Although a local critical care nurse will participate in this year’s Chicago Marathon — a major feat for anyone — she experienced the true race of her life after suffering a life-threatening stroke.
For several months, Aubrey Ness endured headaches that she assumed were due to her rigorous schedule.
In addition to work, she was enrolled in a 13-week class in Chicago last summer to prepare for her critical care registered nurse certification board exam.
“It was a five-hour class, on top of working full time, so I chalked up my headaches to an increased level of stress,” she said.
She had just started taking birth control, and having been on the medication before, she knew headaches could be a side effect as well.
“However, these were different, and unfortunately, I ignored it,” the 31-year-old Crown Point resident said.
As a nurse, when she began experiencing the symptoms of a stroke, she knew right away what was happening and sought care at the hospital where she worked, Methodist Hospital Southlake. Medical staff determined she was suffering from a hemorrhagic stroke.
“A hemorrhagic stroke is basically a loss of blood flow due to a blood clot that has either traveled to the brain or has formed in the brain from a broken blood vessel,” Ness said. “The swelling and pressure in the brain causes a disruption of oxygen and damages brain tissue.”
The time between when the stroke occurs and treatment is rendered is critical for survival, she said.
“The more quickly you can regain circulation, the less damage that occurs,” Ness said. “In my case, I had a large clot and there was still bleeding occurring, which made it more complicated to treat.”
The pressure in her brain caused violent seizures, and medical staff placed her in a coma and on life support before airlifting her to the University of Chicago for further treatment.
Though an avid runner who will participate in her third Chicago Marathon this fall — her fourth marathon overall — the event has taken on a new meaning. This year’s will mark her second since her stroke.
“When I crossed the finish line last year, just four months after my stroke, it was such a surreal experience,” Ness said. “Looking at the skyline from my hospital room at the University of Chicago had a tremendous impact and even today when I train, I close my eyes and remember looking out to inspire myself.”
This year’s 40th Bank of America Chicago Marathon will take place Sunday, with the 26.2-mile course weaving its way through streets and neighborhoods in Chicago. More than 40,000 participants are expected this year, with all 50 states and 140 countries represented, said Nicole Mancuso Meagher, spokeswoman for the marathon.
There was a time when Ness didn’t even know if she would be able to return to nursing, let alone run a marathon.
“In my recovery, there was talk that I might not have been able to return back to work as a nurse. That broke my heart,” she said. “Nursing is my biggest passion in life and hearing those words made me fight harder.”
As a nurse, she knew right away the symptoms of a stroke — a numb or tingly arm and the inability to speak.
“I could make noises, but they weren’t meaningful. My speech was garbled,” she said. “Throughout this entire ordeal, I could understand what people were saying. I just couldn’t respond in a meaningful way.”
She could nod or shake her head to communicate yes or no, but when medical staff tried to get her to write, she couldn’t with either hand.
“I remember the ER nurse telling me that my friend would be taking care of me in Neuro ICU,” Ness said. “I felt extremely comforted, and after that, I laid my head on the pillow and the next thing I remember was waking up in Chicago a week later.”
Looking around, she saw her loved ones around her, crying, and her wrists and ankles in restraints.
“I remember being extremely agitated, violent and I growled at everyone,” she said. “It was odd. I felt like I was completely aware in my own body, but I couldn’t control myself.”
In the following weeks, she had become the patient she had truly disliked taking care of — crying very loudly seemingly out of nowhere and struggling to control her anger.
“It was frightening to not have any control over my emotions,” Ness said.
She also had to regain the most basic abilities — balance and simply standing — with the help of nursing staff and therapists at the University of Chicago and Methodist Hospital Southlake, where she was transferred back to after being stabilized.
“I remember staring out my window at the Chicago skyline remembering I had a marathon to run in several months, and I just sobbed,” Ness said. “I couldn’t even stand without two people helping me.”
Though she struggled with this, her biggest challenge involved communicating.
“My stroke mainly affected language,” she said. “It was difficult to communicate. I was also very easily distracted.”
Oftentimes, her speech therapy involved placing her in the middle of the physical therapy gym with music on the radio, as therapists asked her questions and gave her word or math problems to solve. It was a way for them to simulate the hustle and bustle of the ICU nurses’ station, she said.
“I was worried I’d never be able to return,” Ness said. “I’d call my manager crying after therapy or a doctor’s appointment and she’d reassure me she was waiting for me to return. She never lost faith in me.”
After she was released from the hospital, Ness continued outpatient speech and physical therapy. Even today, she still struggles with her balance, especially when she’s standing in a crowded area or must stand in one spot for a long time. She also will struggle at times with getting caught up on a word she can’t get out, and still battles fatigue as she works 12-hour night shifts while trying to find the energy to train.
“I am being treated for anxiety and depression, and it took a long time before I came forward to my doctors about how I was feeling,” Ness said. “I brushed it off as normal or that it would go away, but I would just burst into tears or have a panic attack for no reason at all.”
She says stepping forward after being in such a dark place has been an important part of her recovery.
“I guess anxiety and depression are a normal part of stroke recovery, but no one really talks about it,” she said. “Even as a nurse, I didn’t know that. I guess it makes sense, but that’s not really high up on the priority of treatment right away, but I wish I had known.”
After tests that checked for bleeding and clotting disorders all came back negative, doctors concluded the cause of her stroke likely was the birth control, which carries with it a small risk of blood clots or stroke, she said. Additionally, the Advil she took for her headaches may have played a role.
“Advil will worsen any internal bleeding, so I was just adding fuel to the fire,” Ness said.
A new perspective
Through this experience, she has found a new level of respect for her patients, she said.
“It’s such a different feeling to empathize with a patient because I’ve felt exactly what they’re feeling,” she said. “I get what they’re going through now. Knowing the feeling of having tubes in every orifice, being restrained, the emotions, the financial toll, the frustration of keeping up with all the doctors and medications.”
As she finalizes preparations to run in the Chicago Marathon, Ness said she is counting her blessings despite everything she has been through over the past year.
“I’m so lucky that I’ve survived, and for the most part, I have no deficits,” she said. “I’ve taken care of countless patients that weren’t so lucky. I continue to run because I can, and also for those who can’t.”