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St. Joseph's Health Centre Toronto

Life after a stroke: how one dancer got back on her feet

julie

Julie Tomaino was in a hospital bed, unable to move or speak but fully aware of everything happening around her. Her mom, husband and other friends and family were coming into the room, bringing cards, flowers and get well wishes. But despite her best efforts, she couldn’t say anything to them or even let them know that she knew they were present.

Two days earlier, Julie had suffered a stroke. She was only 38 years old.

“My brother tells me that was the scariest time,” she said. “He said that everybody’s faces at certain times were almost hopeless, except for my mom; she held on to hope the entire time.”

A healthy, fit, dance choreographer, Julie is the last person you’d expect to suffer from such a life-changing event that normally impacts people in their 60s and older. But she’s part of a rising trend of strokes in younger adults; according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, a new stroke happens in about one in 10,000 people under the age of 64.

Before being admitted to St. Joe’s, Julie knew something was wrong – while at home alone, her vision went blurry and suddenly she couldn’t seem to hold anything without dropping it. She also experienced blinding headaches that caused her to vomit.

“On the ambulance ride to the hospital, I was answering questions, fully there and aware of everything but then shortly thereafter I stopped responding to anything,” she said. “They did a CT scan and an MRI of my brain and neck. That’s when they finally saw that I had had multiple strokes in both sides of my brain.”

There are two types of strokes: ischemic strokes, which Julie had, are caused by blood clots blocking arteries and cutting off blood flow to part of the brain, and hemorrhagic strokes are caused when a blood vessel bursts and causes bleeding in or around the brain. Both types can be devastating and require immediate medical care.

Julie was admitted to our 2L Medicine Stroke Unit, which uses a set of best practices to determine how far along a patient is in their recovery process. This is called the Stroke Care Pathway.

“We’re directed by the pathway to do timely assessments on given days,” said Karol Pintier, a physiotherapist on our Stroke Unit. “For example, on day three we do a standard assessment which helps us determine whether the patient is a good rehab candidate and what support they need to be able to go home.”

It took two weeks for Julie to be able to sit up on the edge of her bed, and another few days for her to begin speaking again. Based on her positive progress, Julie, along with our team’s support, applied to be admitted to Toronto Rehabilitation Institute where she could continue her rehab journey. Transitions to programs like the one at Toronto Rehab allow patients who require continued rehab to optimize their recovery with a specialized team.

Strokes affect thousands of Canadians – more than 50,000 have strokes every year and more than 400,000 are living with the effects of stroke. While anyone can be affected, they’re far more likely to happen in older adults – 80 per cent of all strokes happen to those over 60. Many older stroke patients are often living with other chronic illnesses, which means it can take them much longer to get used to their new reality. Younger adults – like Julie – usually have a higher chance of recovering more fully because they tend to be healthier.

A little over a month after leaving, Julie came back to St. Joe’s for a follow-up appointment and stopped in to visit the team on our stroke unit. By this point, she was walking without a walker and had regained most of her speech.

“It was such a heart-warming moment,” said Pintier. “At first everyone had to do a double take – we couldn’t recognize her because she looked so different. Half of the room was in tears and it just validated everything we do.”

Julie is now back home, continuing to focus on getting her strength back and dancing again. While the past few months have been unexpected, she said she’s found a renewed sense of gratitude for the people in her life and the opportunities she has.

“I had a lot of good care and positive people around me and what me and my husband have reflected on is we’ve had so many quality people come into my life [through this journey] that really truly cared,” she said. “I just want to thank everybody who was imperative to my healing process.”

Learn more about strokes.

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