Harshada Rajani, stroke patient

News, Your Health | one month ago

Young Stroke Patient’s Perseverance, Words and Foundation Are a True Source of Hope

As a healthy 23-year-old medical student at Duke University, Harshada Rajani returned home to Charlotte to celebrate Thanksgiving with her family in 2008 with her dream of becoming a pediatrician intact. Everything drastically changed days later when she suffered a massive stroke that completely paralyzed her for months. Today, she has regained significant mobility through years of rehabilitation and found a new passion, advocating for others living with disabilities through her writing and We Win foundation.

In 2008, Harshada Rajani was a healthy second-year med student whose only complaint was a recent bout of bad headaches that were diagnosed as ophthalmic migraines, which are characterized by pain around the eyes often accompanied by symptoms such as visual disturbances, light sensitivity and nausea.

Home for Thanksgiving break, she visited an ophthalmologist to discuss her migraines. During that appointment, she experienced her first-ever case of vertigo, an off-balance feeling that everything is spinning. It was such an acute episode that she went to urgent care where they gave her a shot to ease her nausea, and that is the last thing she remembers from that fateful day.

Med Student Becomes the Patient

An aspiring pediatrician since childhood, Harshada had plans to finish med school at Duke University and put her two passions of science and service to work for others. Instead, doctors rushed to figure out what was happening to her that November day as her condition quickly deteriorated.

Family members report that Harshada attempted to call out to her mom and then became rigid and unresponsive even though her vital signs were normal. Suspecting a seizure, the urgent care providers sent her to Atrium Health Pineville, where she was intubated before being transferred to Atrium Health’s Carolinas Medical Center, the Charlotte area’s only Level I trauma center. An MRI revealed that Harshada had suffered a massive spontaneous stroke in her brainstem, the part of the brain through which all motor control flows.

Doctors determined that a naturally occurring vertebral dissection, or tear in the artery at the back of the neck, caused Harshada’s stroke.

Harshada Battles Through Locked-In Syndrome

When Harshada regained consciousness, she found herself in the ICU surrounded by her family, but with no way to communicate with them. The brainstem stroke spared her cognitive functioning but paralyzed every part of her body except for her eyes, leaving her in a state called Locked-in Syndrome. She describes how powerless she felt during this horrific period, which lasted for months: “I was completely aware of the world around me, but completely unable to interact with it.”

After a few weeks in the ICU and uncertain about her prospects for recovery, Harshada was admitted to Atrium Health Carolinas Rehabilitation for inpatient services where she began her long journey back. She spent six hours a day in various therapies: physical, occupational and speech. “I gradually started to have some muscle contractions in all of my limbs and could voice some sounds,” she says.

Her Rehabilitation Journey Continues

Harshada returned home in May 2009 but has continued outpatient therapy ever since. Lauren Van laethem, an exercise specialist at Carolinas Rehabilitation who has worked with Harshada since 2011, says she has made tremendous progress. Today, Harshada is doing things that were initially unthinkable after her stroke. “She can sit and stand on her own and use a walker with minimal assistance. She also has gross motor movements in her right arm, so she can feed herself and do things like brush her teeth.” 

According to Van Iaethem Harshada’s perseverance is unwavering. She works extremely hard in therapy, no matter what mode it is, and she is living proof of how important rehabilitation services are for anyone who has been through a neurological event and needs help dealing with the resulting physical, occupational and speech deficits.

“Individuals of varying ages experience catastrophic injuries on a daily basis,” Van Iaethem says. “Skilled therapy is the one and only proven treatment for many of these disabling injuries and illnesses, such as spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, strokes, brain tumors and neurodegenerative disorders.” 

Disability Advocate Emerges

In the summer of 2009, Harshada started a blog, My Stroke of…Luck?, to recount her harrowing experience with Locked-In Syndrome and journal her progress. In the years since, she has become a vocal advocate for people living with disabilities and has published numerous articles, including Why You Shouldn’t Pity Disability in HuffPost and A Stroke at 23 Left Me Disabled and Questioning My Purpose in Life in SheKnows. “My stroke may have destroyed a future doctor, but it created a writer,” she claims.

With the help of her cousin Simran Rajani, Harshada went a step further to personally make a difference for others. In 2014, they founded the We Win foundation to help people living with neurological injuries afford the rehabilitation services that are critical to improving their quality of life.

“Throughout my journey, I met so many other people recovering from various neurological conditions, such as spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury, who had to give up their rehabilitation due to financial constraints,” she says.

Harshada is adamant that everyone deserves therapy, and to date, We Win has contributed over $200,000 to make that possible. At Carolinas Rehabilitation alone, 118 patients have received We Win therapy grants, according to Van Iathem, which is why she and her teammates recently presented Harshada with her own special honor, the Source of Hope award. “I’ve known Harshada for over a decade and have been both overwhelmed and humbled by her journey and her graciousness,” Van Iathem says.

Signs and Symptoms of a Stroke

The chances of surviving a stroke are greater the sooner emergency treatment begins. Remember these signs of a stroke to take FAST action:

  • F: One side of the face is drooping or numb
  • A: One arm is weak or numb
  • S: Speech is slurred or difficult to understand
  • T: It’s time to call 911

Vertigo, dizziness, balance problems and severe unexplained headaches are other signs of a brainstem stroke like the one Harshada experienced.

To learn more about the full range of rehabilitation services offered to neurological patients at Atrium Health, visit online.