It was just before I was about to go to bed and I was on the phone with my new boyfriend. We had only been dating for about a month when I had to go away to Toronto for work. I had been staying with a friend in the east end while I was rehearsing for a play set to premiere in a summer theatre festival. We were on the phone when I suddenly lost vision in the left side of both of my eyes. It was as if my vision had totally disappeared in those spots. I repeatedly kept putting my hand in front of my face and as soon as it reached that area, it vanished. This was actually the third time that this had happened to me, so I started to suspect that there might be something seriously wrong. I was lying down ready for bed, but my boyfriend wouldn’t let me off the phone without knowing that I was going to the hospital to see a doctor.
Thankfully, the friend I was staying with is the type to be there in an emergency, so she came with me to the hospital. We waited until three in the morning when I finally saw the doctor. He did the usual shining light in the eyes, light in the ear, checking my heartbeat, and asking the appropriate questions before he determined they were going to get me in for a CAT scan. For those of you who don’t know what a CAT scan is, it’s where they shove you into a giant donut-shaped machine that scans your brain as an image so that the doctor can review said image and determine if anything is wrong.
After the CAT scan they kept me waiting again. We waited until five in the morning and the entire time I was panicking. I figured it must be really bad if a doctor was too afraid to approach me with a diagnosis. We were the last ones left in the emergency section of the hospital when the doctor finally came back. The first thing he said to me was that he had noticed an irregularity in my brain, and that the reason he had taken so long to come back was that he was consulting with the resident neurologist in the hospital. He asked me if I had had any incidents in the past when I may have had a stroke. I didn’t know what to say. I felt like I would have known if I had had a stroke in the past. The doctor said that my brain showed signs of having previously suffered a stroke. I started to cry. I began to ask myself how… how could this have happened? How could I not have known that I had had a stroke? When did this happen? Where? Why? But most importantly: HOW?
Flashback to six years ago. I was visiting my mom in a fly-in northern reserve called Garden Hill, Manitoba. It’s approximately four hundred and seventy five kilometers northeast of Winnipeg. My mom had been working there as a nurse helping patients that were dealing with diabetes — which anyone will tell you is an epidemic in Indigenous communities. Like all of the other specialists there, she lived in a housing complex next door to the hospital. Even though she was a nurse, my mom struggled with high food costs and food access. The Northern store was only accessible by boat from the reserve, so you needed a friend to get you there.
While I was visiting my mom there wasn’t anything in the way of fresh food. We ate processed bread, meats, noodles and frozen foods the entire time I was visiting. My trip was supposed to last three weeks, but was cut short when I suddenly ended up in the hospital one morning.
I had woken up like any other day in the comfort of my mom’s spare bedroom and had gone to the fridge to get myself some juice. While standing at the fridge I noticed that I couldn’t feel my left arm. At first, I just assumed that I had been sleeping on it funny and that it had gone numb. Either way, my attempts to fling it towards the fridge were futile, so I switched to using my right hand for my morning routine. It wasn’t registering to me that something was wrong until I dropped everything on the floor: my cup, the juice, and all the ice I had worked so hard to get out of the freezer with my one usable arm. So I called my mom. She came running out from her bedroom and by then I was sitting on the couch unsure about what to do next. The first thing my mom did was to ask me to smile for her and, like an idiot, I told her to relax because I obviously wasn’t having a heart attack. In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t said that.
The next thing I knew, my mom had me draped over her shoulder and was dragging me to the hospital next door. By the time we got out to the hallway I could barely walk and had lost feeling on the entire left side of my body. Using all of her strength, my mom hauled me over to the emergency room, where she demanded that I get in to see the doctor immediately — and judging by her tone, I wouldn’t have wanted to the receptionist on the other side of the desk. When we got inside the waiting room of the hospital, my mom left me to sit in a wheelchair During the split second she went to yell at the receptionist, I fell flat on my face.
Now, I’m not average height so it was a swift five feet and ten inches to the floor. Everyone in the waiting room saw this and quickly jumped up to put me in the wheelchair. Thankfully, Indigenous folk are helpful by nature.
When I got in to see the doctor at this northern hospital, the only thing I remember was lying in a bed looking up at the ceiling and wishing my older brother was there with me. The nurse put an IV in my arm and the next thing I knew we were on our way home and I was completely fine. My mom was very shaken up about the whole situation, so she sent me back to Winnipeg the next day and ordered me to see the family doctor back at Seven Oaks Hospital. Of course, I was scared too, so I agreed. At Seven Oaks, all they told me was that it had been an episode of Bell’s Palsy and that I had nothing to worry about.
Flash forward to Toronto six years later and an emergency room doctor asking me if I might have had a stroke in the past. I say yes. I tell him the story I just told you and he instructs me to take eighty milligrams of acetylsalicylic acid daily to thin my blood to prevent further strokes. He also sets up an appointment for me to see the neurologist as soon as possible.
Since that day in Toronto, I’ve been to so many many doctors’ appointments. Appointments where nurses and doctors test my heart, my arteries and my brain to check for further risks of a stroke. Where I go through telling my mom what’s going on with my health, and she admits to me that she had tried to tell the staff at Garden Hill that I was having a stroke, but that they insisted that I was too young for that to be happening. Where my neurologist in Toronto tells me that it’s a miracle that my brain was able to heal without any permanent damage because I had had a stroke at the age of eighteen when my brain wasn’t yet fully developed.
The rest of the story is filled with questions and a painful realization that the healthcare system in a northern community wasn’t prepared or willing to find out what was happening in the brain of an eighteen-year old girl rushed into the emergency room.
Darla Contois is a twenty four-year-old Indigenous artist from Winnipeg, Manitoba. She started acting at the age of fifteen and since then she’s graduated from professional theatre school in Toronto, Ontario, written her own one-woman show, appeared in a web series, modelled in a professional fashion show, acted in a national commercial and even worked as a circus performer at several festivals to name a few.