While faced with many challenges along the way, one local young woman proves determination and perseverance can help overcome almost anything
It has been said what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The familiar saying comes to mind during a phone interview with Sarah Jane Downton of St. John’s.
Early into the interview, Downton apologizes for any out-of-context words she might say, explaining that she has aphasia. “If I say the wrong word, I’m sorry,” she said.
Often caused by a brain injury, aphasia is a communication disorder that affects the ability to speak, read and write. Downton’s brain injury occurred in March 2017. Having completed two years at Memorial University she was living in Wolfville, Nova Scotia where she was pursuing a Nutrition and Dietetics degree at Acadia University.
Prior to the stroke, she’d been suffering from a headache for over a month. A doctor prescribed medication for a migraine. Rather than ease, the headache worsened.
A return trip to the doctor suggested she head to hospital in Kentville. By this time her roommate noticed Downton wasn’t making any sense when talking. “I was in that much pain. So (her roommate) called 911.” Diagnostic tests revealed Downton had a blood clot on her brain. She was taken by ambulance to a hospital in Halifax.
Before arriving, she suffered a stroke. It was March 15, 2017. Downton was 20 years old. Upon arrival at the hospital, she underwent surgery to relieve the pressure on her brain. “They took some bone flap off the left side of my brain… and they put me in an induced coma.”
After learning of their daughter’s stroke, Downton’s parents, siblings and boyfriend flew from St. John’s to Halifax to be by her side. About two weeks after the stroke, she had another surgery where doctors removed the blood clot.
Downton remained in a coma for over five weeks before finally waking up on April 23. She had no idea it was her 21st birthday. “I didn’t realize at first that my hair was gone. But when you have a brain surgery, they have to shave your head,” she said.
American motivational speaker Denis Waitley once said, “Determination gives you the resolve to keep going in spite of the roadblocks that lay before you.”
Downton’s recovery took time, patience and a whole lot of determination. “I went from getting all A’s in university to not being able to read or talk… then, when the words started coming out, they started coming out wrong. Then I was diagnosed with aphasia.”
Downton gives an example of how aphasia affected her communication skills. “I’d point and say ‘I want a tissue.’ But tissue wouldn’t come out. It could be milk or cheesecake or any other word.”
After several months of therapy in Halifax, she returned to St. John’s in August 2017 where she started rehabilitation, as an outpatient, at the Dr. L.A. Miller Centre. Her rehabilitation continued until June 2018. “I don’t have any physical limitations now, not to the extent of other people who have had strokes. My aphasia was my biggest downfall.”
Staying on track
Intent on staying on track in pursuing a career as a dietitian, she took a position as a food service worker with Eastern Health this past summer.
While her recovery has been steady, Downton did encounter a setback when she was diagnosed with epilepsy but, it would take much more than that to stop her. On May 13 she will graduate with a Nutrition and Dietetics degree. Her goal is to work as a dietitian. “As a future health care professional, I feel I’ll be able to help others because of what I’ve experienced… being critically ill.”
Looking back, the support she received helped her stay positive and move forward in her recovery. “Yes, this is a horrible thing that happened to me. It was traumatic and life altering. But I’m a very motivated person,” she said.
Telling her story is another way for Downton to help others. Don’t ignore the signs of stroke, she said, and if you have a persistent headache, get it checked.
“When I was in rehab and people would ask why I was there and I’d say ‘I had a stroke…’ people would (gasp)… but I’d say, ‘Yes, you could have a stroke at any age.’ People don’t know that.”