December is a time for many to get ready for the holidays and children looking forward to a couple weeks off of school. However, for 12-year-old Jena Zabel of Port Edwards, December 2016 was a month that changed her life.
“I was on my computer talking to one of my friends on Skype and I started to get a slight headache and got dizzy,” she said. “I thought I just needed to go to bed because I had the flu and an ear infection the same week.”
She went to stand…but she could not get up. Her entire left side of the body went numb. She called her dad for help, and she began slurring her words.
She went to stand up again, and she fell to her knees. An ambulance was called and first responders swarmed the house.
She was taken to a local hospital and transferred to Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Marshfield. At the time, the ambulance attendant told Jena she may be having a stroke.
“At the time, I wasn’t sure what a stroke was, and I was on the verge of passing out,” Jena said. “The attendant played my favorite TV show to try and keep me awake.”
Larry Zabel, Jena’s father, said everything began happening fast when they arrived in Marshfield. “There was a lot of running through hallways trying to get her to where she had to be,” he said.
Defying the odds
After an MRI was done on Jena, doctors found a blood clot on the right side of her brain.
“I was shaking the entire time,” Jena said. “To say I was scared is an understatement.”
Marshfield Clinic specialists Dr. Michael Katsnelson, a neurology hospitalist, Dr. Vivekananda Gonugunta, a neurosurgeon, Dr. Monica Koehn, a pediatric neurologist and Dr. Edward Fernandez, a pediatric intensivist, were part of her care team at the hospital. She was given Tissue Plasminogen Activator (TPA), which is a clot busting medication that goes into her arteries. However, there is a limited window for the medicine to be effective, and time was closing in. Her family agreed to have Jena go through a special surgery to get the clot out.
We went through her leg and passed a catheter through the arteries of her leg, around her heart, through the neck and into the brain,” Dr. Gonugunta said. “I used special devices to pull out the clot and reopen the blocked vessels so the brain could get its blood supply.”
Although the surgery was a risky procedure, it was successful.
“Everything went well,” Dr. Katsnelson said. “In such a scary situation, Jena was a trooper.”
After surgery, Jena began to make big improvements.
“By the fifth day after surgery, I was able to lift my arm over my head,” she said. “I said ‘oh hey Dad look at this’ like it was nothing. It looked like my dad was about to cry.”
She was able to leave the hospital after almost a week and came home the day before Christmas Eve. She continued care under Dr. Koehn, and coordinated therapy by Dr. Jill Meilahn, a Marshfield Clinic physical medicine and rehabilitation provider.
“It is unusual for a stroke to happen to an 11-year-old, but it still happens,” Dr. Koehn said. “However, she was able to be evaluated quickly and treated emergently. This allowed the injured portion of her brain to be saved.”
Jena also unknowingly benefited from comprehensive stroke team and unique specialists at Marshfield Clinic,” continued Koehn. “This level of care is not available anywhere else in central Wisconsin.”
Life after a stroke
Jena was back at Marshfield Clinic four times a week for physical, occupational and speech therapy to overcome the severe weakness on the left side of her body, difficulty swallowing and muddled speech.
“A lot of it came back,” Dr. Meilahn said. “She is such a hard worker and it’s always rewarding to see the kids getting back to their normal lives.”
Jena is back in school, but she cannot participate in contact sports or exercise that causes pressure to her head. She also has some weakness on the left side of her body. She wants to get back into playing basketball, volleyball and softball. Larry Zabel says after what his daughter has been through, he could not be more proud of her.
“This is the result of working hard and not giving up,” he said. “For someone who could not move the left side of her body in the hospital to seeing where she is now, we are blessed.”
Since the stroke, Jena decided to change her appearance including cutting her hair and getting her ears pierced. She also has new glasses because her prescription changed due to the stroke. She wants to try more things, so she has taken up drawing and other activities.
“My whole life changed,” she said. “I have a different perspective on life. I just want to keep improving. I can run, but I do not have a lot of stamina. My legs will start to hurt, so I’m building my strength back up.”
Her family’s life has changed as well.
“It’s changed for the better in a way,” Larry Zabel said. “We spend more time together. Overall I’m just proud of her. We’re happy with how everything turned out.”
Jena says if someone else is going through what she went through, the biggest thing is to not give up hope.
“Stay strong and try not to think bad thoughts,” she said. “Have a good support system around you and try to stay positive.”