When Ashley’s world turned upside down, she turned toward healing

At 26 years old, Ashley survived a stroke and cancer. Today, she is helping fellow survivors to recover and thrive.

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Before the incident, Ashley remembers having a typical twentysomething lifestyle.

Every day, she commuted to a stable job outside of Winnipeg, working with domestic animals and livestock. She balanced her ordinary, daily routine with travel and adventure, often dreaming about the new places she’d visit one day.

But then came the seizures. And the medical appointments, tests, and questions.

Suddenly, Ashley’s “normal” life became unrecognizable. The seizures meant she lost her driver’s license and couldn’t go into work anymore. Her days were spent at doctor’s offices and hospitals in search of a diagnosis.

“It was shocking,” says Ashley, who never imagined something like this would happen to her.

None of us do. We never know when life is going to throw us a curveball—but when it does, it can knock us off our feet.

That’s how Ashley felt when the results from an MRI scan showed she had a brain tumour. It appeared to be non-cancerous and could be surgically removed through a craniotomy, which would potentially ease or eliminate the seizures.

The next year leading up to her surgery date, Ashley prepared herself in every way possible—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. She began practicing yoga, mindfulness, and meditation, all of which quickly became lifelines for her. She spent time with her loved ones. She even conquered her fear of public speaking by becoming a member of Toastmasters—something she says she never would’ve done before.

When the date of her brain surgery finally came, Ashley felt as ready as she could be. Vaguely, she remembers her neurosurgeon discussing the risks of the procedure but trusted that everything would be fine.

Hours later, Ashley woke up from surgery in her hospital bed, groggy and confused. An array of concerned voices were coaxing her to answer questions and move her limbs.

As she regained consciousness, Ashley realized that she couldn’t move any part of the right side of her body, and her speech was slurred, too.

During surgery, Ashley had experienced a stroke. At 26 years old.

While it can happen at any age, 80% of all strokes in Canada occur in those over the age of 60[1]. It’s far rarer for young adults like Ashley to have a stroke, and it comes with its own unique challenges.

 “Having a stroke is isolating to begin with, but I think younger survivors feel especially isolated,” explains Ashley. “They’re affected differently than older adults. Not necessarily less significantly, but differently.”

“Ashley has been instrumental in helping us improve the quality of programming that we offer at the Stroke Recovery Association of Manitoba.”

Ashley spent the next four months navigating a radically different life at a rehabilitation facility in Winnipeg. There, she spent Christmas and her birthday, learned to push her wheelchair with one hand, and became left-handed.

And then more jarring news came. The tumour removed from her brain had, in fact, been malignant all along. Ashley had survived both a stroke and cancer.

“That was something I couldn’t even process at the time because I was still processing the fact that I was recovering from a stroke,” remarks Ashley. “I had to take things one step at a time.”

Alongside physiotherapy, caring for her mental health was also a vital part of Ashley’s journey. Before issues with her physical health began surfacing, Ashley had met with a therapist for support with her mental health and continued to stay connected at every step of her recovery.

“Tending to my mental health was important before, but it became even more important after the stroke.”

Yoga was another form of therapy for Ashley. Slowly, as she regularly practiced yoga with a group of fellow stroke survivors, Ashley began regaining her movement and finding daily purpose again.

When Ashley came home from rehab, she decided to start dreaming big for her drastically new life. Re-igniting two of her deepest passions, Ashley travelled to India to pursue a yoga teacher training program. Yoga had been transformational in her journey, and Ashley knew she wanted to give that same gift to other survivors.

After returning home from India, Ashley connected with the Stroke Recovery Association of Manitoba*, a United Way Winnipeg donor-supported partner organization. Through this agency, Ashley began teaching accessible chair yoga classes to stroke survivors, fostering a sense of community, belonging, and empowerment.

“Ashley has been instrumental in helping us improve the quality of programming that we offer at the Stroke Recovery Association of Manitoba,” says Nicki Burbank, Executive Director for the agency. “She is bringing her experience to the table to help others, and we couldn’t be more appreciative to have her be a part of our community.”

Ashley teaches survivors of all ages, from their 30s to their early 90s. Yet, with most stroke recovery programming geared to older survivors, Ashley is particularly excited to fill a gap for younger adults.

“Most young stroke survivors are hungry for connection because their cases are so rare,” explains Ashley.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has eliminated in-person classes for much of the past year, Ashley has moved her classes online. The loneliness during the pandemic can feel all too familiar to post-stroke isolation, so Ashley believes it’s essential to say connected with her students through Zoom classes, as well as offering online meditation sessions and mental health support.

But perhaps the biggest gift Ashley gives her students—especially younger stroke survivors—is hope.

Now in her 30s, Ashley offers fellow stroke survivors an aspirational picture of what years of devotion to rehabilitation, mental health, and other therapeutic practices can look like. She demonstrates that even when life suddenly takes a sharp turn, there is help. There is hope.

And for someone walking through the unfamiliar territory of recovery, that hope is worth its weight in gold.

[1] https://www.heartandstroke.ca/-/media/pdf-files/canada/stroke-report/strokereport2017en.ashx

*The Stroke Recovery Association of Manitoba is a community-based organization providing programs, resources, and support groups to help stroke survivors find their way to recovery and improve their quality of life.

 

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