The Gift that Stroke Gave
"Through art, I can create worlds with no boundaries."
KATIE IS DANCING.
With her eyes, the spirited 15 year-old, ruler of the tennis court and friendly Jell-OŽ fights, follows the moves of the young man before her. She is determined to learn his gentle lessons so she’ll be ready for all the Homecoming weekends still ahead.
“His movements were so graceful, fluid,” Katie recalls. “I was dancing.”
But Katie Smith wasn’t dancing. She was performing a very different act of grace as she lay immobile in a hospital bed after a vessel burst in her brainstem. Uncommon in anyone — accounting for just 25 percent of all strokes — and even more rare in a teenager, the brainstem stroke left Katie’s athletic body virtually frozen.
Yet Katie calls the day it happened, Nov. 12, 1982, D Day: “The day this cocooned caterpillar became a butterfly. I just didn’t know it yet.”
Now 38, Katie’s many victories over stroke astonish her medical team. Early on, says her mother, “Doctors didn’t give her much hope. But God did.”
While Katie has never regained the use of her voice, she has made friends around the world through her lively, conversational emails.
And though still partially paralyzed, she has become an award-winning artist whose pastel paintings and line of notecards evoke movement and passion. She’s a sought-after feature artist for shows and galleries near her home in Fairfield Glade, Tenn. When she discovered art, “it was like an epiphany to me — wow — people can see beyond my wheelchair and see what I have to say. Through art, I can create worlds with no boundaries.”
In the fall of 1982, Katie’s world was friends, tennis, football games and something else: Nagging stomach trouble. Hospitalized for tests over Homecoming weekend, Katie developed a terrible headache at the base of her head. Suddenly, “I became violently sick to my stomach and flew to the bathroom. They were the last unassisted steps I would ever take.”
Katie had suffered a stroke in her brainstem, the body’s “control panel” which oversees basic body functions. Its first terrifying characteristic is “lockedin syndrome.” Save for an eyelid and toe, Katie awoke unable to move. But she was completely aware. “A nurse finally realized I was ‘there’ and didn’t tell me much except everything was going to be OK. That was the first day of a long journey.”
The mystery is still why. The usual suspects — drugs, birth control pills — didn’t apply. Genetic trails ran cold since Katie was adopted.
Immediate, aggressive therapy began, starting with Bruce, the therapist with the unforgettable dance moves. “My muscles would have shriveled up and died without the quick ballet dances,” she recalls.
In the catalogue of battles, one of the toughest was opting for a laryngectomy, an operation to remove her larynx, or the voice box. The stroke robbed Katie of the ability to swallow. By removing the larynx she could eat normally again and be protected from lifethreatening pneumonia. The trade-off: Speech was gone forever.
“I get my message across though, and I eat like a horse.” Katie says. “I cannot use my right arm or leg effectively. My left side is ‘normal.’ I had to relearn how to do everything from eating to applying makeup with my left hand.”
Along with her on the journey is Katie’s family, including parents Jack and Virginia Smith; her sister, Sarah, brother Joe, and their families. Today, Katie and her folks live in a Tennessee retirement community. In her attached 800-square foot apartment, Katie enjoys independence and a beeline to a golf course, where players regularly shout across the groomed expanse, “Hiya, Katie!”
Always by her side is her lab retriever, Dylan, “My baby, my best friend,” received through Canine Assistance of Atlanta, Ga.
In 1986, boredom helped spring Katie’s butterfly. To spice up the same-old occupational therapy sessions, therapists asked about her interests. “I liked color and art; so they brought in some pastels and got me to draw. It was basically a scribble at first.” Today, her bold, powerfully intuitive style evokes one of Katie’s icons, Georgia O’Keefe.
Among her fans is one of her doctors, Nancy Gerber, who hung Katie’s paintings over her fireplace and in her home’s entranceway. “They’re very gentle to look at, but just amazing,” Dr. Gerber says.
Creativity begins with blank paper and a conversation: “I sit back and see what the paper has to say to me…” The pastels emerge literally underneath Katie’s hands, which she uses as brushes, making herself “an intimate part of the creation process.” Notecards require the precision of real brushes. In either form, “the trick is knowing when to stop messing with it!”
She grounds her artistry in a firm faith expressed at the close of every email: “God doesn’t call the equipped, He equips the called.”
To Katie, stroke “was a part of my life, in the big picture, simply a single stroke of the pen. I gained so many gifts from this detour. I doubt I ever would have delved into art so completely if I hadn’t taken this path. It certainly would not have become my voice in a world that could not hear me. Art allows me to touch another where no words are needed.”