Debra Meyerson was on her way to a vacation in Lake Tahoe eight-and-a-half years ago when she felt a tingling in her right leg.
The Stanford University professor chalked it up to sitting in a car for four hours, but then she developed a bad headache.
Both turned out to be early symptoms of a near-fatal stroke, caused by a blockage in her left carotid artery.
“Sitting in the emergency room that afternoon, I seemed relatively stable,” the now-61-year-old writes in her new memoir, “Identity Theft: Rediscovering Ourselves After Stroke” (Andrews McMeel Publishing). “I was concerned I might miss the start of the fall class I was supposed to teach at Stanford in a couple of weeks.”
But the ensuing hours and days brought what the mother of three describes as a “slow-motion fall off a cliff.”
Soon, her right side was almost completely paralyzed. She couldn’t move her arm at all. “My speech [became] more slurred, then soft, then stunted,” she writes.
Meyerson, who was 53 at the time, doesn’t remember when she became fully aware of her condition. “But,” she writes, “nothing could have prepared me” for the truth: that one bodily blip had rendered her into someone “largely immobile, completely dependent” and, worst of all, unable to speak.
For Meyerson, an academic at a top-tier institution who specialized in sociology and issues of identity, being unable to communicate “would be no better than life in a cell,” she writes.
She was completely mute for the first three weeks after her stroke — until a momentous inpatient rehab session, when a speech therapist found that she could sing words even if she couldn’t talk. (Meyerson’s stroke affected the left side of the brain, which controls speech, but melody is controlled by the right side of the brain.)
The therapist made up a song for Meyerson, and she wept as she sang, “My name is Debra Meyerson” over and over.
Moments like those — where Meyerson was able to reconnect to her sense of self — proved to be incredibly important in her recovery process, which entailed intensive physical, occupational and speech therapy.
The hardest part of the stroke, she writes, was how it left her “grappling to understand my own identity . . . [It] took away my capacity to work as I did before, many of my abilities and many other pieces of the life I had built over five decades.”
Rethinking her career was a major part of that. Teaching had been “a calling” for the Californian, who had thought of herself as “Professor Debra Meyerson.” But after her stroke, she got a new full-time job: relearning “fundamental skills,” like how to walk, raise her right arm and speak.
She made significant strides — but not enough to keep her tenured role at Stanford, which she left in 2013.
“I grieved the loss of my author and professor self,” she writes. But there was, ultimately, an upside: The experience forced her to think about what she loved about being a professor, and considering other ways to satisfy those needs.
Slowly, she realized that what she missed the most about academia was campus culture and spreading knowledge. This eventually led her back to the school, in a less demanding but still satisfying consulting-professor role.
“You have to give yourself space to mourn all that you have lost — to have a pity party,” she tells The Post. “But I’m pretty good at leaving that party quickly and accepting my new reality and looking forward to what I can make out of it.”
‘But I’m pretty good at … accepting my new reality and looking forward to what I can make out of it.’
While she maintains that having a stroke “sucks,” she has found that a number of positive things have come from her experience.
She’s figured out what she cares about the most: family, fitness and advocacy. And she’s figured out ways to enrich her life with those pillars — including active family vacations, with hiking and horseback riding, and learning how to swim unassisted.
That doesn’t mean things are back to normal, though.
“Too many people still talk about how most recovery happens in the first 12 months,” says Meyerson, who still can’t use her right hand and gets frustrated that she can’t put on a swim cap by herself.
Still, she believes she continues to improve, nearly nine years after the disaster.
“No matter how hard some of us work, we still may have disabilities we didn’t have before. That can’t be thought of as failure. It’s just our reality,” she writes.
“Rebuilding a life of joy and meaning — that’s what’s really important,” she writes. “And it can be done despite ongoing disabilities.”
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