Stroke survivor to run Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon
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After suffering a severe stroke that required emergency brain surgery to remove part of her skull, 29-year-old Dina Pestonji lay in a Toronto Western Hospital bed, unable to speak or move the right side of her body. She feared she would never walk again.
But a couple of weeks later, in late January, she could wiggle her right toe. Then, slightly lift her right leg. These tiny, but monumental, movements fuelled her hope and resolve.
The naturally right-handed woman, reached for a pen with her left hand and in large childlike letters wrote: OCT, MR and 20. It took days for her family to decipher its meaning: Pestonji was determined to run in the Oct. 20 marathon.
After months of rehabilitative therapy, Pestonji will run in the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, with the goal of completing a half-marathon, or 21 kms., in less than two and a half hours.
Participating in what will be her seventh half-marathon, is “incredibly significant” says Pestonji, whose voice has returnedto normal.
“I thought my life was over after the stroke, meaning I wouldn’t get to be the superactive and social person who enjoys doing everything,” says Pestonji. “I’m proving to myself that I’m the same person I was before and am back to everything I love doing.”
Pestonji’s ordeal began in December. She had returned to Toronto, after living abroad to start a job in financial technology sales. But during the holidays, she experienced “really bad headaches” and “shooting pains” from her neck to legs.
She thought it was the flu but went to emergency on advice of a doctor friend. She was transferred to Toronto Western, where she underwent a battery of tests but the results were inconclusive. A week later she was sent home. But that next morning she was unable to lift her right arm to brush her teeth. The right side of her face wasn’t moving, and she couldn’t smile.
She returned to Toronto Western and another round of tests. This time, the results were conclusive. She had suffered two strokes and needed immediate brain surgery, which could result in serious brain damage. Doing nothing could result in death. Her parents had one hour to decide.
“It was horrendous,” says mother Shahnaz Pestonji, fighting back tears at the memory. “We had to go ahead.”
On Jan. 7 — the day Pestonji was to have started her new job — she underwent surgery. The stroke caused her brain to swell and neurosurgeon Dr. Mojgan Hodaie had to remove a palm-sized portion of Pestonji’s skull to reduce the swelling.
“We really had a very, very short time to save her life,” says Hodaie, also an associate professor of surgery at the University of Toronto. “We had her in the operating room not knowing how that day would end. And, really not knowing how she would end up.”
Pestonji’s recovery has been “incredible,” says Hodaie, crediting her health and youth as well as her “stamina and strong willpower.”
Doctors haven’t been able to conclusively say what caused the stroke, but it may have been linked to an acne medication that’s commonly used as birth control — medication Pestonji’s family physician had prescribed. The Heart and Stroke Foundation warns that for a small number of women, oral contraceptives increase the risk of blood clots.
Young people who are on these types of medications need to be aware of the potential side effects, says Hodaie. And if there are any unusual signs or symptoms it’s important to seek help immediately, she says.
The first couple of weeks after surgery were “extremely scary.” Unable to move, Pestonji feared she may never walk, let alone run or bike, activities she loves. But when she regained some movement, her spirits were buoyed and she started communicating her goals in writing.
After a month at Toronto Western, Pestonji was transferred to the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, where as an in-patient for six weeks, she learned to speak and walk again, often wearing a protective helmet because a portion of her skull was still missing.
Her voice reappeared about a month after surgery, but she initially sounded like “a robot” and had to work on her speech. When she started to walk, it was indeed a triumph, but her headaches remained severe. Even after the piece of skull was reattached in April, she didn’t know if her brain could withstand the pounding from running.
In mid-May her brain and legs proved to be up to the task and she knew she would meet her goal of running in the Oct. 20 waterfront marathon.
“I’m very passionate about (running),” says Pestonji. “It challenges me mentally and physically and gives me the most incredible feeling to cross the finish line.”
Beyond the finish line, Pestonji is looking forward to finding a job — she hasn’t worked since the stroke as she has been focusing on her recovery — and travelling.
Pestonji is ready to put this year behind her and move on, one step at a time.
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