“When the weather changes, my leg gets tight,” the 55-year-old Nunica resident explains.
The quiet but efficient woman tries not to let that bother her as she continues through a life that, almost five years ago, she wondered if she would ever have again.
She shares her journey back from a stroke in a recently published book, “The Evergreen Outside My Window,” available in local bookstores and at Amazon.com.
A speech-language pathologist, Budzenski writes that her experience was her worst nightmare come true.
“One day I remember considering the likelihood of someone specializing in rehabilitation therapy, like myself, to actually end up having a stroke,” Budzenski wrote in her introduction. “What a horrible and odd thought to go fleeting through my mind.”
But on a snowy Valentine’s Day in 2007, her worst fears were realized.
Budzenski had a good day working with preschool-age children, then stopped to pick up pizza and cheesecake to share with her husband, Gary, and two of their three sons, Jon and Alex. The snow was piling up outside when they retired for the night. Sometime later, Budzenski woke up with a searing headache. When she tried to sit up, she realized she couldn’t.
In a journal he began writing at the hospital later, Gary notes that his wife told him she was feeling light-headed and like she was having an out-of-body experience.
“I watch as Donna’s right arm and leg go limp,” Gary wrote. “Now she can no longer even sit upright.”
With the help of their younger son, Jon, Gary rushed to drive through the snowstorm to get his wife to Mercy Hospital in Muskegon. Donna remembers being horrified by the thought that some of her peers at the hospital would see her in her vomit-covered pajamas and bare feet.
“I knew rationally this was truly the last thing I should be worried about, but my innate sense of pride kicked in — even at a time like that,” she wrote.
Donna said she wanted to respond rationally to the questions she was being asked by emergency personnel, but found she couldn’t. Then she started becoming more disoriented and confused.
A CT scan taken that night showed major hemorrhaging on the left side of the brain.
“My knees get weak as I see a splotch about the size and shape of a small pear in the middle of her head,” Gary wrote in his journal upon seeing the X-ray. “(The emergency room neurosurgeon) does not need to tell me this is serious.”
The neurosurgeon said that it was good that Donna had some awareness when she came into the hospital. With a hemorrhage as big as this, he expected her to be in a vegetative state, Gary wrote.
The swelling on Donna’s brain was pushing it off to the side and Gary quickly gave permission for surgery to release the pressure. A second CT scan revealed there was no further bleeding, so they decided not to do the surgery after all.
Some 36 hours after it all began, Donna woke up with distorted vision. She is comforted when her husband takes her hand and her pastor offers a prayer.
Two days after experiencing her stroke, Donna received her first visits from different therapists and the long road back to recovery began.
“When I had the stroke, I lost everything on the right side,” she said in a recent interview. “What really helped me was my therapists being so positive.”
Donna said she still remembers a particular nurse who tied her shoe too tight.
“I reached down, untied it and tied it back,” she said. “We realized it at the same time” how big an accomplishment that was.
“Sometimes I’d be so happy about the progress, like when I tied my shoe,” Donna continued. “Other times, like trying to dial a phone number, I would type the numbers and different numbers would appear. It took me many weeks to dial the phone.”
Donna said her speech therapy background helped her realize how much work was ahead and helped her be reasonable about what she could accomplish.
“She’s really fixated on getting better,” Gary said. “I’m an accountant, so I made a chart.”
One side of the chart was the “old Donna,” Gary said. It shows a big drop for the stroke, and then little lines upward as she progressed back toward that higher level.
Gary said Donna took the chart very seriously.
“She would ask me every day, ‘Where am I at today?’” Gary said. “So I put in these levels like ‘old Donna,’ ‘new Donna’ and ‘super Donna.’”
The chart was posted on the wall opposite her bed. The Budzenskis still have the chart.
Donna spent six weeks in rehabilitation before she was able to go home. Extra railings had to be put up and she would have to use a cane to get around, but she could do it and she was happy to go home.
Donna worked on her vision, and on using her right arm and leg. She retaught herself to type — something she found she needed to do in order to fill out the forms required for a visit to the Mayo Clinic.
Donna said they decided to visit Mayo to try to find out why she had the stroke in the first place. The Rochester, Minn., clinic confirmed what a Muskegon doctor had thought — hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia, a genetic disorder that causes abnormalities of blood vessels. Donna said they were informed that of the people found to have HHT, only about 5 percent of them will have it happen in the brain.
Further rounds of tests were done to determine that there were no other malformed blood vessels in the brain, although there were some in her lungs and liver. Doctors determined that those should not be a problem for her.
Donna said it was a relief to know that she could continue on with her recovery without worrying about a reoccurrence.
By the end of the summer, she was cleared to go back to her work in the school system. A few months later, she was able to start driving again.
Donna said writing the book started out as a form of therapy, then ended up as a quest to help people understand what having a stroke is like. She said she wanted people to understand that anyone can become ill at any time — and “you should live your life, not putting off things you want to do.”
Donna said people interacting with someone who has had a stroke should know that, even if the stroke victim can’t understand your speech, they can still read your body language.
“It hurts when people treat you condescendingly,” she said. “That’s probably what bothered me most. Or treating them like they have a hearing loss.”
Now that her three sons are grown and away from home, Donna said she cherishes the time she gets to spend with her husband.
“You just appreciate the little things,” Gary said. “The things that we deemed important when everything was going well ... when someone’s life and future is at stake — everything pales.”
Donna Budzenski’s book is available at The Bookman and at Family Christian Bookstores. It is also available for the Nook and Kindle e-readers.