On March 1, 2016, Maria Othman was working on her laptop in bed when suddenly, and for no apparent reason, she collapsed onto her husband, Ronnie Ding How Eng, who had been fast asleep.
“When I couldn’t respond or wake up, he rushed me to the hospital,” related Maria, 59, an administrative and financial director in a consulting company.
A CT scan revealed that she had suffered a ruptured aneurysm in the centre of the frontal lobe.
(Aneurysm is a weakened area in the wall of an artery that supplies blood to the brain. When a brain aneurysm ruptures, it can cause internal bleeding and stroke.)
On the third day of hospitalisation, Maria had emergency endovascular coiling surgery to block the blood flow into the aneurysm.
Four days later, she had spasms after which she became paralysed on the left side of her body.
She recalled: “I had no spinal control, could not hold up my head and was bedridden.”
Maria’s “floppy” state was due to extreme weakening of her muscles. To move her around, she had to be strapped in a reclining wheelchair, to prevent her from sliding out.
Luckily, her speech was not affected but, at that time, she could not remember certain things like passwords, her MyKad number and close ones’ birthdays. Now, her memory is back to normal.
She spent three weeks in the intensive care unit, where she was mostly sedated. She was also tube-fed with a high-carbo liquid meal until the third week, before being switched to a fibre-rich diet. In total, she five weeks in hospital.
When she returned home, she was traumatised that she could no longer sleep in her bedroom. Instead, she had to occupy a day bed in the sitting room for the convenience of those caring for her.
“I realised that I would need help for all my needs; I thought I would be better off dead. I told my husband, if this happens again, don’t save me,” she said.
But her husband stood by her with words of consolation.
She said: “He told me that he will always love and care for me, come what may. He told me we will take this journey together.”
He took care of her single-handedly even until today. Although she initially felt dejected, Maria was determined to get her life back and worked hard at rehabilitating herself.
The next day, her husband sent her to the National Stroke Association of Malaysia (Nasam) in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, for assessment of her condition and to see what therapies or treatments were needed.
At first, she had to go to Nasam in a mobility van as she was using a reclining wheelchair. Three weeks later, her muscles had toned up sufficiently for her to use a normal wheelchair. Her husband then drove her for her appointments.
In the first year with Nasam, Maria went for physiotherapy on a one-to-one basis, three times a week. From the second year onwards, the visits were twice weekly.
Maria also went to Nasam for occupational therapy once a week to re-learn how to write and use her left hand.
She underwent acupuncture on the left side of her body, thrice a week at an acupuncture centre in Petaling Jaya.
Maria has no recollection of what happened to her until after she recovered and read the diary her husband had kept about her condition.
Since February last year, her husband took her on weekend outings to villages and small towns.
Thirteen months after her stroke, she returned to work. She had wanted to resign but her employer refused to accept her resignation. She was allowed to continue to work, with a change in schedule.
“It’s shorter now. It used to be four hours a day and four days a week. Now, I go to the office once a week for only two hours,” she said.
“Any matter that needs my immediate attention will be emailed to me, thanks to the wonders of the Internet. The nature of my work has also changed as I do more administrative work, not much field work.”
Stroke has somewhat changed her temperament.
“I am known to be a very demanding person with a very short fuse and have no fear of anyone. Even now, I really cannot tolerate fools,” she said.
However, Maria is much calmer now, she said.
“Maybe I realised that I need lots of help and tolerance from others to get better and be able to walk again. It could also be related to the stroke.”
Life after stroke
These days, Maria keeps busy surfing the Net to keep up with the latest news and matters of interest.
With her husband’s help, she continues to do the required physical exercises regularly to strengthen her legs, with emphasis on the left leg.
Nowadays, the couple goes out quite frequently for food, shopping and trips.
“We also meet up with friends for lunches, teas and dinners. Family and friends are important to me. They are my pillars of strength,” she said, adding that her friends had organised a foodie holiday in Penang and made sure the trip was wheelchair-friendly. She has also gone for short weekend holidays to Melaka.
Recently, she took a flight to Johor to attend a business conference. It was her first flight after nearly two-and-a-half years.
Maria and Ding also participate in Nasam activities such as its annual food and fun fair. This Sunday, she will be in her wheelchair to participate in the Walk 4 Health event in Bukit Jalil park. Maria still struggles to walk and needs a walking frame for support.
Early this year, Maria was in the pioneer batch of six Nasam Ambassadors who were given intensive public speaking training. Their mission is to participate in talks to help increase stroke awareness and educate the public, and to inspire other strokees. They share their own personal experiences in their journey of recovery from stroke.
Ding is also involved in the Nasam Carers Support Group aimed at providing help and support, in particular to carers who are family members of the strokees.
Maria said: “We hope our involvement in these programmes will bring motivational support to improve the lives of strokees and their families. When any family member has stroke, the importance of making changes and coming together jointly to help or assist in respective roles will greatly assist the strokee to have the strength to be better.”