Wind blows through pine boughs in the front yard of Elizabeth Klinkoski’s childhood home, as she and her mom, Susan Faber, play a laughter-filled game of Uno on the dining room table.
As Faber speaks her final “Uno,” Klinkoski holds a fistful of cards.
It’s the way life rolls for the 31-year-old Conklin, Michigan, resident.
She has been dealt many difficult cards in life, and handled much. But with quiet resolve and calm demeanor, she’s never once cursed the deck.
No doubt she would have loved to yell “Uno” when it came to serious medical conditions. One would have been enough. Instead, she’s battled not one but three life-threatening conditions—a heart issue that required a replacement mechanical valve in 2013, leukemia in 2015 and then a stroke in early April.
On April 5, Klinkoski picked up submarine sandwiches, then drove to the hospital to visit her boyfriend, who had been suffering from pneumonia. As she stood next to his hospital bed, near-tragedy struck.
“I was standing there and all of a sudden, ‘Wow, my arm feels really weird,’” she said. “I sat down. I was trying to tell my body to move, but my right side wouldn’t move. I knew something was wrong. I couldn’t stand up.”
Her boyfriend, Nolan, to whom she had been married for 13 years prior to a 2016 divorce, knew her well enough to recognize the severity of the moment. He told the nurse in the room: “I think she’s having a stroke.”
For stroke patients, moments matter—and they often determine the outcome.
Physicians at the first hospital attempted to break up the clot with medication, but when that failed they sent her by ambulance to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, where an interventional neurologist performed a thrombectomy to remove the clot.
“I was thinking I was going to be paralyzed forever,” Klinkoski said. “It was really scary. I couldn’t talk or anything.”
Faber had been bowling with her grandchildren when she got the call about her daughter.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, my baby,’” Faber said. “She’s been going through so much.”
The fear turned to heart-sinking reality when Faber reached the hospital.
“She couldn’t talk and she couldn’t move,” said Faber, who works in nutrition at Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital. “I thought she was going to be paralyzed. She tried to communicate, but it didn’t make any sense. She knew what she was trying to say, but we didn’t.”
Moms worry about their children when they have something as simple as a cold. Faber’s worries have been at least four-fold.
“She was very sickly as a baby,” Faber said. “She was a SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) candidate until she was 18 months old. When she had the heart attack, she had a 2-pound baby. They had to take the baby. Only by the grace of God is she still alive.”
A failing heart and leukemia
Doctors think the pregnancy and delivering her son Nyles five years ago exacerbated an unknown, pre-existing heart condition.
“I couldn’t breathe,” Klinkoski said. “My son was born at 28 weeks and that’s when they found out I had the heart condition (mitral valve stenosis).”
A year later, she underwent heart surgery at Spectrum Health and received a mechanical valve.
That was trying enough. But fate had another card up its sleeve.
“She was normally very talkative, but she was exhausted all the time,” Faber said. “She had no life in her. They did a bone marrow test at Spectrum Health and it came back as APL.”
APL, or acute promyelocytic leukemia, is a cancer of the white blood cells. “I lost a brother-in-law to leukemia, so it was scary,” Faber said.
Once again, breathing became difficult for Klinkoski. She remembers feeling sick all the time, like she had the flu. She spent six weeks in the hospital.
“When I had cancer, I couldn’t do anything,” she said. “I was in the hospital so long I forgot what living felt like. I felt like I was dying all the time.”
She underwent almost a year of chemotherapy and radiation. She had the luck of the draw, once again.
“With my leukemia, they thought I wasn’t going to make it and I pulled through,” Klinkoski said. “I’m a miracle.”
She’s been in remission for almost a year.
Stepping into recovery
Now it’s on to the next deal—recovering from her stroke.
Her right arm and hand remain weak. Her face droops slightly when she smiles.
She recently had a follow-up appointment with Spectrum Health Medical Group vascular neurologist Muhib Khan, MD.
“How have you been?” Dr. Khan asked.
“This hand is hard to move,” Klinkoski said, holding up her right hand.
“I think we will have to get some rehab,” he said, suggesting physical, occupational and speech therapy.
Dr. Khan swung a computer monitor away from the wall and asked Klinkoski if she ever got to see her images.
“Let me show you what you came in with, what we did and what damage your brain sustained,” said Dr. Khan, who was with Klinkoski in the emergency room when she first arrived at Butterworth Hospital on April 5.
He scrolled through images on the monitor, pointing out the blood vessel where her clot was.
“Even with this big clot you were still moving the right side,” Dr. Khan said. “When we see a clot like this, usually people are completely paralyzed, not able to talk, not able to understand. There are vision problems and eyes deviated to one side. The fact that you didn’t have any of those signs was very reassuring to us.”
Although the main blood supply was blocked, other channels were trying to get blood to the affected area, Dr. Khan said.
Not knowing if those channels would continue to re-route blood, Dr. Khan said doctors went in through Klinkoski’s groin and opened up the blockage in her brain.
Dr. Khan pointed out a small shadowed area on her scan.
“This is your stroke,” he said.
Dr. Khan said besides therapy, Klinkoski may be a candidate for a clinical study focused on hand and arm weakness.
“It involves taking medication in addition to therapy,” he explained. “But let’s start with therapy, at least for a couple of weeks.”
Dr. Khan said he thinks fluctuating blood thinner medication levels may have caused the clot and subsequent stroke.
“Sometimes blood thinner levels are not optimal,” he said. “Because her levels were down, a clot formed on the mechanical heart valve and it sent it up to the brain.”
Dr. Khan said he is confident that with therapy, Klinkoski will continue to improve.
“This could have been so much worse,” he said. “I think she’s going to do great. She will need some therapy, but I think it will be better than it is right now.”
After Dr. Khan left the room, Klinkoski said her goal is to get back to normal.
“It’s frustrating not to be able to move this hand,” she said. “It’s my driving hand.”
But she realizes how lucky she is, simply to maintain her ability to function. She can take walks with her children Dylan, 12, and Nyles, 5.
They often stroll around the grounds of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, or in the downtown skywalks when weather pushes them indoors.
Each step, these days, is different. Each face card leaves a lasting impression. She says “I love you” more. And means it more.
“I look at life differently,” Klinkoski said. “Things in life mean more. I’m more focused on being positive. I’m more focused on my family. I used to worry about things that didn’t really matter. Now, every moment matters.”