Princeton Times


January 18, 2013

Cary doesn’t let stroke stop her from living

PRINCETON — Carla Cary is many things — a mother, a wife, a vehement friend, a determined advocate for education and an adamant Virginia Tech Hokies fan.

Nobody should ever call her a stroke victim, even though she suffered a potentially devastating incident in October 2011.

She’s a survivor, a beater of odds and one hard-headed woman.

But, a little more than a year ago, in a split second, Carla lost half of her vision, the ability to drive and the memory of her youngest son’s middle name.

She actually suffered the stroke in the morning of Oct. 11, 2011. Her boys, Matthew and Ethan were already at school, and her husband, Stan, was working at the time.

By mid-morning, she knew she wasn’t feeling well, but as someone who had experienced migraines often accompanied by visual auras, she wasn’t worried when she discovered her vision wasn’t quite right.

“I was woozy and didn’t feel good, but I laid down on the floor and thought I’d take a nap and be better,” she said.

After a while, when she attempted to get out of the floor, the pain started.

“It felt like somebody stabbed me over my right eye,” she recalled, explaining that was the only painful symptom she experienced during the stroke. Others were concerning, disconcerting and annoying, but not terribly painful.

Immediately, she knew her memory was affected, but again, she knew that could accompany migraine headaches.

“I couldn’t remember Ethan’s middle name, or his birthday,” she said. “I couldn’t read either. Somebody sent me a text message. I could see the words, but I couldn’t make them make sense to me.”

She called a friend in the health care field, who advised her that she should see a doctor as soon as possible. The friend thought maybe she had something happen suddenly to her eyes.

So, Carla, who works as a medical transcriptionist for several local physicians made a quick trip from her Glenwood home to Athens Family Medical Center, where Dr. Omar Kassem is one of the docs for whom she works.

He checked her vital signs and her eyes and determined the problem must be in her eyes. He referred her to the Blaydes Clinic in Bluefield.

Again, Carla jumped in her SUV and drove herself to Bluefield, where Dr. Blaydes performed every exam he could think of on her eyes and handed her the news she never expected.

“He said, ‘I can’t find anything wrong. I think you have a brain injury,’” she recalled.

Still unwilling to accept that as truth, Carla got back into her car and drove herself back to Glenwood, where she prepared for and attended a Glenwood School PTO meeting as the vice president.

When she got home, Shanna Swatts Autrey, the friend Carla phoned earlier that morning, said she’d spend the day researching and agreed with Dr. Blaydes. She pleaded with Carla to drop everything and go to Roanoke, Va., that instant. But, Carla was still in a bit of denial. She had two little boys in bed. It was dark. Her husband was tired and she wasn’t up to a trip to Roanoke right then.

Autrey extracted a promise then, that Carla would make Stan wake her up every hour, on the hour and that she would walk around the room and raise her arms over her head, to ensure that more strokes were not happening or that her symptoms weren’t getting worse.

The Carys complied with the promise, and Carla was soon scheduled for a MRI at Princeton Community Hospital. She, Stan and several friends who are more like family made the trip together, and it was Carla’s dear friend Ruthie Rhodes who translated the medical speak to tell them all that Carla indeed had suffered a stroke.

She was soon transferred via ambulance to a Roanoke, Va., hospital, where she was placed on neurology trauma unit.

“I was the only person on the unit who was coherent, so the nurses loved me,” she said.

Her doctor there confirmed the MRI finding and ordered a host of tests to determine how a 35-year-old woman with no warning signs for a stroke still has one. On her last day in Roanoke, an esophageal scan that took a look at the back of her heart found the culprit.

Carla had lived her entire life with a hole in the back side of her heart. She never had any idea it existed.

Doctors theorized that the hole in her heart was allowing some of her blood to circulate through her body without being filtered through her lungs, where most of us get rid of the normal clots that happen inside our blood.

This particular clot kept escaping her body’s natural filtration system long enough to reach her brain and cause permanent injury.

Her Roanoke doctor was not encouraging. He advised her to get accustomed to the idea that half of her sight was gone forever and that she would never be able to drive again.

