Atlanta, GA,
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Young Physician Assistant Returns to Work after Rehabilitation for a Stroke

Bianca Cooper returns to work just months following a stroke.

When Bianca Cooper was lying in the emergency room of a suburban Atlanta hospital in December 2013, doctors and nurses discussed her massive hemorrhagic stroke unaware that she was a physician assistant with Kaiser Permanente. Bianca knew exactly what they were saying, and it frightened her.

“I was afraid,” she recalls. “I prayed a lot.”

Strokes often occur in people who smoke, are overweight and physically inactive. But Bianca, 29, was neither overweight nor a smoker. She ran several times a week, worked out in a gym and was a bit of a daredevil, as well.

“If there was a cliff with water below, I'd jump off it,” she says.

Bianca’s stroke was caused by a tangle of blood vessels in her brain called an arteriovenous malformation, a congenital condition that occurs in less than 1 percent of the general population.

“I went from working earlier in the day it happened to having my left side paralyzed the next day,” she says. “I was drooling, I couldn’t eat or swallow and I couldn’t even go to the bathroom by myself. It was incredibly frustrating.”

Two weeks after her stroke, Bianca was admitted to Shepherd Center's Stroke Rehabilitation Program.

“I had heard of Shepherd, and my boss and my mother both told me it was the best place for rehabilitation,” she says. “I was hoping they could teach me to be my regular self again because my injury wasn’t a typical stroke. It was more like a brain injury.”

On her second day as an inpatient at Shepherd Center, a young man came to visit her.

“He'd been treated for a spinal cord injury and he told us about his experience,” says Ava Cooper, Bianca’s mother. “He looked perfectly normal, and it gave me hope. I thought, ‘Wow, if they did that for him, that gives me hope for Bianca.’ It was a wonderful experience.”

Bianca’s therapists tested her to determine her limitations and then encouraged her to push against them.

“Shepherd was wonderful,” Ava says. “They approached Bianca’s care from so many angles and started to stimulate her and get her mobile. They challenged her, and that’s her personality. She thrived on it.”

Bianca agrees with her mother. “Shepherd Center was great,” she says. “I wouldn't have picked any other place to go. The therapists were knowledgeable, and I had hours upon hours of therapy. That played a huge role in my recovery.”

Because of her medical background, Bianca was also able to make suggestions of her own, and in one case, diagnosed her own urinary tract infection.

“She knew so much that she always wanted to get up and go,” says Jasmin Brumby, Bianca’s occupational therapist. “At times, we kind of had to pull her back a little. But she was very sweet and very energetic despite what she was going through. And she always said hello to everyone.”

“The therapists were really cool,” Bianca says. “We were all about the same age, and we had similar interests. They were really helpful and encouraging, telling me I was going to get better. When you have someone around your age, you can empathize, and they were like friends. When they were on vacation over the Christmas holidays, I really missed having them tell me how I was doing.”

Bianca spent three weeks at Shepherd Center as an inpatient and three months as an outpatient at Shepherd Pathways, Shepherd Center’s outpatient post-acute brain rehabilitation program in Decatur, Ga. She declined to have surgery to repair the malformation in her brain, opting instead for radiation treatments.

Her father died from complications after surgery two weeks before Bianca’s stroke, and she says: “I was a little anxious about an operation. I wanted to get back to my life. And because I improved so quickly, the therapists recommended that I do more therapy at Pathways. I agreed with them about the therapy, but I decided to do it on my own.”

She went back to work in April 2014, and by fall, she was running four or five miles a few times a week. She also resumed working out in the gym, although she eliminated high-effort exercises. Because traveling abroad is another of her passions, Bianca wants to be sure that her condition has stabilized before going on another trip.

“I still have blood on the brain that hasn’t dissolved, and my left hand is still a little swollen and I don’t have all the sensation back in my left leg,” she says. “I get tired more easily, and it takes me longer to get dressed, but my deficits are minor compared to what they were. I’m still trying to push my body to see where it will take me.”

Bianca’s friends tell her she has slowed down since her stroke, and she says that’s a good thing.

“I’m not who I once was,” she says. “Before, I was all over the place. I have a completely different perspective now. I'm much more empathetic in my job because I’ve seen how life can change in a matter of seconds. This slowed me down and taught me to enjoy life and not take so many chances.”

For more information on stroke rehabilitation at Shepherd Center, click here.

Written by John Christensen
Photos by Phil Skinner

About Shepherd Center

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.