At 29 years old, she was blindsided by a stroke. Just 29 days after she moved to Hawaii. Hawaii. Paradise. An island she’d fallen in love with years before. She was ready to start a new life. She was ready to challenge herself: to grow, to move forward, to do something new and exciting… like move to freaking Hawaii!
Her name is Mel. Mary Ellen Rems. Mel for short. <3
Mel is a single child and comes from a single-parent household. These truths built the foundation for her social nature. Mel has always regarded her many friends as her family. And this girl has a zillion friends. Her life is filled with friendships. Long ones, short ones, in-the-middle ones. All types of different friendships. “I pride myself on generally making a new friend with anyone I meet. I never had a problem with that,” Mel says. She is full of life and energy, compassion and empathy. She loves to be around people, to meet new people, and to make fond memories with the people she loves. So, needless to say, uprooting her life from her longtime home in Reno, Nevada to a small neighborhood on the Big Island of Hawaii was a thrilling and bold adventure. She knew it would be part of the challenge, to go out there solo, to face being alone. She accepted that challenge and was ready to build new roots—including building new friendships. She wasn’t afraid; she felt excited and hopeful.
She spent months planning the endeavor, getting rid of excess clutter and crap, building a custom dog crate that she could ship her Pitbull, Pappy, in across the Pacific Ocean, and focusing on the new life awaiting her near the serene shores of Hawaii.
Once all her t’s were crossed and i’s were dotted, she took the leap and soared high above the roaring seas. She was welcomed by her aunt in a place called Ocean View on the Big Island. She unpacked her few belongings and began to settle in with Pappy. They would take solo day trips to explore their new island home. They’d check out secluded beaches where they would soak up both the revitalizing, life-giving sunshine and the cleansing, downpouring rain. Mel would inquisitively meander around different parts of her new unknown just to see where the local’s hung out and which views called to her soul. She knew she was on a journey to connect deeper with herself, the woman who dwelled within… but she never anticipated the road that lay ahead.
Mel enjoyed those first few weeks of nestling in. She acquired a car and a job and began, one by one, to execute her to-dos that came with moving to a new place.
It was New Year’s Eve, December 31st, 2017, when Mel sat down on the couch in her living room and found herself unable to speak. She knew she couldn’t move, and she knew she couldn’t talk, but she didn’t know what was happening. “I was basically paralyzed. I didn’t know what was going on, I felt like I was in a different world,” Mel shared with me.
Mel had spent that afternoon preparing food for the evening’s festivities. Her and her aunt loved to cook, and they spent a bunch of money on fresh Hawaiian fish and all the fixin’s to make homemade sushi and other delicious appetizers to kick off the New Year. At first, Mel’s aunt thought she was joking around just playing the silent game. “What are you doing? Are you messing with me?” her aunt asked. But it was only a few seconds later that she realized something was majorly wrong. Her aunt reacted incredibly quickly when she recognized that Mel’s face was sagging, and she was acting completely out of character. Mel might be able to play a practical joke or two, but her contagious and vivacious sense of humor would never allow her to pull off a joke like that without bursting into laughter. Her aunt immediately called the ambulance and it was no more than fifteen minutes before the emergency responders arrived at their semi-rural home. Mel recalled that her vision was blurry, and that her aunt kept speaking to her, but she couldn’t recall what she was saying. She explained that she wasn’t in pain, but she struggles to remember many details during that time. She was taken to a nearby hospital in Kona. They performed a CT scan right away. Mel said she was “present, but had no idea what was going on,” and she was glad that her aunt was there. It was at that hospital that Mel was given what is called a “clot buster,” which is a drug given to help break up a blood clot and restore blood flow to the brain. As it turned out, Mel had a random blood clot that went to her brain and luckily, with immediate medical attention, she has since recovered much of the damage caused by the clot, but it was no easy feat.
Within a couple hours of arriving at the hospital in Kona, the medical staff put her on a small airplane to transport her to Honolulu where she could receive better care for her situation. Mel recounted the plane was so small, just big enough for three people. She was in a daze at that time and didn’t feel anxious or scared. She explains that it is hard to describe how she felt on the plane, but she said her right arm kept falling down to her side and she would have to reach across her body with her left arm and put her right arm back on top of her chest. She had to do this multiple times. She didn’t think “Oh I’m paralyzed,” or “Oh this is a stroke,” she just kept thinking, “why does my arm keeps falling? This is weird!”
Mel explained to me that blood clots happen and some can be broken up on their own. Unfortunately, in her situation, Mel had was is called a PFO- or simply put, a hole in her heart. She explained that many people are born with this hole and in natural development during adolescence, this hole fills itself in. Some 25% of the population need a surgical procedure to fill in the PFO and if it is not taken care of, the chances for a stroke increase. Of course, she learned all of this during her 19-day+ stay in Honolulu, which was no walk in the park.
Once the plane landed, she didn’t remember much at first. She woke up alone in an unfamiliar hospital room, with no one around her. No family, no friends, no staff. She tried to recall what happened and she couldn’t. It wasn’t long before a doctor and nurse came in to speak with her and inform her that she had a stroke. “I wanted so bad to tell them who I was, that I just moved to Hawaii…anything… but I couldn’t speak. Not real words. It was jibberish.”
