Courtesy Dina Pestonji
By Dina Pestonji (as told to Meghan Jones)
In the first week of 2013, 29-year-old Dina Pestonji suffered two strokes within a week, one of which left her unable to speak or move for weeks. She eventually realized that she wanted to get her life back and fought for months to do so through an intensive period of rehab. Now, the TEDx speaker and bestselling author of Surviving Myself shares her story:
On January 7, 2013, I was put into an MRI machine that would constantly monitor my brain. No one could tell why I had suddenly started convulsing and then fallen unconscious. However, the MRI showed that the pressure in my brain was building up at such a rapid rate that if I didn’t have emergency brain surgery to relieve the pressure, I would die. And so my parents had to give consent, and I had brain surgery that day to remove part of my skull to relieve some of that pressure.
I would eventually learn that I’d suffered two strokes in the past week, but until I fell unconscious, nobody thought it was a stroke. I had no risk factors—I had no family history; I’m super healthy; I’ve very conscious, nutrition-wise, about what I put into my body; and I’m also very athletic. I don’t do drugs, I’ve never smoked. I occasionally drink a glass of wine, but I’m pretty healthy. Yes, there were some warning signs—I’d been experiencing massive headaches and shooting pains up and down my body—but because I’m so healthy, the stroke wouldn’t have even occurred to anyone as a potential suspect. (Make sure you’re aware of these common signs of stroke you could be ignoring.)
The brain surgery was a four- to six-hour procedure, and there was no guarantee that I was going to wake up, or that, if I did wake up, I was going to be the same person. When I woke up, I couldn’t talk. I had lost my ability to speak, and I was paralyzed on the entire right side of my body. I couldn’t move, and I was going in and out of consciousness. I could barely open my eyes. I would try to muster up the energy to say something, but I couldn’t.
For the next several weeks, I remained in that state, and I was blissfully naïve. There were no mirrors, so I never knew how I looked. I knew something had happened, but I didn’t really know I’d had brain surgery. So I succumbed to thinking, “OK, every day people come in, they smile, they are very friendly. I see my parents and my sister every day, people feed me, they do my laundry. I don’t do anything.” I also really didn’t remember the past. I didn’t know what I had lost.
After about a month and a half, I had regained some mobility, but I still couldn’t speak. One day, my mom lifted me up to see my face in the hospital mirror. I…could see that my skull was clearly indented. My mom took me back to my bed and she said, “Dina, do you remember? You were in the hospital,” and I nodded Yes, since I still couldn’t speak. Then she said, “OK, do you remember you had a job?” And with my left hand, I drew a picture of a house. And my mom said, “Yes, you had a condo but we didn’t know what was happening to you, so we had to cancel that as well.”
That was [when] I realized, “OK, something has happened to me, but I have to get better.” I remembered I was 29, and I was still in the prime of my life. That was the worst day of my life, but it was also when it all made sense. In that day, I had a choice. I could give up, which was really easy to do because it was like I was starting from scratch, or I had to push forward, full steam ahead, and get back to being me. I said, “OK, I’m 29, I’m not going to stay paralyzed forever.” That, to me, was when rehab started. Read some more stories about the most unbelievable medical recoveries ever.
The first time I spoke was six weeks after my brain surgery—I said “Tea.” My parents and my doctors would help me practice speaking. If I said one letter of the alphabet, I wouldn’t stop there; I’d think, “OK, how many more can I say?” I would watch their lips and try to imitate them. It was the teeny little steps of progress each day that helped me to go from standing up on my own two feet, to actually moving that one foot forward, and then learning how to walk with a cane, and slowly jogging. It was a very, very slow process. I’ve been told I recovered very rapidly, but to me, it felt very, very slow because I so desperately wanted my life back.
Elizabeth Klunder/Courtesy Dina PestonjiAfter about four months, I had my second brain surgery to reattach my skull, and then I stopped doing rehab two months after that. I was pretty functional; speech took the longest time for me to regain, but my motor skills were fine. I did a duathlon seven months after my strokes and then completed a half marathon ten months post-stroke. I’m on blood thinners, and I always will be, and I’m fine with that.
There are two things I think everyone should know. Prevention is very important—things like healthy eating, exercise, and avoiding smoking and doing drugs. Even if you do all that, though, things could still happen to you that you least expect. I’m a shining example of that because I did do all of those things. But the good news is that I also think that’s a big part of what helped me to recover so well. I had a good base. I’ve always had a very healthy way of living, and that is so important.
But the other thing, something that I think every single person on the planet is dealing with right now, is mental health. I obviously can’t say definitively, but I think that stress was a contributing factor to my stroke. We live in a society where your mental health is put on the back burner. Before my stroke, I had never taken care of my mental health. It was normal for me to experience stress and anxiety and burn out on a weekly basis. The amount of pressure I put on myself, for over 20 years, was not normal.
Now, I place as much emphasis on my mental health as I do on my physical health. I meditate every single day—short meditations that take two minutes a day, but they really help center me. I take walks to help me clear my mind, surround myself with positive people, and turn off my phone and social media at the end of the day to be in a calm, happy place to have restful sleep. Everything I do is centered around mental health so that I never have to be the person that I was before. It’s vital to take time for yourself and take care of your physical, emotional, and mental health each day. Next, learn more about how to prevent stroke with these 30 habits that reduce your risk.
You can read more of Dina’s story in her memoir Surviving Myself: How an Eating Disorder, a Car Accident and a Stroke Taught Me to Love My Life and Finally Start Living It.