Surprising as it may sound, San Diego resident Betty Santohigashi says surviving a devastating stroke has led her down a path she wouldn’t change, given the opportunity.
Despite the hurdles she has faced during her journey toward recovery, she says the incredible self-discovery she’s gained along the way has allowed her to appreciate life in new, profound ways.
It was an ordinary July day in 2005 when Betty, a 54-year-old business litigation attorney and surfing enthusiast, suddenly lost all control of her left hand and arm while sewing. The abrupt loss of function alarmed her enough that she asked her daughter to call 911.
Within minutes she was in an ambulance en route to Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla where she was diagnosed with a hemorrhagic stroke and underwent an emergency craniotomy. Although Betty’s life was saved, the stroke left her completely paralyzed on the left side of her body.
After five weeks in the intensive care unit, Betty was transferred to the rehabilitation center at Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas where she would spend the next five weeks participating in rigorous daily therapy designed to help her regain strength and mobility and re-learn basic skills.
Following her stay in the rehabilitation center’s inpatient unit Betty was discharged to their day treatment program, where for five months she continued her daily therapy on an outpatient basis.
And in the years since completing the day treatment program, Betty has maintained therapy for three to six hours a day through a combination of home care and outpatient physical therapy.
“When I was admitted to the rehabilitation center I didn’t know if I would ever walk again,” says Betty. “But with the help of my therapy team, within weeks I was able to take my first steps. At that moment I knew that while I still had a long road ahead of me, I could overcome my paralysis if I worked hard.”
Betty has remained intensely focused on her recovery ever since, a quality to which her Scripps physical therapist, Jon Kern, attributes her remarkable progress.
“Betty’s biggest attributes are her positive attitude and her ability to persist despite challenges,” says Jon. “Rather than giving up when she encounters a set-back, she tries twice as hard and does so without complaining.”
During sessions with Jon three days a week, Betty participates in exercises such as stretching, walking drills and balance drills.
The customized regimen is designed to help her regain and maintain coordination, control and movement of the left side of her body including her foot, ankle, knee, hip and arm.
Betty says her therapy has gradually allowed her to become less dependent on assistive devices to get around.
“I no longer require a knee brace, and I only use a walker or power wheelchair when I’m outside of the house,” Betty says. “At home I force myself to walk unassisted, and in addition to grooming and dressing myself and other activities of daily living, I can help with light housework.”
Betty’s achievements since her stroke have not been limited by physical impairment. In 2009, under the pseudonym Billie Joe Waters, she published a book called Islands of Calm in the Chaos: Thoughts on Recovery from Brain Injury and Stroke about her experience as a stroke survivor.
And in September 2010, Betty surfed for the first time since her stroke. Through a nonprofit organization called the Life Rolls On Foundation, Betty was able to hit the waves in La Jolla with the aid of an adaptive surfboard — an experience she intends to repeat.
In her free time Betty is also involved with the San Diego Brain Injury Foundation and takes classes on topics such as memory strategies and cognitive communication with other stroke and brain injury survivors through the Acquired Brain Injury program at San Diego Mesa College.
In addition to her fellow Mesa College students, who she describes as a supportive family, and her own husband and daughter, Betty credits the staff from the Scripps Encinitas rehabilitation center for helping her come so far.
“Before I had my stroke, I’d never heard of stroke rehabilitation and didn’t know such a thing existed,” says Betty. “Today I can’t begin to imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t received rehabilitation. Jon and the other staff I’ve worked with at Scripps have been a tremendous asset.
“It’s hard to find people who are that dedicated to their patients’ welfare, and who come up with such creative ways to make the therapy feel fun,” adds Betty. “Even though Jon pushes me, I actually look forward to my appointments!”