It’s hard to imagine having the presence of mind that Janette Tazzia possessed when her stroke hit.
A fit 59-year-old with a healthy lifestyle, Tazzia had no inkling a stroke loomed.
The first sign of trouble surfaced as she talked on the phone with her brother. Her head drooped suddenly. She shook her head and felt fine. Then she noticed her speech slurring a bit.
“It was as if I’d been drinking,” she said. “But I don’t drink.”
After she hung up, she called a friend who lives nearby and asked if she sounded funny. Yes, a little “loosey-goosey,” the friend said.
The friend called for an ambulance and said she would come over.
Tazzia then realized she couldn’t walk. She tried to crawl, but couldn’t do that either.
She lay down on her living room floor, placed her driver’s license and insurance card on her chest, and waited for help.
“I didn’t know I was having a stroke, but I knew something was wrong,” she said. “It was kind of like I’d sprung a leak.”
The leak was a brain bleed, a hemorrhagic stroke. On the morning of March 25, blood flowed through a wall of a blood vessel and pooled in her brain.
A hematoma―a collection of blood―formed and put pressure on the area of the brain that controls the left side of the body, said Amy Jamison, MD, MBA, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist.
Tazzia spent five days in the Neurocritical Care Unit at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital. The hematoma was not large enough to require surgery or a drain to relieve the pressure.
But it paralyzed the left side of her body. She couldn’t walk or dress herself. She couldn’t even sit up without help. It was a tough situation for an independent woman.
A master gardener, Tazzia is a hands-on, hands-in-the-dirt business owner, more used to nurturing plants―and people―than receiving help. Her company, Tazzia Lawn Care, takes care of lawns and gardens for 200 clients.
But she tackled her recovery with a single-minded determination, cultivating strength and patience as if they were green, growing things. And she gratefully accepted help from a vast support network, starting with her partner of 22 years, Jaye Van Lenten. The two live in a house in Northeast Grand Rapids enveloped by gardens.
Van Lenten was visiting family in New York when Tazzia suffered the stroke. Friends called to tell her.
“I was shocked,” she said. “It was not anything I would have expected. She was so active. Always in good shape. She doesn’t smoke or drink.”
Once her medical condition stabilized, Tazzia transferred to the Inpatient Rehabilitation Center at Blodgett Hospital to begin the long road back.
“The brain has plasticity,” Dr. Jamison said. “It can relearn and gradually develop a work-around (for damaged areas.)”
To do that, Tazzia underwent a full slate of daily therapy sessions―physical, occupational, speech and recreational.
From her hospital window overlooking Fisk Lake, she watched snow squalls give way to the first warm days of spring. And as the gardens along the lake came to life―many that she tended at one time or another―the left side of her body reawakened and grew stronger.
The lower half of her body responded first. She began walking supported by a harness system. She progressed to a walker and then used a cane―but only briefly.
Five weeks after her stroke, Tazzia walked out of the rehab center without assistance.
“She made great progress,” Dr. Jamison said. “Her walking came along really well. At the end, her left arm started to wake up.”
Besides her care team, the couple credited an outpouring of family and friends with helping Tazzia through recovery. They sent prayers, cards and food baskets. They made “Team Tazz” T-shirts that bore the message, “A stroke of love.”
“My heart is just full,” Tazzia said.
“We are very fortunate,” Van Lenten said. “It takes a village, and a village has shown up in droves.”
‘A glass-half-full person’
Once home, Tazzia continued to do therapy―and continued to see progress, particularly with her left arm. Dr. Jamison said she will likely notice improvements for up to 18 months.
Sitting in a sunny room on a warm spring day, Tazzia fitted her left hand into the fingers of a mechanical device designed to help her regain use of the hand. She curled in her fingers and straightened them, as the device provided resistance or support.
“I get fatigued,” she said. “But I can still think clearly. And there’s progress.”
She walked with Van Lenten through their yard, looking at gardens dappled with shade and sunlight. Fern leaves uncurled. Peonies sent up buds. Clematis climbed the trellis. Blooming lilacs scented the air.
Van Lenten did the spring garden chores this year. Tazzia had to focus her energy on rehab.
“It’s a definite exercise in patience,” Van Lenten said. “I tell friends Janette usually operates at 150 mph. Now she’s at 120.
“But Janette is definitely a glass-half-full person. That attitude makes such a difference.”
Tazzia readily agreed.
“I’m lucky to be alive,” she said.