The story of Tracia Hansen
On March 28, 2020, Tracia Hansen was hanging out at home with her kids when the weather started to turn bad. She quickly ran outside to bring her vehicle into the garage. As she leaned over to clean the sleet off the windshield, she got an intense pain through her back, all but dropping her to the ground. She managed to move her vehicle inside and then got into the house where she told her kids, “You better get Dad, something is wrong.”
Tracia walked through the house to her bedroom when she began to get an intense shooting pain up her neck. Through screams, she told her husband to take the kids to their grandparents. “I knew something was really wrong,” recalls Tracia. “I remember laying down in my bathroom. I was just hot and nauseous, dry heaving. I was hoping I just had a pinched nerve and was praying it would be something that would pass quickly.”
When her husband Austin returned from dropping the kids off at their grandparents’ house nearby, Tracia asked him to take her to the emergency room.
When Tracia went to stand up, neither one of her legs would work. By this point, her dad had arrived to help. “I remember saying, I’m so sorry Dad, I think I had a stroke,” Tracia remembers with tears in her eyes. With the help of her dad and Austin, she made it into the vehicle.
“On the way there, I prayed just please let this be something that they can give me medicine to fix,” pleaded Tracia. “I was so scared I would never be able to walk again.”
Once we got into the ER, we were notified only one person could accompany me due to COVID restrictions. “I remember telling the ER staff that I thought I had a stroke. I remember them taking me back to a room and the Nurse Practitioner on call recognizing me. I worked in the same hospital as a respiratory therapist.”
With it being just a couple weeks into the pandemic, the primary concern in most every emergency room was COVID. Questions arose from every staff member, did Tracia have COVID? Was she in contact with anyone who did?
Staff gowned up when they entered her room, taking utmost precautions, convinced that Tracia’s odd symptoms were due to COVID. Their questions and responses upset Tracia as she replied, “But my legs aren’t working, this doesn’t make any sense.”
Soon a consult with a neurologist occurred. He immediately recognized something else was happening, arranging an immediate CT and MRI.
At this point, per COVID restrictions, Austin had to leave. “I just remember him looking at the doctors and back at me, asking when he would be able to come back,” remembers Tracia. “They told him, ‘You cannot come back until she is discharged.’ We were both so scared. We said goodbye and I remember praying, please just help me through this Lord.”
Alone, Tracia’s mind raced, “I was so scared and kept thinking of Austin and my kids, hoping that they would be okay without me, as crazy as that sounds.”
The testing was long. Hours went by as they diligently scanned Tracia’s brain and spine, looking for signs of what was happening.
“Everytime I would begin a new test or scan, I would close my eyes and God was right there with me. I would just close my eyes and when I opened them again the test was done. I don’t remember any of the time during the tests.”
It took two to three days for everything to be pieced together and for Tracia to learn that what occurred was a spinal cord stroke. The area affected was from T4-T10, her chest to her belly button.
“At that point I could move my right foot but nothing on my left leg. I remember asking the neurologist if I would ever walk again. He replied, ‘We do not know. Someday you may be able to walk with your right leg but I’m not sure about your left leg. With technology that could change. The most important thing is to stay positive. Things can change.’”
Determined to push Tracia toward recovery, the staff immediately began therapies to get her body moving. Tracia pushed back as she fought an immensely painful headache.
It was a constant back and forth with staff working to motivate her to move, encouraging her to be strong for her kids, to keep pushing through the pain. “I’d get up and go to therapy in my wheelchair and most of the time they would have to bring me back,” remembers Tracia, “I was just so nauseous, I knew something was wrong.”
The support staff continued to remind her that her body had been through a lot. The spinal cord stroke was hard on her body. Recovery is difficult. They were determined the head pain she was experiencing was a residual effect of the spinal cord stroke.
One week after her spinal cord stroke, Tracia went to physical therapy and was soon dripping sweat. “The physical therapist kept telling me to push through the pain,” Tracia says. “She helped me sit up and all of a sudden I had a crazy pain in my head. I was screaming. The staff helped me lay down again and then suddenly it was lights out. I don’t remember anything.”
When she woke up, Tracia was in the ICU. “I remember looking up and my husband was there. I realized something really bad happened,” recalls Tracia.
The nurse told her, “Tracia, you had a brain bleed. You just got out of surgery.”
“They kept asking me my name,” remembers Tracia. “I knew what it was but I just couldn’t say it. Finally someone said ‘Tracia.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, my name is Tracia Austin.’ The nurse replied, ‘Is that your name?’ Again, I said, ‘Yeah, it is Tracia Austin.’ She gently said, ‘Your husband Austin is here. Your name is Tracia Hansen.’
At this point, Tracia didn’t know what her kids’ names were or her birthdate. There were many things that she could not recall.
