Step by Step: After an aneurysm, Tara Kuchenbecker recovers and becomes an inspiration to others
May 14, 2009, is a day that Tara Kuchenbecker can remember as vividly as if it were a television show she had recorded on her DVR, because she can remember it at any time. It was a Thursday evening. Tara and her husband, Ken, were relaxing at home after work. Ken headed to the backyard to chop wood for their fire pit. Tara picked up the phone to call her mother to talk.
Suddenly, Tara felt sick to her stomach. She abruptly ended the conversation telling her mother that she had to go because she did not feel well. Her mother sensed something was wrong and told her to tell Ken. Tara knew there wasn’t time and ran to the bathroom.
Ken found Tara passed out and having a seizure. He called 9-1-1 and the paramedics arrived shortly after. “It was surreal,” Tara says. “I could hear the paramedics, but I couldn’t see them. I was picturing them and what they were doing, but I couldn’t answer them. Then I blacked out,” she recalls.
Tara was taken to Hillcrest Hospital where a CT scan showed she had an aneurysm that had erupted in her brain—Tara had a stroke. She was 40 years old.
A decision was made to transfer Tara to Cleveland Clinic where she underwent a six-hour surgery to remove a portion of her skull, which was frozen and replaced at a later date, to relieve the pressure on her brain.
“When I woke up from surgery I was piecing things together. So many thoughts were racing through my head. ‘What hospital am I in? Why am I here? What is going on?’ But I wasn’t able to speak to verbalize my feelings,” recalls Tara. All of a sudden Tara felt like she had reverted to being “a baby.” She says, “People would tell me things over and over but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I slept constantly. I lost the capacity to swallow correctly.” Tara was experiencing the effects of her stroke. Once a feeding tube was inserted, she gained energy and was able to get out of bed. A nursing home social worker by trade, Tara was brought a walker to help her. She didn’t like that. “I wasn’t used to that. To me, a walker was for nursing home patients, not me,” she recalls. Now that Tara was beginning to become more mobile, it was time for intensive inpatient physical therapy. Tara was transferred to Euclid Hospital—known in the region for its rehabilitation program.
Therapy at Euclid Hospital
Kuchenbecker spent the next three weeks in the inpatient rehabilitation unit. “I loved being at Euclid Hospital for rehab. I could look out my window and see the lake and watch boats go by. It was very calming,” remembers Tara. Between physical and speech therapy, Tara spent three hours a day for five to six days working to recover her lost speech and physical functions. “I would often talk to her while she was on the exercise bike. She didn’t know it, but she was working on two therapies at once,” said Dianne Vermilya, physical therapy coordinator. Other rehabilitation activities involved tossing and catching a ball to work on balance and walking on the treadmill for endurance. “We like to challenge patients, it helps their recovery,” says Vermilya. After three weeks in inpatient rehabilitation Tara was discharged, and continued therapy on an outpatient basis for six months. “Tara cleared many hurdles to make a remarkable recovery,” says Lynn Jedlicka, MD, Tara’s physician who specializes in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.
As an outpatient, Tara worked with speech therapist Susan Waizenhofer, MA, CCC-SLP. “When I first started working with Tara, she knew what she wanted to say, but couldn’t get it out,” says Waizenhofer. Tara and Waizenhofer continued to work on speech and language exercises such as filling in words in phrases and identifying ordinary objects. When Tara was finished with outpatient therapy at Euclid Hospital she “was scared. I didn’t think I was ready to go, but my speech therapist Susan told me I was, and encouraged me to join the stroke support group,” says Tara. The group helped her to realize that she was not alone. “Tara did so well because she was optimistic and determined to get back to where she was in life. She is such an inspiration to everyone in the support group,” says Waizenhofer. Thirteen months after having her stroke, Tara was the guest speaker at the stroke support group meeting, sharing her life changing experience with others. “I went from not being able to verbalize my thoughts, to sharing my story with others,” says Tara. “If I came this far, so can they.”