Shepherd Center Caregiver Feature: Vicki Figiel, Wife of Carole Cooper
With a sense of humor and support from family and friends, Vicki cares for her wife who experienced a stroke in October 2020.
The squeaky toy seemed like a good idea at first. And a funny one in a household with two dogs and two cats.
It was for Vicki Figiel’s wife, Carole Cooper, who had sustained a brain injury after a stroke in 2020. Her speech is improving, but her voice still doesn’t go much louder than a whisper.
Thus, the squeaky toy, for when Vicki’s out of earshot.
“Oh, boy, that was a mistake,” Vicki jokes, deadpan. “Squeaks at all hours, the dog starts barking, it’s an event every time. That damn thing. I’m going to run it over with the car.”
“But then it’d just squeak at me again.”
Vicki comes by her wry sense of humor honestly; her last name means “prankster” in Polish. For nearly two years now, she’s had to draw on her reservoir of drollery more than ever before.
In the spring of 2020, Carole started having headaches that kept getting worse. Doctors discovered she had glioblastoma, an aggressive brain tumor. Stage 4. Carole had surgery a couple of days later, followed by chemotherapy and radiation. And seizures.
By October, Carole was doing better, her condition improving. Then, she had a stroke.
Since then, Vicki herself has survived a bout with kidney cancer and lost her mother. To top it off, the couple has had to say a final goodbye to two of their beloved pets.
“Getting old ain’t for the faint of heart. I’ll tell you that,” Vicki says.
The silver lining with Carole’s condition is that her long-term memory and personality are both intact; it’s only the routine, day-to-day things that prove fleeting.
“So, we’re still able to talk, remember and laugh,” Vicki says.
And for that, she adds, they have Shepherd Center to thank, where Carole’s speech therapy paid huge dividends. It’s also where Vicki learned to be her wife’s caretaker.
“We were absolutely blessed to be at Shepherd Center and Shepherd Pathways,” Vicki says. “The level of care for Carole, but also the ability to teach me how to handle her physically in a way that keeps us both safe.”
Still, quite literally, that responsibility isn’t an easy burden to bear.
“I’ve lost 45 pounds since I started taking care of Carole,” Vicki says. “It’s a terrible but very effective weight-loss program! I’m usually sweating within 30 minutes of getting up. It’s all-consuming.”
Vicki’s siblings have been an immense help. And nothing boosts their spirits more than the near-daily visits they get from their son Daniel, a senior at the University of Georgia.
“It’s been really hard on him to lose the mother that he knew,” Vicki says. “Her liveliness, her loving nature. He doesn’t want to miss a minute with her now. He’s so good to us, but I have to tell him, ‘You still need to live a good, young man’s life. Go on dates. Go out with friends. Don’t worry about these old people.’”
Vicki says she struggles to take her own advice when it comes to making time for herself. She worked at AT&T for 37 years, earned a doctorate in business and taught college courses online after she retired. She’s stopped teaching, though, and has yet to fill that creative void. Understandably so.
“Even beyond taking care of Carole, the household workload is all me now. So, when I have free time, I’m choosing between eating and a nap. And I usually pick a nap,” Vicki says. “I’m a nightmare-ish person if I don’t get enough sleep, so that’s what I focus on. I think we’re all still learning how to find some balance again.”
But the laughs, those never went away. These days, their running joke harkens to a long-ago date at a Thai restaurant when Carole got tongue-tied trying to order pad thai.
“She kept saying ‘tad pie’ and trying to correct it and then saying it again,” Vicki says, delighting in the retelling. “We both started laughing and could not stop. The waiter just gave up and walked away. So, now, when it’s time to eat, I’ll ask her, ‘tad pie for dinner?’
“We don’t take ourselves too seriously, even with all this going on. We can always find something stupid to laugh about.”
Written by Phillip Jordan
Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.