Gwendolin O’Connor and her mother, Melanie, at the neuro-rehabilitation unit at Victoria General Hospital. Gwendolin spent six weeks in the ward, recovering from a stroke at the age of 16. (Kendra Wong/News Gazette staff)

Gwendolin O’Connor and her mother, Melanie, at the neuro-rehabilitation unit at Victoria General Hospital. Gwendolin spent six weeks in the ward, recovering from a stroke at the age of 16. (Kendra Wong/News Gazette staff)

Touching reunion highlights remarkable recoveries

Woman shares her story of recovering from a stroke at 16

In the summer of 2010, Gwendolin O’Connor had everything going for her.

She was on the honour roll at St. Michael’s University School, worked at Thrifty Foods, was on a rowing team, volunteered at a seniors home and had already starting making plans for university. Life seemed perfect to the 16 year old.

But that all came crashing down one day. O’Connor had just passed a lifeguard course and went to bed, when she woke in the middle of the night, and couldn’t stand or move her entire right side. When she tried to call for help, no words came out.

Her mother, Melanie, eventually found her and called 911.

“I didn’t know what was wrong, but I knew something bad was going on,” Melanie said.

Shortly after, O’Connor passed out and went into a coma. O’Connor suffered a stroke caused by an aneurysm bleed in her brain. She underwent two major surgeries, one of which was to remove part of her skull to alleviate the pressure on her brain.

When O’Connor woke her right arm and leg were blue and ice cold. As a result of the stroke, O’Connor couldn’t speak, read, write or spell. Even simple math like one plus two was a strange concept to her. She was diagnosed with aphasia, a communication disorder that results from damage to part of the brain and affects its ability to retrieve speech and understanding of language. She was also diagnosed with apraxia, a motor disorder in which one has difficulty performing tasks or movements.

“My mind felt hollow and empty,” O’Connor said. “My legs, my mind, my voice, everything was gone.”

O’Connor’s long road to recovery began when she was transferred from the ICU to the 5 North neuro-rehabilitation unit at Victoria General Hospital.

It was here she started rehab, and after six weeks in the ward, was transferred to GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre in Vancouver for further rehab services, and slowly began walking again.

During her recovery, everything took longer – typing, tying her hair in a pony tail, lacing up her shoes, or getting dressed. Eventually, relearning everything took a toll on the teenager and after months of rehab, O’Connor hit a wall.

While she was improving, her life revolved around therapy. She was exhausted, self-conscious and ashamed of her new disabilities. It was only after another seizure put her in the hospital that she decided she wanted a new outlook on life.

“I wanted a sense of positivity and purpose. I said to myself, ‘suck it up.’ No more crying, no more embarrassment at my body or my speech. As soon as I made that decision, everything began to improve,” O’Connor said.

Now at the age of 23, O’Connor continues to go to physiotherapy and speech therapy, and is working on regaining movement in her right hand. But she’s come a long way in the last seven years. O’Connor is an A student at Camosun College, a member of a local toast masters group and is a board member with Move, a gym for people with disabilities.

O’Connor is one of dozens of patients who were reunited with staff of the neuro-rehabilitation unit earlier this week. The 22-bed unit includes physiatrists, hospitalists, clinical nurse leaders and educators, speech language pathologists and support personnel, among others.

Dr. Paul Winston, medical director for rehab and transitions for Island Health, said the reunion allowed patients to reconnect with the staff that helped nurse them back to health, and was a chance for patients to connect with other people who have gone through similar experiences.

“For me, what’s important when it comes to a reunion is to celebrate people’s successes and understanding that not everybody has a complete recovery, that a lot of them will continue to live with disability,” said Winston, noting there are roughly 600 patients who receive specialized neuro-rehabilitation at the hospital every year.

“There are some people I saw who were delirious in the ICU, unable to recognize their name, stand or sit,” he said. “Seeing some of them now looking absolutely normal, where nobody would know something happened is really exciting.”

kendra.wong@goldstreamgazette.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

(Google Maps)
Sophisticated glass-removal crime returns to downtown Victoria

Several businesses on Fort Street targeted overnight, say police

Johnathan Lee Robichaud pleaded guilty to eight charges including sex-related offences against children and accessing, possessing and making or publishing child pornography. (Courtesy of Saanich Police)
Sentencing date moved for Saanich nanny guilty of child porn charges

Johnathon Lee Robichaud pleaded guilty to eight sex offences against children

Patrick MacMullan won $28,000 playing Toto. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Greater Victoria man wins $28,000 while watching football

Winning ticket purchased at Colwood convenience store

(File - Sooke News Mirror)
Man exposes himself to woman, children on Sooke trail

Suspect believed to be between 55 and 65 years of age

Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry head for the press theatre at the B.C. legislature for an update on COVID-19, Jan. 7, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 spread steady with 509 new cases Friday

Hospitalized and critical care cases decline, nine deaths

Lilly and Poppy, two cats owned by Kalmar Cat Hotel ownder Donna Goodenough, both have cerebellAr hypoplasia, a genetic neurological condition that affects their ability to control their muscles and bones. Photo by Alistair Taylor – Campbell River Mirror
VIDEO: Wobbly Cats a riot of flailing legs and paws but bundles of love and joy to their owner

Woman urges others to not fear adopting cats with disabilities

(Black Press Media file photo)
From arts to environment, nominate your West Shore hero

Nominations for the Goldstream Gazette’s Local Hero awards are open to Jan. 15

Seasonal influenza vaccine is administered starting each fall in B.C. and around the world. (Langley Advance Times)
After 30,000 tests, influenza virually nowhere to be found in B.C.

COVID-19 precautions have eliminated seasonal infection

Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam provides an update on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada’s top doctor says to avoid non-essential travel as B.C. explores legal options

Premier John Horgan says he is seeking legal advice on whether it can limit interprovincial travel

Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the crowd during the march on Washington, D.C., in August of 1963. Courtesy photo
Government reinforces importance of anti-racism act on Black Shirt Day

B.C. Ministers say education “a powerful tool” in the fight for equity and equality

Black Press media file
Port McNeill driver tells police he thought the pandemic meant no breathalyzers

Suspect facing criminal charges after breathalyzer readings in excess of 3.5 times the legal limit

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question during a news conference outside Rideau cottage in Ottawa, Friday, January 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau says Canada’s COVID vaccine plan on track despite Pfizer cutting back deliveries

Canadian officials say country will still likely receive four million doses by the end of March

Jobs Minister Ravi Kahlon shared a handwritten note his son received on Jan. 13, 2021. (Ravi Kahlon/Twitter)
Proud dad moment: B.C. minister’s son, 10, receives handwritten note for act of kindness

North Delta MLA took to Twitter to share a letter his son received from a new kid at school

Most Read