Success Stories

Kitchen Confidential

A devastating stroke at age 21 ended my dancing career but led me to my true calling.

Kitchen Confidential
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Hold this, " my mother insisted, attempting to place a wooden stirring spoon between the fingers of my closed right hand, which lay lifeless on the counter. Standing beside her in the kitchen of my parents' San Mateo, Calif., home, I rolled my eyes and sighed. "At least try," she implored, practically prying my tightly clenched fingers open.

Another eye roll. My uncooperative right hand was perpetually closed as a result of a debilitating stroke I'd suffered a few months earlier, just before graduating from college. My mother had been my biggest supporter when I first moved back home, after months in the hospital, for the post–stroke rehabilitation of my paralyzed right arm and leg. But she was also my harshest critic. She wanted me to hold that wooden spoon because she believed her child could do anything she put her mind to, and after weeks of my keeping her company in the kitchen, sitting and watching as she prepared meal after meal, she was ready to prove that. Another sigh. Reluctantly, and only because my mother insisted, I wrapped the fingers of my "bad" hand around the wooden spoon. "Good," she said. "Now, stir this sauce."

As I stood there, stirring a pot of simmering marinara, my good left hand guiding my clenched right fist, I felt the awakening of a long–dormant instinct. Maybe because I come from a long line of cooks (my maternal grandmother had cooked giant breakfasts for dozens of farmhands in South Dakota, my uncle Leonard was a restaurant chef and caterer in the Bay Area, and my mom is an accomplished home cook), I was inspired to move from stirring to chopping scallions, steadying them with the right hand that for four months I'd been diligently attempting to rehabilitate. It felt okay. No, it felt better than okay–my right hand was happy to be useful again. My mom handing me that spoon was the beginning of a new life, one that would bring me a satisfying career as a cook and food writer and–for the first time since my stroke–a sense of purpose.

In May 2000, I was 21 years old, just days away from graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, when I suffered a cerebral arteriovenous malformation, or AVM. I remember it was a bright Northern California spring afternoon, and I was meeting with my best friend, Nishka, to show her the final draft of my English literature thesis. I had been dividing my time between finishing my thesis and rehearsing in the modern dance studio, where I toiled in front of the mirror, watching my reflection mimic the motions of the choreographer. I was preparing for a summer internship at a modern dance company–the first step, I hoped, toward a career as a professional dancer. But as Nishka and I stood there chatting, Telegraph Avenue began to spin around me. I was hit with waves of nausea, then blurred vision. The sidewalk, littered with cigarette butts and candy wrappers, suddenly looked like a comfortable place to lie down. My friend called 911 as I slumped to the ground, my world turning from bright and clear to a hazy shade of gray.

I awoke from a coma three weeks later in an intensive–care unit. The right side of my body felt crushed beneath a tremendous weight. I could wiggle the toes of my left foot but not those of my right–which had so recently done pliès and jetès across the dance studio. My right arm wouldn't respond either, and the fingers of my right hand remained closed. Strangely, I had little emotional reaction to my changed circumstances. I didn't feel confused or frightened. I felt placid, as if I had always been this way. Other than my initial feelings, I can't recall much of those days in the hospital. I was told that I had graduated– Nishka, after calling 911 and accompanying me to the ER, had turned in my thesis. And I remember Brian, my boyfriend at the time, bringing me my favorite CDs to brighten my hospital stay. Doctors and therapists streamed in and out of my room, always reluctant to discuss what my future held. The prognosis wasn't good.

The AVM had caused a hemorrhage in my brain, and blood pooling in the region that controls the motor skills of the right side of my body had resulted in paralysis. After three weeks in and out of consciousness and months of physical therapy, I was placed in a wheelchair and sent home to continue the long–and by no means certain– process of rehabilitation. I moved back to my parents' house, sleeping in my childhood bed surrounded by mementos of my girlhood: mix tapes I hadn't listened to in years; a closet of clothes for a modern dancer's body. I spent long days being shuttled to and from various physical and occupational therapists. At night I would lie in bed, willing the fingers of my right hand to move. If that were all it took, I would have mended in no time.