Tracia had an hemorrhagic stroke which affected her vision and ability to speak. The neurosurgeon on call began to dig deeper, ordering a brain biopsy to see if there was a correlation between the spinal cord stroke and the hemorrhagic stroke and to hopefully uncover what was happening to Tracia.
Tracia was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder called central nervous system vasculitis. It affects less than 3 people out of 1 million. Now knowing what the underlying cause was for Tracia’s strokes, her medical team began a chemo treatment regimen and an anti-rejection medication to stop the vasculatis from attacking Tracia’s vessels. The goal of the treatment was to put the vasculitis at bay. It is not curable, but it is manageable with treatment.
Once Tracia was stable again, Austin returned home. The inability to have her support next to her brought more hurdles. Tracia couldn’t read her cell phone. It constantly dinged with well-meaning messages of encouragement that she could not receive or respond to without help. “Not being able to communicate through text was hard,” recalls Tracia of that time. Without visitors, Tracia felt even more isolated and it was difficult for her to keep her morale up.
After 65 days in the hospital with ongoing speech, occupational, and physical therapies, Tracia was released. She left the hospital in a wheelchair, able to stand with support but unable to take a step.
Now home, Tracia faced new challenges. “It was so hard,” she says. “There were a lot of tears. When I came home my twins were seven years old. Loud noises and multiple voices in a room were really hard for me. Even now restaurants can be hard for me to focus on the conversation. Any time there is a lot of commotion it is difficult for me to focus.”
Still working on her speech and cognition, Tracia was brokenhearted when early on in her recovery her kids brought her a children’s book to read to them. “I couldn’t read at a first grade level. It was tough,” Tracia says with tears in her eyes. “My kids were looking at me not understanding why I couldn’t read to them.”
The first time Tracia went to physical therapy as an outpatient, she met Matt, her physical therapist. “He has been a life changer for me!” exclaims Tracia. “The first day he told me, ‘We are going to stand up and you are going to take some steps.’ I remember looking at Austin skeptically and said, ‘Um, no I’m not.’ Matt fought back, insistent, ‘Yes, you are.’ I ended up taking a few steps that first time I was with him. I knew this was the place for me.”
Now almost two years later, life looks much different for Tracia than it did in those early fearful days. She is able to walk about 350 feet with crutches. She continues to go to physical therapy once a week, she swims, and tries to stay as busy as she possibly can. Her new motto has become, “Keep moving, that is what is going to get me walking one of these days!”
Tracia was just 36 years old when she had her stroke, a busy active mom of twins. Recovery has been a long, difficult journey. Initially Tracia struggled just navigating their house with her wheelchair. “I was constantly running into things. I was frustrated. I couldn’t stand up to cook. Every little thing was difficult. When Austin went back to work, just managing to take my pills on time was hard for me.”
Through persistence, Tracia has gotten more mobile and has found the accommodations that work best for her lifestyle. Unable to continue her position as a respiratory therapist caring for patients directly, her employer adjusted her position to work on the computer. She now works two days a week, one on campus and one from home.
The functionality of her right leg has come back, giving her the ability to drive. Her strength has improved so she can pull herself up to her van and place her wheelchair in the back all on her own. This has given her back freedoms that she previously took for granted, such as picking up her kids from school.
With her new leg brace, Tracia is continuing to work on the mobility of her left leg. The brace was $90,000 and is very heavy. It is a struggle for Tracia to use the brace as she is still building strength in her left leg, but she is determined to walk unassisted once again.
Through the partial funding by a grant, Tracia was able to purchase an outdoor recumbent e-bike which allows her to once again enjoy bike rides with her family, something they frequently enjoyed doing together. “Since it is an e-bike, I can push a button when my leg gets tired and it will assist me to ride it. It is super awesome,” says Tracia. “I can ride bikes with my kids again. Now when we go out there I am faster than them!”
From her chest down Tracia still has significant effects from the strokes. “What I feel is like a light touch, I don’t feel temperature or pain in that part of my body,” she explains. The lack of sensation means Tracia has to be very careful with everyday things like water pressure or sunburns.
Tracia’s speech has recovered tremendously from those scary days where she questioned if she would be able to have a full conversation again, yet, she still has hurdles in her reading and writing. She now uses accommodations like talk to text, converting long messages or email to audio, and audio books to help her read and write more quickly.
“Looking back now it has been two years,” she reflects. “I cannot believe I have gone through all of that. My husband Austin and my kids, Brecken and Brynley, are amazing. They help me all the time. They don’t complain about anything. When I was in the early stages of recovery, I just remember worrying that they would be embarrassed of me. I didn’t know what I would be able to do with them. It was scary. But now I can do anything with them. We play basketball, we swim. I feel like I can do anything I put my mind to now.”
Her words for someone who may be in a similar battle right now are, “Let your faith be bigger than your fear. You have to stay strong; you have to keep moving.”
Originally published in Gritty Faith Volume 15. Written by Jessy Paulson.