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Mary Conroy Johnson: You can learn from her misfortune, healing

Mary and Bob Johnson, in the backyard of their home on River Hills Drive with their beloved dog Kinni, have reason to be more relaxed and optimistic following Mary's steady recovery from a massive stroke less than two months ago.

She is well known as the outpatient surgical nurse at River Falls Area Hospital and, maybe even more so, as a founder of the Free Clinic of Pierce and St. Croix Counties.

Mary Conroy Johnson has been married for 33 years to Dr. Bob Johnson, a longtime family practitioner at RFAH and an equally committed organizer and volunteer, like Mary, to the River Falls-based free clinic.

Mary is 59, wasn't overweight or on regular medications. Though a very busy person, she's not physically that active but considers herself fit except for some arthritis.

Yet on Aug. 19, while vacationing with Bob in Iowa to watch their son Neil (River Falls High School class of 2000), a professional golfer, compete in a tournament, Mary was felled by a stroke that paralyzed her left side, cut off a slice of vision and garbled her speech.

Without an immediate medical response and a relatively new treatment, she may have spent the rest of her life paralyzed.

Circumstances were in Mary's favor -- having a spouse at her side who's a doctor and being in Des Moines, which had a "certified stroke" hospital nearby.

Even more than the drama of their crisis, Mary and Bob want to spread the word that there are stroke warning signs, and that a person displaying symptoms must see a doctor without delay.

For Mary, looking back, there was one warning sign. Carrying a laundry basket up and down stairs at home, she experienced -- for the first time ever -- shortness of breath.

"I wasn't dizzy and had no chest pains, but I just couldn't catch my breath," said Mary.

She attributed this to "possible heat stroke" caused by the extremely hot summer.

But she also had shortness of breath while walking up and down golf courses during Neil's tournaments.

Her condition was later diagnosed as atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heart rhythm. In Mary's case, this was probably caused by a blood clot in her heart that would eventually break off and end up in her brain, resulting in the stroke.

Mary, who had gotten up during the night, slept again for several hours when she woke just after 4:30 a.m. Friday, Aug. 19, in the Iowa hotel where she and Bob were staying.

She fell while getting out of bed, hitting her head on a nightstand. Had she tripped over shoes or gotten her feet tangled in the sheets?

Neil came to help and look Mary over with Bob.

Bob knew that it wasn't just the blow to the head that was causing Mary's grogginess, irregular pulse, slurred speech and paralysis. Neil called 911.

When paramedics arrived, it didn't take Bob long to convince them that they were dealing with a stroke victim and not simply a head injury from a fall.

With that diagnosis, the ambulance bypassed a county hospital and went straight to the certified stroke-treatment hospital.

In the emergency room, a CAT scan confirmed that Mary's stroke was caused by a blood vessel clot on the right side of her brain, paralyzing the left side of her body.

Through a catheter inserted in her groin and threaded up an artery to her brain, Mary was administered tPA, a powerful clot-dissolving drug.

But first, Bob and Mary and had to weigh the risks of using tPA. It can work wonders but carries a small risk of inducing severe bleeding.

In Mary's case, the choice was clear: If she was to have any chance to regain use of her left side, she needed the tPA.

So the drug and other procedures were all done in about an hour and a half following Mary's falling out of bed and hitting her head. Despite her paralysis and disorientation, Mary remained conscious.

She was in intensive care for two days. Despite the tPA drug slowly dissolving her blood clot, Mary remained immobilized -- though "still spunky" -- for the first 24 hours.

"Those were some very dark hours for me -- for us," Bob said. "It was awful. I knew if she didn't improve soon the damage could be permanent."

It helped enormously, Bob said, to have Neil and his other son, Erik (RFHS class of 1999), close by for support and to make "astute observations" about their mother's needs.

Trying to take it hour by hour, Bob, shaken by the dire turn of events, did plenty of praying.

"When something like this happens, it reminds you that it's not all about science," he said. "Some things exceed that. Medicine is always unpredictable, and there is healing that goes beyond what can be explained."

By the second 24 hours, Mary improved so fast -- she was walking down the corridor using a walker -- that her neurologist said, "This is a miracle."

"I was so relieved," Bob said. "On that second day she just blossomed."

Mary was soon transferred to Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute at United Hospital in St. Paul.

She underwent physical, occupational and speech therapy before her release Sept. 1. She continues with outpatient therapy at RFAH.

In Mary's opinion, a key indicator of someone with stroke potential is high blood pressure.

"If you have that, see a doctor and get it checked and treated right away," Mary said.

Strokes -- known as a "brain attack" -- occur when blood flow to the brain is cut off. That blocks oxygen and nutrients. Brain cells can become damaged or die.

When that happens, bodily functions controlled by the brain are impaired or lost.

According to a Stroke Education Resource Guide given to the Johnsons after Mary's stroke, these are sudden stroke symptoms:

  • Numbness, weakness or paralysis of face, arm or leg, especially on one side.
  • Blurred or decreased vision in one or both eyes.
  • Severe headache with no apparent cause.
  • Difficulty speaking or understanding words.
  • Difficulty swallowing or unexplained choking.
  • Dizziness, loss of balance, especially when combined with another symptom.

The resource guide adds that stroke symptoms, unlike those of a heart attack, are typically ignored:

"Stroke symptoms are more subtle and often overlooked. A recent survey showed that 97% of people 50 and over could not even name one stroke symptom. Recognizing these symptoms is very important to getting a quick diagnosis and treatment that could save your life."