Don't Stop Me Now

By Sarah Rucker

Local farmer regains independence after stroke

When Sarah Rucker woke up in the middle of the night last summer, she knew something was wrong. Her right arm and right leg were numb. But it was harvest and she did not have time to worry. Assuming it was a pinched nerve, she went back to sleep.

“You think, ‘I slept on it wrong, when I wake up it’ll be better,’” she said. “I’m generally a healthy person. I haven’t had issues. And we’re not the kind of people that run to the doctor for every little thing.”

A retired teacher, Sarah and her husband, Jim, run a wheat farm in Arlington with Jim’s parents. When Sarah and Jim got up the next morning, they realized it was more than a pinched nerve.

Her husband checked for signs of a stroke, which, according to the National Stroke Association, can be remembered by the acronym F.A.S.T.:

  • FACE- Ask the person to smile. Is one side drooping?
  • ARMS- Ask the person to lift both arms. Does one drift downward?
  • SPEECH- Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is their speech strange or slurred?
  • TIME- If you observe any of these symptoms, call 9-1-1immediately.

Getting help

Although they did not test it, Sarah could not have lifted both arms. She was unable to walk or control her right arm or leg. But she did not have any of the other symptoms.

With her husband unable to get away from the farm, a friend drove her to Mid-Columbia Medical Center, about an hour and a half away. By the time she made it to the hospital and was diagnosed, approximately nine hours had passed.

After a stroke, time is critical. Immediate treatment can minimize the long-term impacts and prevent death. The Ruckers did not know that and she did not have any impairments to her speech or facial muscles. When she woke up that night, it was just some numbness.

“When something feels off, don’t let it go,” she said. “Get help.”

At the emergency room, Sarah was diagnosed with a stroke. She spent two days in critical care then transferred to mPower, an intensive inpatient therapy program for patients recovering from a wide range of illnesses and injuries, including stroke, spinal cord injuries, femur or hip fractures and brain injury.

“When I went into mPower, I couldn’t write my name or use my arm or leg at all,” Sarah said. “I couldn’t go home under those circumstances.”

Regaining Independence

Sarah likes to keep busy. An active volunteer, she is a member of three community boards: Gilliam/Wheeler County Farm Service Agency, Gilliam County Library Board and North Central Educational Service Board.

She is also a 4-H leader for photography and sewing and president of the women’s golf club at the China Creek Golf Course.

Luckily, the stroke created no speech and few cognitive challenges, but it caused brain damage that left her unable to control her right arm and leg. In the beginning, Sarah could not even uncurl her own fingers.

During two weeks of inpatient physical and occupational therapy at mPower, she relearned how to perform basic tasks of daily, independent living: how to walk, hold a fork and use a pen.

“They had to teach me how to do things,” she said. “Mentally I knew how to do it, but my muscles would not function properly.”

Fortunately, Sarah had plenty of support from her family, friends and the mPower team.

“The nursing staff, administration, the therapy people — they were outstanding,” she said. “I also really connected with the other patients. You build a friendship and support group right there because you all have some impairment.”

Despite going through a stressful and uncertain time, Sarah brought a positive attitude and tremendous work ethic to therapy, said MCMC Physical Therapist Megan Smith.

“The first day I worked with Sarah, she barely had any movement in her ankle,” Megan said. “We had to wrap it to keep her toes from dragging on the floor.”

On her last day, Sarah was able to walk without a brace and only occasionally used a cane. Her right foot and leg moved in all directions and she had the strength to push or pull against resistance.

“We practiced jumping off two feet, used a cane to try her golf swing and simulated pulling on a garden hose to move a sprinkler,” Megan said. “It still makes me smile to think about how much she accomplished so quickly.”

Today, Sarah is doing a lot better. At first, she could not drive at all, but she recently was able to drive to town, go shopping, then drive home. It was a major milestone in her recovery.

“That doesn’t sound like much, but we live out in the sticks,” she said. “You have to drive an hour and a half just to get to a larger grocery store or go to doctor’s appointments.”

On a trip to Hawaii last winter, she walked, swam, hiked. She felt like herself.

“I moved a 20-pound turkey,” she said. “I can walk five miles a day. I haven’t done much golfing, but I expect to do a little more this spring.”