A Stroke at 23 Left Me Disabled & Questioning My Purpose in Life

Sep 24, 2018 at 8:00 a.m. ET
Woman sleeping in hospital bed on her side.
Image: Michele Constantini/Getty Images. Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows.

I don't remember life before knowing I wanted to become a pediatrician. It was the perfect combination of my two passions: science and service. Every decision and every activity I chose were feeding the flames of that dream. I filled my life with fascinating science classes and worked tirelessly to excel. Every spare moment I had in high school and college was spent on just about any and every service opportunity with children, forging unforgettable bonds and soul-stirring memories along the way. 

It was all so fulfilling — it made me feel alive. Deciding which college to go to, which boy to date, or even which dress to buy were virtually impossible decisions for me, but this was the one thing in my life I knew for sure — I felt it in my bones.

Then I had a stroke. And everything changed.

When I was 23, during my second year of medical school at Duke University, I suffered a massive brain stem stroke that left me with locked-in syndrome. I was paralyzed bilaterally from head to toe and unable to speak but unscathed mentally. 

Was it as horrifying as it sounds? Yes. And then some. In the past decade since then, I’ve made some progress, but I’m still a far cry from being independent or functional in the slightest. Because of my physical disabilities, I’ve had to drop out of medical school, move back in with my parents and watch every last bit of potential drain out of me.

More: 40 Years of Caring for Others Helped Me Recover From a Coma

I was so close to living my dream, and just like that, it vanished before my eyes, leaving a blanket of hopelessness in its wake. My stroke not only stole my muscles, it stole from me something else — something less noticeable to the naked eye but arguably more important: my confidence. And with my confidence, my conviction followed close behind. Gone is that laser-sharp focus needed for a career in medicine. Gone is that belief that I could (and I would) change the world. All that’s left is a girl with a brilliant mind and nothing to do with it. 

Living this life without a purpose when I know I should be capable of more leaves me feeling empty. Despite the state my body is in, I can’t shake this gnawing feeling that I’m not living up to my potential. The disappointment I feel in myself and the disappointment I perceive from the people around me is all-consuming, haunting my every aimless moment. But how do I come up with a brand-new dream, a new purpose, in the middle of my 30s? How is this broken body needed by society? What on earth can this body even contribute?

This may come as a surprise to you, but people with dysfunctional arms, legs and voice are not exactly in high demand. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is more than twice the rate of those without disabilities. That statistic is absolutely paralyzing — no pun intended. 

Who would ever hire me? Who would take a chance on me? I tried to reach out to a few folks by email — admissions officers, advisors and other contacts — but most simply stopped responding once they even heard just a little about my disabilities. I’ve even checked out online masters programs in everything from social work to neuro-counseling, and they’re roughly $50,000 to 100,000 — or even more if I went back to medical school. That’s a hell of an investment if I’m not even guaranteed to get a job, right?

I have questions about my capabilities and how the world will see me at every single risk-filled turn of this journey. If I approached this with even an ounce of the determination that used to come so naturally to me, the sky would be my only limit. I would be finding scholarships and inundating people with emails until I got a response. But determination refuses to come naturally to me anymore. I don't believe in myself and my new body enough to even feel worthy of a purpose. The strangling doubts and fierce insecurities in myself have set up shop in my mind, trampling the self-assuredness that had once reigned supreme.

More: What It's Like to Get Your Period in a Wheelchair

Jay Shetty, "urban monk" and motivational speaker, says that true confidence shouldn’t be tied to something as fickle as one’s appearance. Shetty explains in a YouTube video that one's true impact, value and potential are based on something constant that is beyond the body — a soul, a spirit or a consciousness on the inside. A confidence gained merely through pride in one's looks or talents is a false confidence, one that can't withstand the ever-changing winds. 

I used to take pride in my body and all it could do so naturally. I used to love my voice — how it conveyed my vibrant personality and organically created a rapport with everyone I came across. My confidence was completely rooted in that — my body and voice made me feel beautiful, talented and capable of anything. But my stroke stripped all that away. It took away the glitz and glam, peeled back every superficial layer that I once thought defined me and left behind one enduring piece of me, my spirit — a spirit that is still beautiful, compassionate and full of potential. I have to find confidence in that, and that confidence will be pure and lasting regardless of what happens with my recovery.

I know there are opportunities out there for people with disabilities if I truly want to find them. But it takes real confidence to be able to put yourself and your perceived vulnerabilities out there, accept the possibility of failure and start over from scratch. I think I still have something to offer to the world, but I need to turn that tentative thought into an impassioned feeling. I can’t be scared of how people will see me or if they will accept me as long as I see myself as capable. If I can truly build up my confidence, maybe I’ll finally believe I’m worthy of a purpose and capable of anything.

Comments