“You had a major stroke.” Their words were like daggers to her confused mind. She was alone. She couldn’t express herself in anyway other than tears that streamed down her face. She felt isolated for those first two days. She had an uncomfortable catheter; she couldn’t get up or walk. By the next day, Mel was determined to befriend the medical staff. She loved people after all. She loved feeling connected and she wanted so badly to connect with these other humans that were around her during this scary and traumatizing time. “I could make noise, but I was so frustrated that no one could understand me. Since my right hand didn’t work, I relied on my left hand to write notes to try to communicate to the nurses, but it wasn’t working. In my mind I knew what I wanted to say, but it would not come out.” She explained how she tried to write her name and that she missed her dog, Pappy. She wanted to express herself. Even with a pen and pad, couldn’t get her hands to write what her mind wanted to say. Using her left hand, she scribbled words… maybe the wrong ones…and they were pretty unrecognizable; but the staff tried their best to understand. Although they were patient and kind, Mel was so frustrated that no one knew what she was trying to say…even just the simplest things. She just wanted to be understood.
The loss of expression, especially with speech, is called aphasia. It is common for people who suffer strokes and other brain injuries. Commonly, in their mind, they know what they want to say, but somehow between thought and expression, the words get mixed up and do not come out correctly “The words I thought in my mind would not come out of my mouth. I wanted to say the word ‘shower’ and it would come out ‘shitter’. I confused other words like computer and cucumber. Even now I mix up some words. I was so frustrated. Especially since all of my life I’ve had really clear speech, strong reading skills, strong spelling skills, and a more extensive vocabulary. I like to use descriptive words,” Mel tells me all of this, some two years after her stroke. “I still will have to try to figure out what I’m saying. It’s definitely the biggest side effect after my stroke.”
FRUSTRATION. ANGER. DEPRESSION. SO. MUCH. SADNESS.
She recalls to me the feelings from those first days in the hospital up until about a year after her stroke.
She explained to me during those first few days how much she hated being woken up every four hours, since she had a brain injury it was protocol, because she felt like every time she woke up, she was reminded that she was alone and that this had happened. “It was a nightmare.” She did recall that she did feel very cared for by the staff, and that fact comforted her.
When her aunt finally arrived to be with her, she started to feel a little better… that was when she actually grasped that she had a stroke. Mel explained the dire thoughts that ran through her mind during that time. She told me about those grueling days of recovery. “I had zero security as a person. I thought I lost who I was completely. I looked in the mirror and I didn’t recognize myself. Who is that? My face was all messed up and droopy. This began a long time of self-doubt. How am I going to survive in the world? How am I going to get a job? Now I’m in Hawaii, all by myself, with zero friends, and now I really have to start over.” This isn’t exactly what Mel had in mind when she wanted a new adventure. She was so motivated to make a change in her life. She had planned this venture for so long and made all the right moves. And now here she was, the ultimate dead end, right at the beginning of her journey. When she planned to move to Hawaii, she knew it would be hard, and she was ready for the challenge. She knew it would be a slow start… she would have to find a job and maybe make an acquaintance with a coworker. Then maybe eventually she would make a real friend or two and she would begin to blossom as a woman, out conquering the world on her own. She had been super hopeful that this dream would work out well, that she would grow and thrive in this new environment, but instead, her world came crashing down in front of her, and she felt more isolated than ever. And to top it off, she could hardly communicate. “I wish I had a friend” she told me.
Lo and behold, a very close friend of Mel’s just so happened to be pursuing her own endeavor in Hawaii. Her friend’s plan was to go to school on the Big Island of Hawaii in January of 2018. When her friend got the last-minute news that the school program wasn’t going to work out, she was left temporarily stranded in Hawaii. She too had relocated her life in Hawaii, and after having the program fall apart, she was left wondering just what she would do. It was during those very same first days that Mel had her stroke. Mel’s friend then made her way over to visit Mel and they were both blessed because of it. Her friend needed somewhere to stay and some time to figure her situation out, and Mel needed a friend. Mel’s grandma offered to house her friend and invited her to stay as long as she needed. Her friend became an angel in her story. Someone to be with her, someone who already loved her, someone who understood her to help her get back on her feet. Mel told me, “It was such a blessing to have her there during that time because she knew what I was trying to say. She would finish my sentences so I didn’t have to sit there and embarrass myself because I couldn’t bleeping talk.” She was a catalyst of healing during Mel’s speech and occupational therapy. Those first months of recovery were trying and overwhelming. Mel recalled the days where she wondered what it’d be like if she were just back in Reno. If only she were surrounded by all of her friends. She imagined receiving an outpouring of support while she was in the hospital: flowers, cards, gifts and just love, but it was so different being so far away. She knew her people cared for her and she was thankful to have the support she had in Hawaii, but always, in the back of her mind, she thought if she were just back home things would be different.
