After a stroke at the age of 32, the small town of the young mother mobilized to help

Elizabeth Gilberg has recently picked up a few new skills.

At 50, she learned to knit and is learning to quilt again. She took cross-country skiing lessons and tried her hand at beekeeping. The bike didn’t go so well, but she’s ready to keep trying.

Like many women whose children have grown up, Gilberg, a mother of four, now has more time for herself. The difference was that she wasn’t sure she would live that long.

“I’m so grateful to still be here to have all this joy every day,” she said. “I never thought I would see my children graduating from high school.”

Two weeks after giving birth to Grace, her second daughter and fourth child, Gilberg woke up with a terrible headache. That morning in early November, she dropped off her other three children, ages 3 to 7, at their schools.

She called her then-husband, who had just moved in as a family doctor to their new hometown of Columbia Falls, Montana, to tell him about her headache.

That’s all she remembers.

After a few minutes without being able to reach Gilberg, her husband returned home to check on her.

He found the doors of the car and the house open. Gilberg, then 32, sat on the floor, holding Grace in her right arm. His left arm was hanging down. She spoke slowly, articulating her words.

He recognized the symptoms of a stroke and called 911.

Doctors discovered that Gilberg had suffered two strokes, one on each side of his brain.

The blood coming out of his brain had backed up, causing clots in the main vein of his brain. The condition is called dural sinus thrombosis. Usually the cause is related to an increased tendency to clotting, which can occur during pregnancy.

She was airlifted to a hospital in Portland, Oregon for a then-experimental procedure. Anti-clot drugs were administered directly to the clots via a scope through his groin. It worked.

However, the attack did damage.

Gilberg was initially paralyzed on the left side and had vision problems. For two months, she too was delusional and paranoid. She did not remember having given birth.

She stayed in the hospital for two months, learning to walk, talk, eat and read again. Her parents and younger sister took turns staying with her, while her in-laws helped look after the four children. Townspeople cooked and delivered meals for several months.

Gilberg returned home in time for Christmas, but still faced several months of outpatient rehabilitation. Finally, after more than six months, she was able to start driving and being a mother and wife again.

However, things had changed. His executive functioning abilities – such as planning, working memory, time management and flexible thinking – had deteriorated.

The people of Columbia Falls gave her the help she needed.

If she couldn’t find her car in a parking lot, the store employees would help her. If there was an early release day at school, someone from the office would call ahead to remind him.

In the case of dental appointments, the receptionist always called 20 minutes before any appointment so that it did not slip through the cracks.

“Just yesterday I received a reminder about a form I needed to fill out to help with my daughter’s senior party,” she said. “I volunteer for everything, but I need help figuring out the logistics of it all.”

Gilberg, who remarried in 2016, jokes that it’s lucky her husband, Michael, is an accountant. “I really can’t add or subtract,” she said.

For a recent trip to Germany with her eldest daughter, Gilberg – who majored in German at university and speaks the language – relied on German friends to plan the trip.

“There’s no shame in saying, ‘I can’t do this alone,'” Gilberg said. “I think that’s one of the things that has allowed me to go as far as possible. Also, it’s simplified a lot of what I can manage and handle at a certain point.”

She also reaches out to others who need help, especially stroke survivors.

“If I could have seen someone my age who was better, it would have helped my recovery,” she said. “I’ve been where I can’t talk and I can’t feed myself, so to see where I’m at now maybe that can give someone some hope.”

Victoria Rutherford, Gilberg’s younger sister, quit her teaching job for six months to help after the stroke.

“I didn’t think she would be where she is now,” Rutherford said. “She just keeps getting better. She’s also a much deeper person and relates to people who are struggling on a much deeper level.”

After nearly 20 years, Gilberg will soon leave Columbia Falls. As difficult as it is for her to leave her friends and supportive community, the move is the best for her health.

Several years ago, Gilberg was diagnosed with lupus, an immune system disease that may be associated with a high risk of blood clots. Warmer weather in Utah will reduce outbreaks.

“It’s hard to imagine a better place to experience all of this,” she said. “But I have a wonderful partner and some brain space to continue to develop what I have going on here. I feel so excited for my life and the future.”

Stories from the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

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