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Tiffani Blackwell, stroke survivor, with her husband Jerrell.

Acute Stroke

Not Too Young to Have a Stroke

For Tiffani Blackwell, her arrival at the Inpatient Rehabilitation Center (IRC) at Virginia Hospital Center in September 2015 was just the beginning of a long road back.

“A stroke was the farthest thing from anyone’s mind,” says Tiffani. After all, she was only 31, newly engaged and immersed in planning her wedding. So, when she woke up to a migraine headache that just kept getting worse, she went to an emergency room and was treated for dehydration. The next day, her speech started to slur and her whole right side went limp. She was taken to Virginia Hospital Center where doctors determined she had suffered a stroke. The news was startling because of her age, no high blood pressure or other risk factors.

“It’s not common, but 28% of strokes occur in people younger than 65 years,” says Daniel Davis, MD, a physiatrist with VHC Physician Group–Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation. “Everyone is at risk for a stroke, but the risks increase with age.” Those risks include high blood pressure, smoking, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease (such as atrial fibrillation) and drug use. But, sometimes strokes occur without any known risk factors, as was the case with Tiffani.

A week later, Tiffani’s condition was stable but challenging. “She was paralyzed on her right side, unable to walk, with headaches and double vision. It was difficult at times to understand her as she tried to speak,” recalls Jerrell Ellerbe, Tiffani’s fiancée at the time.

It was then that Tiffani, her parents and Jerrell were introduced to the IRC team at Virginia Hospital Center. “They have a rehabilitation program that is renowned in our area for doing the best work with stroke patients,” says Jerrell.

The team includes physiatrists, rehabilitation nurses, psychologists, speech pathologists, and physical, occupational, art, recreation and pet therapists.

“We constantly strive to understand what is important to our patients, and individualize our care for them,” says Jennifer Swenson, BSN, RN, CRRN, Patient Care Director, IRC. “Our outcomes here are excellent, with 81% of our patients going directly home, compared to a national average of 78%. Our patient satisfaction scores of 99% attest to our high-quality, personalized care.”

The Long Road to Recovery

Over the course of Tiffani’s month-long stay in the IRC, Jerrell documented her progress on his smartphone through videos. Later, under his pen name, Elle Jai Blu, he would tell the story of their experience in an eBook, Stroke of Luck, written to raise awareness of the risk of stroke in young people, but also to raise hope.

Tiffani’s daily schedule was rigorous. She started most mornings at 6:00 am with check-ups and medications, followed by breakfast, then preparation for a day of therapy. She had to learn how to bathe, groom and dress herself using only her left arm. Therapy focused on reconnecting to her right side through exercise and treatment and improving her speech. She also attended the Stroke Education Group.

“I felt like the staff was my family. That made the hard work easier,” says Tiffani. “We do weekly updates at bedside in the patient’s room along with the family and every member of the team to report on progress, goals and what the barriers are to going home,” says Swenson. “We involve the patient in the recovery process.” “Tiffani never got angry,” remembers Jerrell. “Most days she still found the ability to smile.”

Tiffani’s Team

“Being in rehab is very hard psychologically and physically,” says Dr. Davis. “Our therapists are constantly encouraging our patients. Our people make the difference.” Nevertheless, the long, hard days of work for small, incremental gains can weigh heavily. At one point, Tiffani asked Jerrell if he wanted to call off the wedding. “I made a promise when I proposed that we were going to be together no matter what,” Jerrell told her. “We’re going to get through this and come March we’re going to get married.” Jerrell went on to be at Tiffani’s bedside every day while she was in therapy.

Initially told she would likely still be in a wheelchair when she went home, Tiffani was determined. As her rehabilitation progressed, she started to walk with a walker, graduating to a quad cane with someone walking alongside to guide her, and then a regular cane. She was able to feed, bathe and clothe herself with moderate help.

“In therapy, she was blowing through all of her exercises. The team said she was one of the hardest working patients they had ever seen. She never gave up,” says Jerrell.

The Big Day Arrives

After her discharge, Tiffani continued to make progress through Outpatient Rehabilitation at Virginia Hospital Center. And, as Jerrell promised, they were married in March 2016. Later that year, the newlyweds purchased their first home.

“I remember standing up there with the pastor, and she came gliding down the aisle,” he says. “After all we had been through, this was our moment.”


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