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Take me to St. Mark’s Hospital: They perform life-saving acts with their whole heart

Her final performance on stage was a comedy, but then she experienced a real-life drama and trauma. Alison Henriksen suffered a debilitating stroke.

May 17, 2022
Alison Henriksen smiling with her head tilted to one side, wearing a red, long-sleeve shirt.

Take me to St. Mark’s Hospital: They perform life-saving acts with their whole heart

Alison Henriksen chose one word to describe herself: Extravagant.

She used her big and bold personality to light up Utah stages with her dazzling acting, singing and dancing talents. Her last performance was a comedy, but then she experienced a real-life drama and trauma.

“I woke up around 3 a.m. and felt weird. I noticed that when I lifted my left arm, it looked like it was floating. It did not look attached to my body. I thought it was the strangest thing I had ever seen! I kept doing it again and again, and then I realized there was nothing wrong with my arm  — something was wrong with my brain. I was having a stroke, and I needed help quickly,” Alison said.

Alison Henriksen smiles while leaning against a railing with her arms crossed, wearing a red long-sleeved shirt and red skirt.

Act fast: Get to St. Mark’s Hospital for comprehensive stroke care

Alison woke her 25-year-old son, Eli, and gave specific instructions about calling 911 and requesting an ambulance to take her to St. Mark’s Hospital. It only took 3 minutes for the ambulance to arrive at their Millcreek home, but Alison doesn’t remember the emergency team coming upstairs to rescue her. In fact, she doesn’t remember much from the following three weeks.

Within the Emergency Room at St. Mark’s Hospital, Alison underwent many brain scans over the next few hours. As her brain hemorrhaged, doctors and nurses watched vigilantly for any signs of it stopping.

“There’s one thing I remember — it was bits of a conversation. I heard words like ‘massive stroke’ and ‘catastrophic.’ In my mind I thought, ‘Those are not nice words. I don’t like those words. They sound scary,’” Alison said.

It took approximately 2 hours for Alison’s brain to stop bleeding, and because her brain hemorrhaged on the right side of the brain, it impacted her body’s left side. In fact, Alison’s left side became completely paralyzed, with zero sensitivity, feeling or ability to move.  

Performing compassionate, life-saving acts of service

Alison lay semi-conscious in the ICU for about two weeks before slowly growing more alert. With that alertness came a realization of her paralysis and, understandably, an increase in anxiety.

“You face the fear of what you don’t know. You don’t know what is going to happen. What will life be like after this? Largely on my mind, I wondered if I’d ever walk again,” Alison said. “When I asked for help with the anxiety I was feeling, the nurses came in and were so gentle and understanding. They were so comforting.”

During the first few weeks after her stroke, doctors could not offer a clear prognosis for Alison’s future. It was too early to tell if feeling or motion would return to Alison’s left side of the body; but little by little, Alison began noticing promising changes.

“One day I’d say, ‘Look at this! I’m moving my toes!’ The next day I could turn my ankle. It was so exciting! One day I lifted my knee, and then soon after, my arm started moving. The doctors were careful not to give me false hope but also wanted to give me encouragement,” Alison said. “In my mind, I went from zero to 100 — I was sure I’d walk again someday.”

The show must go on: Walking toward center stage

Although Alison felt confident about her future, she needed to convince (and teach) her body to participate. According to the American Stroke Association, the first three months after a stroke is the optimum time for recovery — the time when the brain is most open to relearning and learning new things.

To make the most of this golden time, Alison transferred to the Acute Rehabilitation Center (ARC) within St. Mark’s Hospital.

“In the beginning, the physical therapists sat me on the side of the hospital bed, but I couldn’t sit up without them holding me. I’d just fall. My brain had to figure out gravity again,” Alison said. “It’s amazing how your brain starts to go, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve done this before. I can do this again.’ With repetition, the brain remembers past pathways or makes a new pathway, and it starts healing.”

Physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech language pathologists at ARC devised and implemented a personalized schedule for Alison, all with the goal of teaching her body to walk again. Each day, Alison dedicated herself to between five and six hours of intensive therapy.

“I loved my time at ARC. Doctors would say I was their star patient, and that made me feel special. Eddie, the housekeeper who mopped my floors, would give me pep talks. Nurses and therapists cheered for me every step — and I like applause,” Alison giggled. “They treated me like I was the family member they loved, and they put their heart and soul into it. I put my heart and soul into it too. Together, we were a fun dynamic team.”

Standing ovation: Applauding patients and medical teams alike

With the help of her dedicated therapists, one day Alison began walking down the hallway with the assistance of physical therapy equipment and devices, and a nurse yelled for all the other nurses to come watch. They stood in awe as Alison took those first steps, and tears poured down their cheeks.

Alison’s brain continued learning. She grew in strength and steadiness. She kept moving toward her goal. After 2 months at ARC, Alison felt ready to walk out of St. Mark’s Hospital’s doors on her own.

For her sendoff, team members from all areas of Alison’s care — from the ER team to the ICU nurses to hospital staff and the ARC colleagues — lined the hallway to offer Alison a standing ovation.

“They all clapped and cried as I walked. The applause I used to get from the theatre had come back,” Alison said. “At the very end, I turned and clapped for them. It used to be really difficult to get my hands together, but thanks to therapy I gave them the best applause I could. Then I did my most dramatic theatre bow.”

Today, Alison enjoys her time at home with her family, continues working on coordination and endurance and feels overwhelmed with gratitude that her body’s left side has regained 100 percent movement.

“I hope I never have to go back as a patient, but if I ever needed to, I’d say, ‘Go to St. Mark’s Hospital and the ARC because they were the most incredible team I could imagine.’ They saved me!”

St. Mark’s Hospital is proud to serve the community as a Comprehensive Stroke Center. If you or a loved one is experiencing a stroke, please call 911 immediately.

May 17, 2022
St. Mark's Hospital

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