My Stroke

updated 07/10/2006 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/10/2006 01:00AM

Julia Fox Garrison was at work when the sudden pain struck. "It felt like a volcano erupting in my head," says Garrison, then a 37-year-old customer-support manager for a suburban Boston software firm. Congested from a head cold, she had taken an over-the-counter cold medicine offered by a coworker. Two hours later, when the pain made it impossible to stand, sit or pick up a phone, she asked an assistant to drive her to the hospital. "I said, 'Please call my husband and tell him to come right away,'" she says. "I just knew I was dying."

She came awfully close, suffering a massive hemorrhagic stroke that afternoon, July 17, 1997, that left her paralyzed on much of her left side. Though doctors didn't know if she would survive and couldn't explain what triggered the sudden bleeding in her brain, she struggled to regain her life—with courage, determination and an unquenchable sense of humor. Now Garrison, 46—who has a son, Rory, 11, with husband Jim, 61, a technical writer—chronicles that journey in her memoir Don't Leave Me This Way: Or When I Get Back on My Feet You'll Be Sorry. As the title suggests, anger—at the loss of control she felt as a patient; at doomsaying doctors—helped fuel her recovery as well. "To see the battles that she's fought and won," says her mother, Ruth Ann Fox, "is incredible."

The war began without warning for Garrison, who had no history of illness. As she was rushed into surgery at Lahey Clinic hospital, "I asked the nurse, 'Am I having a stroke?' He said, 'You want a smoke?' He was making a joke because he didn't want to be like, 'Yeah, you're going to croak.'"

After five hours of neurosurgery to relieve pressure on her brain, she awoke with bandages covering a scar from the top of her head to her right ear. It was weeks before she looked in a mirror. "My face looked like a melted candle. The left side was paralyzed," she says. When she asked a specialist—dubbed Dr. Bleak in the book—if she'd walk again, he wouldn't guess. Says Garrison: "I was like, 'Hell yeah, I'm going to walk again!'"

As much as she kept up a brave front—"She was the one who kept us going," says Jim—she had her moments. "At night, it would come crashing down. It was like, 'Oh my God, how am I going to get out of this situation?'"

The answer: attitude. Unable to fulfill a request from one "smug neurology guy" to count backwards from 100 by 7's, she shouted, "How do you know that I wasn't stupid before my stroke?" Told by Dr. Bleak that she was unlikely to regain the ability to move her left hand, "my goal from that point was to flip him the bird with that hand," she says. "I said, 'Everybody needs a goal.'"

Her determination—and insistence on following her gut—paid off. Initially diagnosed with cerebral vasculitis, an often-fatal condition for which she was treated with chemotherapy, she pushed for second opinions—and found she didn't have the condition after all. "Her positive attitude, humor and drive all helped her recover," says the neurologist she calls "my hero," Dr. Kinan Hreib.

Two months after her stroke, Garrison came home, where Jim played caretaker as she worked to regain function. One night, trying to clean up after dinner, she tumbled to the floor, making a huge mess. "I kept telling Jim I was sorry," she says. "He put his head on my chest and started crying too."

It was only in November 2000 that she heard about a Yale study showing a possible link between an ingredient in some cold medicines—phenylpropanolamine, or PPA—and a risk of strokes in women. Among the drugs: Tavist-D, the product Garrison took before her stroke. The next year, her neurologist agreed that the medicine may have brought on the stroke. "I thought: finally, an answer."

And a new battle. In 2002 Garrison filed suit against Novartis Consumer Health, Inc., claiming that the company failed to warn consumers about the drug's hazards. (Novartis has denied that PPA causes strokes and says a warning was not warranted.) A trial is set for October in Boston.

Garrison, whose left side remains mostly paralyzed, has good days and bad. "There's a lot of missing real estate in my brain," she says. Son Rory—whose reaction to his mom's stroke included fears that he would have a heart attack—is thriving, and Garrison has defied predictions by learning to walk (with a brace and a cane) and to drive a car. She's sharing her story with medical and stroke recovery groups. "I tell people to advocate for themselves, laugh a lot and wear sensible shoes," she says. Or not, as the case may be. One of these days, she confides, "I intend on going Rollerblading."

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