Happiness is the truth

author: Carli Smythe

[Carli is a new volunteer with Destination Rehab. She is insightful, welcoming, and when talking with her, you realize that she has that rare gift of being able to truly and deeply listen. She will be writing a series of blog posts, helping to launch a new "young-onset" group, developing our Ambassador program, and assisting with our 2018 Adventure Cohort.] Photo credit: Jenna Francis - Carli is on the right, volunteering at our September event called Soar!

On my first night at the hospital, I ordered a hamburger. It took me four hours to consume half of it. I had difficulty swallowing, couldn’t walk because half of my body was limp, and couldn’t smile because half my face was drooped. There was also an event in the E.R. where my heart rate dropped perilously low, and I came to just as the nurse was about to give me CPR. We didn’t know what caused it, but the doctor was thinking stroke or heart disease. There was no easy explanation for any of this - I was 27 - I was healthy!

My brother was the one who found me on the kitchen floor, who scooped me up and realized I couldn’t stand, who drove me to the hospital. He rushed me to the “stroke or heart attack” line. I felt silly there, like an imposter. He stayed with me for hours, and yelled at the doctors when my machines started beeping, my hands gripping the gurney mattress and back arching from the pain. That night, I felt inconvenienced by this trip to the hospital because I had so much work to do for grad school.

It was a bad time for a medical emergency. My parents were out of town, I’d just separated from my boyfriend, and I didn’t want to bother anyone else - so I was alone after my brother had to leave. I watched him walk out of my room, without any idea how to ask him to stay like I so wanted. I was left alone with my hamburger and my thoughts. When would it happen again? Would I die that night? That night was the longest and the loneliest.

As the sun rose the next day, my room was a-buzz with family and friends, with hospitalists, neurologists, cardiologists, physical therapists, and nurses. My parents had safely returned home, my hand was held and my room filled with roses. I knew, on that second day, that my survival depended on the strength of my tribe - from family to professionals. I couldn’t move much, so all I had to express gratitude was my smile, crooked as it was. It was around the third day that my neurologist was able to diagnose me: I had a stroke. He said if the clot had been any bigger I would have died that afternoon. I happily went through all of the tests, but they never found anything to explain why a healthy 27 year old would have a stroke. It still remains a mystery.

Rehab took time. I walked with a walker for 25 yards, then 50. I took plenty of rests. Then I made it around the hospital floor. I trained to walk with a cane on level ground, then up the stairs. I practiced swallowing, and graduated from thick water to normal liquids in four days. Then they released me into the wild.

Four weeks after leaving the hospital, I walked across the stage to receive my graduate degree for teaching. Originally, I didn’t want to participate in graduation because I had a few incomplete courses, but my family wanted to cheer for the fact that I could walk across the stage at all. I walked into job interviews with my cane, and I started teaching English. One year later, I finished my Master’s degree, then ran a half marathon in Zion National Park on the anniversary of my stroke. The beauty of that National Park hit me in a powerful way, even more impactful due to my circumstances. My two best friends were at the finish line waiting for me, dancing for me, cheering for me, as the song “Happy” was playing over the loudspeakers. They had completed the race far ahead of me, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that they were with me, they were pushing me, and I was doing the things I wanted to do, even if the road was a long one.  

That first night in the hospital, I didn’t know how to ask for or accept the help of others. But living each day since has given me the opportunity to see all that my loved ones have to offer me: help, kindness, inspiration, motivation, love. It’s the cocoon of community that makes us better, that helps us thrive. After facing death, I’m committed to thriving, which sometimes leads me into uncharted territory. After teaching for five years, I’ve decided to take my career in a new direction, and my first step on this new path is through service. For the next year, I will be volunteering for and working for local non-profits and projects that I believe in wholeheartedly.

When I met Carol-Ann at Destination Rehab, I knew I wanted to contribute to her mission. Carol-Ann wants her participants to thrive by helping them engage in the outdoor and community activities available here in Central Oregon. I’m volunteering for Destination Rehab because I want everyone who is unsure of their ability to know that they can find a path to the outdoor and engaged life they desire. When I signed up for my half-marathon in Zion, I did it with a friend, and I leaned on her throughout the entire training.  I know what it’s like to have to stop and rest in the middle of an exercise. I know what it’s like to need someone to lean on. This organization is here for you to help you find your way on the path to your goals. Destination Rehab will merge your abilities and your interests and help you find a way to thrive in this beautiful world.