Before her life-threatening stroke, Paula Slappe always had her hand in several different projects at once. She had a full-time job at Blue Cross, was an avid volunteer and a mother to a young son. “I never slowed down,” she says. But life had different plan
It was a Saturday morning in late January 2014, and she was at her home office catching up on some work. The house was cool, so she had a jacket on while she read emails and checked her calendar for the coming week. But she started to get warmer and warmer. “I felt like I was literally on fire,” she says.
She stood up to go to the bathroom and splash cold water on her face – but she could barely make it to the room. Burning up, dizzy, and unable to speak, she thought, “What is happening to me?” She fell on the floor, hitting her head on the door jamb on the way down.
It’s fortunate that Paula is married to a nurse, who heard her call out and immediately dialed 911, recognizing the signs of stroke. “I was lying on the ground, unable to communicate,” Paula says. “I was very confused and my right side was completely numb. My son, who was only 3, was trying to tell me in his little voice that it was going to be okay. He was so scared.”
She was taken to Duke’s Emergency Room, and given the tPA drug, which if given early enough (new guidelines say within 4.5 hours of the onset of symptoms) can be shown to increase the odds of survival from stroke.
The four days at the hospital turned into four months at home, with intense speech and occupational therapy. She turned her characteristic energy and determination into her recovery efforts.
“I made a decision – this is not going to stop me,” she says. “My first physical therapy session, learning to walk again, I was slow as a turtle. But I told the therapist, you just wait until next time, and you’ll see what I can do. So I came back and asked her to add ankle weights.”
Therapy could be grueling, and it also forced her, a normally private person, to expose her vulnerability. “With my speech therapy, there’s a sentence that uses all of the muscles of the mouth – it’s ‘I am an American.’ I had to say this over and over. I had to say it in front of my mom and dad, and let them watch me stumble. Watch the look of sadness on their faces. I was not used to being so vulnerable.”
Her hard work paid off, and now, two and a half years later, she works out four or five days a week. She’s training for a Spartan Race next year, and at 45 says she’s “in the best shape of my life so far.” She still works at Blue Cross, and is also a professor at the Tillman School of Business at the University of Mount Olive, where she teaches business, strategy and leadership classes.
While that all may seem like the pre-stroke Paula, with her hands in several projects, she insists that life is different now. “After the stroke, you look at life differently. You think – is it really that serious? You don’t sweat the small stuff. We get one time around. I’m going to make it the best yet.”
And she’s also more patient with herself now. “I accept myself that I’m flawed because I had a stroke. It’s cliché, but you just don’t give up because something bad happened to you.” She also has learned to delegate and prioritize, and realizes that she doesn’t have to do it all, all the time.
Paula’s son started kindergarten recently. She says having the stroke has made her a more patient and fun mom, and she treasures the time they spend together. “We go to the park, play on the playground, we dance in the car. We act a fool,” she says with a laugh.
Before her son started school a few weeks ago, they took a family trip to the beach. “It was awesome. Being disconnected from everything but my family. Just seeing my son’s smiling face – there’s nothing greater than a child’s smile. When I fell the day of my stroke, and I saw my son’s little face looking down at me, I knew I had to get up again. He’s my motivation.”