On Jan. 3, 2010, 12th grade English teacher Sally Baker and her husband, Brad, learned they were expecting a baby. Happily envisioning their family of three, Sally and Brad started hunting for baby names. Around 18 weeks, Sally felt baby Caleb kick for the first time as she taught at Oconee County High School.
But in late March, just 20 weeks into her pregnancy, Sally began struggling with unusual swelling. She called her doctor and was admitted to St. Mary’s Family Birth Center for testing. The diagnosis: preeclampsia and HELLP Syndrome, which happen in a small number of pregnancies and can harm baby and mother.
The only known treatment is to deliver the baby, but at just 20.5 weeks, it would be 6 weeks before delivery was a healthy option.
“The nurses at St. Mary’s Family Birth Center were incredibly supportive,” Sally says. “I knew my baby’s life was in danger and they knew it, too, but they did everything in their power to make me feel at ease.”
On March 29, 2010, Sally and Brad lost Caleb.
“I was scared and confused and broken,” Sally says, “but I was blessed to have so much love around me from my husband, my family and the staff at St. Mary’s.”
A few days later, Sally’s blood health had improved and doctors cleared her for discharge. But the morning she was to leave the hospital, Sally experienced incredible pain in her abdomen.
“My blood health was so bad for so long that my liver was actually dying,” she explained.
While treating her for her liver infarction, Sally’s gastroenterologist noticed the right side of her face was beginning to droop. St. Mary’s staff reacted quickly to this common warning sign of stroke. Diagnostics showed a “brain bleed”, a hemorrhagic stroke caused by a ruptured blood vessel. She was immediately moved to the Neuroscience Critical Care Unit at St. Mary’s, which is North Georgia’s most experienced stroke center and a 2010 recipient of the Gold Plus Award for stroke care from the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association.
“I woke up to my neurosurgeon, Dr. Kim Walpert, standing over my bed,” Sally says. “She told me, ‘Sally, you’ve had a stroke, but you are going to recover fully.’ Today we call it ‘Walpert’s Law’ – whatever Dr. Walpert says, goes. I had no choice but to do as she said and recover.”
But Sally had a long way to go. She could not move the right side of her body, squeeze her hand, speak, or even grunt. “At 30 years old,” she says, “a stroke was something I worried about for my grandparents, not me. I knew it was an uphill battle, but I decided then and there not to let it defeat me.”
Sally’s positive attitude helped her progress from the NCCU to neuroscience nursing to St. Mary’s inpatient Center for Rehabilitative Medicine.
“It was not always easy to go to the rehab center cafeteria and face other people,” she admits. “I had to tell my story and my story was hard. But by sharing my story I felt like I was winning over the stroke and over all the bad things that had happened to me.”
Sally bonded with the staff as they led her step-by-step toward recovery. “I started with standing, then walking, then taking the stairs. They would not let my husband do something like tie my shoes for me when I could do it myself. I earned my independence back.”
After two weeks in the CRM, Sally went home. Working with therapists at St. Mary’s Outpatient Rehabilitation Center, she began to set new goals, including walking across the stage at graduation in May and returning to teaching in August.
Sally achieved those milestones and soon set a new goal: walking a 5-kilometer (3.1 mile) event in the spring of 2011.
“As I shared my newest goal, more and more people wanted to join in the experience with me,” she says. Soon she set the bar even higher. “I saw first-hand the difference that quality rehabilitation can make in recovering from a stroke. I wanted to give back.”
So, with the help of family, friends, co-workers and St. Mary’s Foundation, she created her own event to raise funds for and awareness of St. Mary’s stroke program. On April 2, 2011 – the one-year anniversary of her stroke – Sally led more than 150 people on the inaugural Next Step 5K around Oconee County High School.
“Next Step 5K is the next step in my personal therapy; the next step for stroke survivors in overcoming the effects of stroke; the next step for families and friends who have been affected by stroke; and a next step for St. Mary’s in continuing to provide the highest quality stoke care possible,” she says.
And what is Sally’s next goal after completing her first 5K walk?
“Next year, I’m going to run it.”