JACKSON, N.J. — Countless New Jerseyans will walk on the beach this summer, a simple act most of us take for granted.
Alex Navas does not take it for granted.
The 27-year-old Jackson resident suffered a massive stroke at age 23. Through the twists and turns of the rehabilitation that followed, hitting the beach was a carrot at the end of the stick. So was walking in heels.
There were times when those goals seemed like pipe dreams. But one by one, with the help of a strong support team and more than a little tenacity, she checked them off.
Now she’s telling her story so other stroke victims can see the light at the tunnel’s end.
“It’s a journey,” Navas said. “You take it day by day, moment by moment. You celebrate every little milestone.”
Navas was a senior at West Virginia University in the midst of fall semester finals when the stroke cut her down. It hit like a bolt of lightning as she was walking to the bathroom in her apartment.
“My legs began to turn inward,” she said. “I crawled to the bathroom.”
Navas has type 1 diabetes, so her first instinct was to check her blood sugar. The reading was fine. Her next thought: This must be final-exam anxiety. She called her mom.
“My speech started to go,” she recalled. “My mom asked me if I was drinking … ” (She wasn’t.)
An ambulance arrived just in time.
“I ended up coding twice on the way to the hospital,” she said.
In the emergency room, she hardly could grasp the diagnosis.
“I called my dad and said, ‘Listen, I had a stroke but don’t tell mom. I’ll be home in a few days.’ I didn’t realize how serious it was.”
Her confusion was understandable. Stroke is widely viewed as an issue for the elderly. In fact, it can afflict a younger population — those in their 40s and 50s. But Alex’s case was unusual, caused by a congenital heart defect and intercranial stenosis — the narrowing of an artery in the brain.
For any stroke victim, the most critical response is the administering of clot-busting drug tPA within three hours of the incident. Navas received that. Next comes a long and often arduous rehabilitation. That’s where she ran into trouble.
After several months of rehab in West Virginia, Navas graduated from college and returned home with crutches and a massive brace that ran the length of her right leg. It was then when she connected with CentraState Medical Center in Freehold.
“She was in fairly dire straits,” said Brian Mason, CentraState’s clinical director of rehabilitation and physical therapy. “She was not rehabilitating well. She showed up in a large leg brace, literally dragging her leg in. In her mind she had no future — her new normal was going to be this.”
Mason’s team put her on the path to recovery. Navas’ right hand bounced back fairly quickly. The leg took longer.
“We started out with a stretch; that was really all I could do,” she said. “We worked our way up from there. Worked on the core, from the hip all the way down to the foot. We eventually took that brace off and went to a below-the-knee brace.”
A key piece of her therapy was CentraState’s AlterG anti-gravity treadmill.
“It’s a treadmill where we’re able to unweigh 80 percent of peoples’ body weight; it’s almost like you’re moonwalking,” Mason explained. “We had to prove to her that she could move correctly. A lot of it is re-training her brain. She was able to see the video screen, see what she needed to correct, and see that she could do it. A lot of this is getting people to believe and take control of their life again.”
When Navas got on the treadmill and “we showed her she could walk,” Mason said, “she was crying, her mom was crying — even her therapist was crying.”
The concept behind the treadmill is called “neuroplasticity” — the ability of the brain to be re-trained to help someone recover a lost function.
“That’s what we did,” Mason said. “We re-trained her brain and the body followed.”
It wasn’t a magic wand, though. Navas put in four years of physical therapy. For the first two years, it was six hours a day.
“She kept her end of the bargain,” Mason said.
A year-and-a-half after the stroke, Navas took those first steps on the beach in Long Branch.
“We had people there cheering,” she said. “There was a lot of satisfaction to finally do it.”
Last summer, Navas ran on the beach for the first time. And she’s back in heels, too. She wears them to work — in CentraState’s emergency department, where she is a technician as she studies to become a nurse.
“I walk right past physical therapy every day,” she said. “I never would have imagined, four years later, that I would walk past it.”
CentraState Medical Center interview: http://bit.ly/2r14InF