The sight, though troubling, was a reality Carla could live with, but her heart broke every time she put her babies on the school bus each morning and was bound to wait in a driveway each afternoon to take them home.

“When I got home, I thought, ‘I’m done,’” she said.

But, her spirit is not one to be tied down for long. Just a handful of days after her stroke and a stay in a neurology trauma unit, Carla returned to East River Soccer Complex to cheer her team and her sons on; she couldn’t coach again that soon, but she was there.

And, she went back to work. Her typing slowed down a bit, because reading her words across the computer screen took a little extra time, but she only missed six days of work, total.

Soon, doctors scheduled reparative surgery to fix the hole in her heart and prevent future clots. She underwent that procedure in December and was required to take it easy for a while.

That doctor’s order meant her family canceled a trip to Disney World, because Carla knew a trip to the Magic Kingdom without any rides would be more painful than staying home. It also required that she stay away from her beloved Hokies’ football because she soon realized that she held her breath each time a pass sailed from quarterback to receiver.

And, she had to give up horror movies for a while, which was a sacrifice for the woman who makes an annual pilgrimage to South Port, N.C., where “I Know What You Did Last Summer” was filmed.

Still, even with all she gave up for a short time, driving was what she missed most.

“Maybe it would be different for some people, but we don’t live in a place where you can go catch a bus or walk everywhere. Here, you pretty much have to drive to get anywhere,” she said.

So, Dr. Kassem asked her to consider occupational therapy to train her how to make the most of the 50 percent of her sight she still had.

She signed on immediately and underwent three months of training that left her encouraged on some days and beaten on others. But, in the end, she earned the right to drive again, and she can take herself wherever she wants these days.

In fact, she drove to this interview.

“My therapist was awesome,” she said.

All of her tasks focused on her eyesight and teaching Carla to live in a world with a right side she can’t see unless she makes it a point to.

“I have to move slower. When I go places I’ve never been before, I have to really look at the room or the place, because I can’t see what’s on the right side in both my eyes,” she explained. “I have to move my eyes to the right quickly, a lot, so I can see what’s there.”

When her therapy was complete, Carla proved she could drive. Like most other things these days, she took it slower than usual.

“At first, I was limited. I could only drive within a four-mile radius, which basically meant I could drive myself to my therapy and back. Then, I could drive farther, but I could only ride by myself. It was a while before I could take the kids anywhere, but now I can,” she said.

She and Stan even tackled Black Friday shopping this year, complete with the crowds and craziness, and Carla managed just fine. She didn’t take a cart, because the coordination necessary to operate it might have made her miss something she should see, but she carried her purchases and was happy.

Today, life isn’t exactly “normal,” but she’s learning a new normal.

“With things like Facebook and iTunes, where you have the little ticker on the right side or a pop-up box, I don’t see the tickers and pop-ups. But, I’m learning to handle that OK,” she said. “I had major memory issues. I still run into people that, obviously, I have met, but I can’t place them.”

She’s still regaining some memories, though, and she’s teaching her family to ask her questions rather than telling her how to remember things.

“Smells bring back a lot, too,” she said.

Now that she’s mostly recovered, Carla is on a mission to show the world around her that strokes are not conditions reserved for the elderly and people with obvious risk factors.

Part of that task includes educating them about the signs of a stroke.

“If someone suspects a stroke, they should try to smile. A stroke usually affects one side or the other. So, if you try to smile and one side droops, that’s a sign of a stroke,” she said. “You can also try to stick your tongue out and move it side to side. If you can only move it to one side, that’s a sign.”

Weakness on one side, trouble raising arms over your head and memory issues are other warning signals.

And, in the event that a stroke strikes, Carla aims to be living proof that it isn’t the end of the world.

“Doctors have to give you realistic expectations, based on their experience, but their expectations don’t have to be your reality,” she said. “I was just stubborn, and I was determined that I had to work and I had to drive. Anything else, I would deal with, but I had to get those two things back.”

She also encouraged anyone fighting hardship to keep working toward the goal.

“Some people are in the mindset that they can’t get better, so they don’t,” she said. “But, it’s not always right to think that we can’t get better. Sometimes we can.”

— Contact Tammie Toler at

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