Within the next six months, Mel faced even more devastation. Not only did she have to deal with the challenges from her stroke, but just three months after that life-changing day, the aunt Mel was living with died suddenly of a brain tumor. Almost unbelievable, right? I mean sudden death happens. And it is heartbreaking. But this was almost unbearable. On top of having to rebuild herself, and relearn basic motor skills and speech, she also had to cope with the loss of her biggest support at the time. Her sweet aunt was the single person who encouraged this endeavor. She was the woman who welcomed Mel into her home and helped her during those first few weeks of settling in. She was also the woman who literally saved her life by getting her the immediate medical care she needed after her stroke. And now she was gone? It was all so much to fathom, let alone accept. Another dead end in Mel’s journey. Now where would she live? What would she do? And she lost her beloved aunt, her friend, her rock during all of this turmoil. It was all happening just way too fast.
But that’s life, right? Shit happens. Hell hits, and sometimes it just seems like too much to bear. This is where Mel was, right smack dab in the middle of chaos. WTF? What was the next step? Would there be relief? She needed a break. She needed hope. She needed gentleness and ease in all of this despair. But this is not what life would give her. Not even close. You couldn’t imagine what Mel had to face next…
Remember that natural disaster that devastated Hawaii in 2018? That volcano that erupted? Do you remember which island it hit? Do you remember the news commentary saying it was a huge island and only part of the island was affected? Well guess which area was included in the danger zone? Yup, her grandmas house in Leilani Estates, Pahoa, where Mel was staying, was one of those neighborhoods directly affected by the volcano. In all of this, Mel was called to evacuate. She literally lost the majority of her FEW belongings that she brought to Hawaii in the first place. She was lucky enough to get herself and her dog out. Mel recalls driving on the road where the path of lava had crossed. Just two months after her aunt passed. Just five months after she suffered a major stroke. How much ruin can one girl experience? How much can one human handle?
But she survived. Barely. And that was just it. Survival. She knew she had to hold it together. Mel knew in order to get back into a place of peace and hope, she needed to leave the island. Hell, she had nowhere to go and nowhere to live… so with just a few days’ notice, she booked the flight to return back to Reno.
It took her about four months of being back home, in a place of refuge and safety, to start putting the pieces of her life back together. More than ever she appreciated her people. And more than ever she realized how strong she really was. She faced a whirlwind of life experiences. During those four months she admitted she was “paralyzed by fear. I was scared to be left alone.” You see after the major stroke, Mel had experienced five smaller strokes called TIA, Transient Ischemic Attacks. “I thought I would have another stroke or that something terrible would happen. Even just a little cramp in my hand would make me think the worst. I thought I would die. I definitely had PTSD.”
Mel took baby steps toward not being afraid. Slowly but surely she moved out on her own and she said it took a long time to prepare herself emotionally for that move. She had found support and solace in her many friends. It wasn’t long before Mel found herself back in the work force, and somehow life placed her in the perfect job where she was able to work with people with disabilities. It seemed to be the perfect fit for her circumstances and her sense of fulfillment. Just barely two years after her stroke, she finds herself joyful. “After my stroke, I felt like I had a disability. I couldn’t work. I needed to depend on other people. But I can do everything. No matter what. I can accomplish anything and I know it’s just self-doubt that prevents me from doing anything. Yeah, I feel tired, and sometimes I know I’m pushing it. But I’m proud of myself. In the beginning I never thought I’d do anything, but at some point you just have to try and see what the results are and not get anxiety about what you can’t do… because you don’t know because you didn’t try yet. So I went out and I applied for jobs… and now I’m just going out there, trying to be kind and do a good job.”
Mel says she thinks of her brain injury as a speed bump. It opened her eyes and gave her some life experience. She feels lucky to be so much of the same person she was before her stroke because she’s seen so many people who are damaged horribly from their trauma. “I do have the same qualities, thoughts, morals. None of that changed: the concrete of ‘who is Mel.’”
I asked her if she feels depressed about her situation and she admits that she does not, not anymore. She has had to practice acceptance, patience and self-love. Everything takes time. Time. Time to relax and heal. She admits that we as humans create much of our own anxiety. The repetitive thoughts of the ‘what-ifs’ of our fears can drive us crazy. “It wasn’t one day of me saying, ‘Okay, yeah, I accept it.’ It was an accumulation of accepting my experiences and facing it all inwardly. Life is not fair. And I just try to count my blessings. And I’ve learned not to be so hard on myself. I’ve learned to love myself.”
That is a huge lesson we all must learn in life. To love ourselves despite our shortcomings. To give ourselves the time and patience it takes to heal when we are going through challenges. We live in such a quick-fix society, that we forget how important it is for processes to run their course. The healing process. A growth process. The recovery process. It all takes time. Support. Self-love. Acceptance of ourselves and others who are going through life. The human experience is filled with depths, twists and not-always-noticeable-or-definable stages.
Remember Mel’s story when you need some grace.
She faced a lot of shit alone, and in time, she came out on the other side of it.
Happy to spread her kindness and love. With a little less worry and a lot more love.
We love you Mel.
Stay strong my friend and keep embracing your beautiful self.