One time, after I watched a doctor talking to a stroke patient, I complimented her for the way she touched the patient. Touching makes us feel safe, which is something people who have had a stroke need a lot of.”

Has her strokes changed her life in other ways? Without question, she says with no hesitation.

“I don’t worry about the past, I don’t fret about the future,” Emma says. I live in the moment. I don’t mind being stuck in a traffic jam, I don’t mind waiting at a railroad crossing for a train. Things that used to bother me, don’t bother me. Strokes taught me what’s important in life, and that’s to live every moment.”

To Emma, living in the moment means savoring the world around her, including her retired husband, her five kids (“three biological and two who were ‘gifted’ to me”), and her “kids” in the in-patient stroke service.

“There is no way I give them anything that comes close to what they give me,” she says. “I get more than I can ever give back.”

Risk factors you can change:

  • Smoking
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Exercise
  • Healthy weight
  • Alcohol/drug abuse