The right side of her body was totally paralyzed.
As a teacher for more than 20 years, education had always been a major part of Mary Borrelli’s life. But she never imagined that at age 47, she would have to relearn everything she knew. Just after she was appointed to serve as an acting principal at the elementary school she attended growing up, Mary’s life changed forever when she had a massive stroke. Eight years later, she’s back in the classroom and sharing six things that the experience taught her.
1. An observant friend can save your life.
One morning in January 2010, a teacher at the elementary school where Mary worked noticed that she was absent. Mary had just been named acting principal two months before, and the teacher knew it wasn’t like her friend not to be out greeting the kids and staff. She decided to go to Mary’s house to see what was wrong. She saw Mary’s car in the driveway, but when she knocked on the door, no one answered. That’s when she called 911. Firefighters crawled in through an open window and found Mary unconscious on the floor. “I woke up and said, ‘Oh my God, thank you, thank you,” Borrelli recalls. “I didn’t remember [anything else about had happened] until three weeks later.”
2. How to be patient.
When Mary woke up in intensive care at Mass General in Boston, she initially thought everything was fine. “Everybody was visiting me, and they would always come to my left side,” Borrelli remembers. She eventually learned she’d had a major stroke that paralyzed the right side of her body. Mary had also lost her ability to speak because the stroke had damaged parts of her brain responsible for language, a condition known as aphasia. By the time Mary was transferred to Spaulding, a rehabilitation hospital, she could follow conversations but couldn’t respond in real time. “When everybody was done talking, I would answer all their questions, shaking my head no, no, yes, no, yes, yes,” Borrelli recalls.
3. Home holds a deep emotional connection.
After nearly a year of occupational and physical therapy, Mary’s therapists took her home in an ambulance to see if it was safe for her to return instead of going to a long-term care facility. When Mary walked up the eight stairs to the home she’d lived in since childhood, she cried. “I hadn’t been home in ten months,” Borrelli explains. Family members had built a bathroom on the first floor and converted her dining room into a bedroom so she could return home for good.
4. Life can be fortuitous.
When Mary got to the Spaulding facility, she was still struggling with her speech and thought that her teaching and administrative career was over. But another speech therapist, who worked at Boston University, encouraged Mary to come to a community aphasia group there. “Everybody had a story, and everybody was talking like me,” Borrelli says. “And I thought, ‘Oh my God, I have found a home with these people.’” She didn’t really speak during the first two months she attended the meetings, but then she started opening up, and her communication continued to improve.
At her therapist’s recommendation, she also applied and was accepted to an intensive pilot program for aphasia. Mary also learned how to take care of herself all over again: tying her shoes, taking a bath, cracking an egg—only using her left hand. After four years of adaptive driving lessons, Mary got her driver’s license back. And a BU professor and graduate students launched an online campaign to raise money to outfit her house so she could return to the second floor of her home—which she hadn’t done since her stroke. Now she has a chairlift that takes her upstairs so she can utilize her entire home.
5. Technology can change your life.
Mary was always into computers, but after her stroke, she learned the power of technology could transform lives. While she was in the intensive aphasia program at BU, graduate students asked her if she would like to participate in a new program called Constant Therapy. When Mary got home from working with her speech pathologist, she would use the Constant Therapy app on her iPad and do additional exercises. Since then, Constant Therapy has received national recognition as a tool that can help people who have had strokes, brain injuries, and dementia recover some of their communication skills.
6. How to keep sight of your dreams.
Mary hardly took sick days when she was teaching, so she had about two years of leave built up when she had her stroke. She used that time to recover, but as she became more confident, she couldn’t wait to get back to teaching. Mary focused on getting better, even if she might never be 100% again, volunteering two days a week with an after-school program. “I did that for a year, and I thought, if I can help kids with homework, I think I can be a teacher again,” Borrelli says.
In addition to her degrees in elementary education and educational administration, Mary had also taken a lot of classes in English Language Learners over the years, since there were a lot of students in her district for whom English is not their first language. And that’s who she’s been teaching since she returned to the classroom full-time in 2013. “Now I have an appreciation of what the kids who are coming to America go through that first year because it’s new to them,” Borrelli says. “Just like speaking again was new to me after my stroke.”
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