Chronicles of Courage – Episode 1
Kristin Heller – “A Life Restart at Fifteen”
I met Kristin Heller in one of my Facebook groups. I asked for some favorite childhood memories on one of my posts. Kristin commented that she didn’t have any childhood memories. My interest was captured!
Tell us about what happened, Kristin!
When I was fifteen, I suffered a cerebral aneurysm that caused two strokes, paralyzed my left side, and left me braindead for two minutes. My parents were told that I would not make it through. But then I did make it through, and they told my parents that best-case scenario I would be a vegetable. And after they discovered, I wasn’t a vegetable, they said, “Best-case scenario, she’s going to need help for the rest of her life because she’s never going to be able to walk. She’s never going to talk. She’s never going to live a normal life.” And every prognosis they gave me, I just one-upped them and did better. I was never supposed to have kids, and I have two kids. If it’s hard, I just keep pushing until I get it done.
Let’s jump ahead. Tell us a little about where you are now. What is your job and what sort of skills do you need to keep that job?
Right now I am actually a shift manager at Arby’s for about nine months now. And before that, I worked for a store that was on the verge of closing, and I helped turn it around. I have to be polite, I have to be thoughtful. I have to move things around all the time. But I keep pushing and persevering because I have a family to take care of.
Going back to when you were fifteen. Do you remember what you thought when you first woke up?
I don’t remember anything from when I awoke. Everything was foggy because my brain was super swollen at that time. And it was actually the hypothalamus that was affected, which affects both your long-term and short-term memory. And it also controls your feelings of hunger, your ability to get adequate rest, and your hormones. All of that is still out of wack twenty-two years later.
Wow. I can only imagine. I mean, being a teenager is already so challenging, but having those issues to contend with!
What sort of therapies did you have? What were your steps toward healing?
I had to go through physical therapy, cognitive therapy, and behavioral therapy. I can’t remember what the other type of therapy was called, but it taught me how to cook, and eat, and shower, and get dressed. Basically all your daily needs and all that fun stuff. They said I would be in hospital for a year to a year and a half. I made it out in a month and a half.
Do you have any siblings? Can you remember anything about their response to all this that was going on?
I have an older sister and a younger brother. I remember that they fought over my wheelchair. My brother told me he thought I would never use it anyway. He believed what the doctor said. But I was like, “Tell me what I can’t do and I’ll show you what I can.”
What about your peer relationships? Did you hang onto your friends? Did they come over and support you?
I had a very good support system with my friends. They were at the hospital just as much as my family. They took care of me when got back to school. They helped me with my assignments and things because my brain was still so swollen I had trouble doing certain things. If it weren’t for my friends, I wouldn’t have made it through high school.
What do you think helped you get through? It’s like a miracle, really! I know you have strong willpower, but is there anything else you could acknowledge?
Well, I had one of the best neurosurgeons in the southeast at the time. Without him, I wouldn’t have done nearly as well. Because, though they told me I did so good because of my age, I don’t think so. You know the hollow spot in your brain? Well, mine was full of blood. The surgeon got every drop out. He got it taken care of very quickly.
But it wouldn’t have been as bad if the ambulance drivers hadn’t assumed that I was on drugs because I was a teen. They didn’t think what was happening to me was a big deal. I had a second bleed in the ambulance on the way to the hospital because they took their time.
They made an assumption because of your age and thought it was an overdose?
Yes. But I was in the shower getting ready for school when it happened.
Is there a history of aneurysms in your family?
No, I was the first one. Now, medical insurance will pay for my own children to get checked since they have a history. If there is no history, insurance won’t pay for a scan, which I think is a shame. The doctors told me I was born with it. And it was an A-4 subarachnoid hemorrhage, which is the biggest one there is. And being that it is a brain aneurysm, there are no symptoms beforehand.
Wow. What a story!
Yes. I had to teach myself how to learn a different way because I can’t learn the traditional way. When you show me something, I have to read it, then I have to write it. I can hear it. But I have to have multiple ways of looking at the information and absorbing it. I am actually taking classes online. I have my associate’s degree – I graduated Summa Cum Laude, and I am working on my bachelor’s in criminal justice.
What is your goal? What career are you interested in?
