As part of WMRA’s partnership with StoryCorps in the Shenandoah Valley and Central Virginia, we’re sharing a conversation between Dr. Elizabeth Cottone and Jeanmarie Badar.
In 2017, Dr. Cottone was an Education Research Scientist at UVA, concentrating on Special Education. She had just accepted a new position as the director of a local non-profit in Charlottesville when she suffered a cerebellar hemorrhagic stroke that put her in a coma. At the time, she was also an accomplished runner in peak physical condition, having recently completed her 40th marathon.
Her friend, Jeanmarie Badar, who taught with Dr. Cottone and shares her love of running, asked her to StoryCorps to share the dramatic experience of her stroke and her ongoing recovery.
JEANMARIE: You have just a really amazing story to tell about how your life changed very suddenly not very long ago, so I would like you to tell us your story.
ELIZABETH: My Story, okay. About 4 and 1/2 years ago I had a really bad stroke that almost killed me. And then I had brain surgery and I was in a coma for 5 weeks. But fortunately I came out and survived, and of course I didn’t remember, so I had to ask afterward. You know, and so I had be told about this period in my life. And since then, I've just been rebuilding. So I retaught myself how to talk. I had to relearn how to swallow and eat, even breathe. My cognition is intact, so the cerebrum is okay. So my stroke happened in my cerebellum. I can think. I can, you know, do a lot. But I just, you know, I cannot walk and I have balance issues and fine motor issues.
JEANMARIE: And speech issues
ELIZABETH: Yeah, speech issues too. Yeah, so I'm a very different person.
JEANMARIE: What do you think you’ve learned from your experience?
ELIZABETH: I have learned… oh my gosh, the world is so unpredictable! And so we have to really appreciate where we are in the moment. Because you know, like my husband would say, “What are you doing next week?” And I'd say, “I could dead. I don't know!” I mean I'm here, right now, and I'm breathing, and I'm looking out the window at the beautiful scenery. You know, I'm enjoying where I am right now! So, yeah I learned that, because I was never present. Always going forward or back. So you know I do believe there are so many people that need that sort of mindfulness to be in the moment. I'm so much more open now. Because, you know, I was very empathetic before… now I can really feel!
JEANMARIE: Yeah, I remember you saying the other day about patience, that how you've had to get used to ordinary daily activities taking you forever. Everything takes so long.
ELIZABETH: That’s true. And also, people expect things to go quickly. So you have to know how to be an advocate. I mean I’ll say look, I had a stroke and I have to go slow. I mean, one day I believe I'll be able to go faster, but right now I just have to go slow. It's just, we all have to respect our brains.
JEANMARIE: You’re still passionate about teaching?
ELIZABETH: Oh my gosh, more so! So I look at my life before… So there are some things that I definitely look forward to doing again and there are certainly things I would leave behind. So, in a way it's an opportunity. I don’t want to make it sound great that I had a stroke, and I don’t want anyone else to have one. But for me, like I have to look at it positively or I'll just get so depressed. I mean I have to say, “What can I do now?” And you know what I realize. There's so much I can do, and there's so much to do!
JEANMARIE: You were one of those people that appeared to be perfect from the outside.
ELIZABETH: Definitely! Oh my gosh, I had it all. And now look at me… but, it’s actually O.K.
JEANMARIE: I, as your friend, I love you even more than I did. I just feel like you're what's in your heart and your soul is so much easier to access, and so much more visible to the world.
ELIZABETH: I am so appreciative of you being able to see that! Because, you know a lot of people are afraid. I see people look at me and they just want to walk the other way or walk around… like, I’m a human being! So, listen I am so appreciative for your friendship.