Imagine suddenly forgetting how to perform even the most basic everyday tasks, like how to tie your shoes or tell the time.
Now imagine losing those abilities while still being able to explain core theories of physics.
Just two years ago, this was reality for Dr. Alyssa Gilbert, former coordinator of the education and outreach program of the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration at Western.
Suffering a stroke after the birth of her second child, Gilbert found herself without the ability to speak, let alone change a diaper.
“At first everything was going normal,” she explained, recounting her days after returning home from the hospital after the delivery. “My midwife was over and I got this really awful headache, I had never had a headache like that in my life.”
The midwife checked her blood pressure and, after finding it was around 220 over 180, they headed straight to Victoria Hospital’s emergency room.
“Looking back I could see I was degrading,” said Gilbert. “I couldn’t talk properly and I became disoriented. Eventually I passed out and became unresponsive.”
As time went on, she lost feeling and motor control on her right side.
Doctors performed an emergency CT Scan, finding a massive bleed in the left side of Gilbert’s brain.
Three days later she was in surgery, fighting for her life.
“They had to remove the left side of my skull to relieve the pressure,” Gilbert said, explaining the procedure. “If they hadn’t, I would’ve gone into a coma, there was that much swelling.”
The weeks following were difficult and she often found herself staring at the hospital room clock, trying to make out the time.
“A lot of the time I had no idea what was going on,” she said. “I don’t remember a lot but I do have little flashes of moments.”
Some of those flashes are memories of her nurse, Fernando, and how he used to think she was funny, always asking for Tylenol.
“He’d laugh because he knew it wasn’t the pills I wanted, but the spoonful of water that came with it,” she said with a laugh. “I wasn’t allowed a glass of water so I had to take what I could get.”
Despite being eager to return home, Gilbert said she was concerned about performing the everyday tasks associated with being a mom.
“My big worry was how was I going to come home and take care of the kids,” she explained. “I was worried about changing diapers and putting clothes on, multitasking was a really hard for me to learn how to do again.”
Another area of difficulty was the ability to complete even the simplest math equations, something that would frustrate anyone, let alone someone with a PhD in Astronomy.
“I could do it, but it would take me a long time, even with the easiest questions,” she remembered. “Math has always come relatively easy to me so when I had to really work on it I would break down.”
To help with her recovery, Gilbert picked up her knitting needles and got to work finishing the blanket she had started for the new baby.
“I had my husband bring me my knitting when I was in the hospital because the doctors said it was a really good thing to do when recovering from a brain injury,” she said.
Examining her handiwork closely, Gilbert pointed out a small row of stitches that stood out from the rest, a line she finished right after her surgery.
“It’s different because, for a time, I forgot how to do it,” she said with a laugh. “It was almost like this block, I really had to relearn things I knew how to do.”
A year-and-a-half later, a lot has changed.
Gilbert is currently enrolled in teachers college at Western with hopes of becoming a high school math and science instructor.
“I’ve wanted to be a teacher for a long time, but it was a kick to make me finally apply,” she said with a smile, adding she had put it off for over six years. “I always said it was never the right time. But after all this I realized I could’ve died, it was time to do what I actually wanted to do.”