I want to be a forensics scientist.
That is awesome. Did someone teach you learning strategies in school? Or was that something you had to discover on your own?
I had no guidance with that. No suggestions. I realized I wasn’t learning, and I kept tweaking things until I discovered something that would work for me. I had to figure that out on my own – while healing. That was lots of fun.
Now, do you feel that your current life is affected since this happened to you?
Short-term memory. There are times when I have a conversation with the family. A couple days later, they bring it up, and I won’t remember any of it. Sometimes something will trigger what seems like a flashback from my childhood. But I won’t know if it is a memory or something I wish had happened. Before I moved out on my own, I would tell my family the things I remembered, and they would say, “That never happened. Your brain is just making that up.” So I don’t know if they were trying to lie to me to protect me about what happened, or if it is my brain lying to me because I want to remember something from my childhood. A lot of times those triggers bring up a memory, but then it is immediately gone.
So it’s like a deja vu experience where you think you’ve seen it before, you’ve smelled it before…
Yes. And sometimes I’ll say “I’ve smelled that smell before!” And people with me will say, “Yeah, you said that ten minutes ago.” And I’ll say, “I did?” because I don’t remember!
Do you have strategies to help you with your short-term memory?
Sticky notes and lists everywhere. I think I go through sticky notes more than teachers! My boyfriend will remind me of things that are important. I have to write things down or I won’t remember.
Do you still have a relationship with your parents?
They still see me as the brain-damaged fifteen-year-old. But they don’t live in my household or pay my bills. So I say, “If you want to continue to push that, you can go.”
This same independent streak is probably what made you fight so hard to get well. Did you have the same personality before your brain was injured?
I don’t think so. Because from what my friends said, I was meek and mild-mannered. I didn’t really talk to people. They said getting me to talk was like pulling teeth. I was really introverted, painfully shy. Then after the aneurysm, I was this outgoing, talkative personality. I wanted to talk to everybody. I wanted to be part of everybody’s lives.
Wow, that was a complete personality change!
I mean, I was never one of those angry people, but the doctors said that that is a real consequence of a brain aneurysm. Some people come out of it mean and angry, and not wanting to do anything, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. Luckily, I did not end up with that personality. But there was a period after I had my son where I became that person for a while. And I did not like it at all.
I don’t know if you can tell by the way I am talking, but I have what they call ‘a flat affect’. And sometimes I can work on changing that flat affect because I really don’t like it. But I have to really work for it.
So you have to fake it almost?
Yeah. I have to train myself not to have it. Because I don’t like being monotone. Because it makes you sound like you are bored with everything, and that you just don’t want to do it. But inside, I want to be here and I want to do things. So I have to physically and mentally struggle with myself, “Make it sound like you are happy to be here. Work for this. Let them know that you want to do this!”
It sounds like it would take a lot of energy. It sounds exhausting!
Some days are real struggles. But I don’t go day by day, I go hour by hour. I say, “I can get through this hour, and I will get through the next hour when it comes.” Sometimes I have really bad brain fog days, where it’s like I’m not even home. But the more I talk, and the more I interact and do physical things, the better I get. It’s hard when I have that brain fog at work but all my employees know me, and they know how to help me out. Sometimes they tell me to sit in the office for a few minutes, “Collect your thoughts. We’ll hold it down until you are ready.” So I have a really good team of employees.
It’s almost like you have a family at work. That’s great.
Do you have any advice for others going through similar struggles?
Find out what works for you. Keep cycling through the processes until you find what works. Everyone is different. You might have to invent something that no one else has done.
Were you able to find any support groups?
Back when I was fifteen, it didn’t seem like people knew much about brain aneurisms. I remember talking at school about it, and a kid asked, “Are you paralyzed?” And I waved my hand around and said, “I don’t think so…”
Most of my support came from my friends and family. And now that I am an adult, my support comes from my boyfriend and daughter.
Since hearing your story, I’ve come up with a fictional storyline about a woman who has had something similar happen to her. So as I am writing that novel, I will come back to you to pick your brain for details if that is okay with you.
And I will be sure to give you credit for you being my source of inspiration!
Keep me updated and I am sure we will see each other on Facebook!