MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Allison Pataki and Dave Levy seemed to be living a charmed life - professionally successful - she as a writer, he as a doctor in training - happily married, expecting their first child. But on their way to a vacation in Hawaii before the birth of that child, Dave asked a question that signaled the event that was about to derail their lives. He asked, does my right eye look weird? The otherwise-healthy 30-year-old was having a life-threatening stroke.
Allison Pataki wrote about that experience in her new book titled "Beauty In The Broken Places." She picks up the story.
ALLISON PATAKI: Well, as you said, it was, quote, unquote, "baby moon." I was pregnant, so I actually dozed off. And an hour into the flight, Dave just nudged me awake, and he says exactly as you said, does my right eye look weird? And I looked into his eye, and the answer was, yeah, your right eye looks really weird. The pupil - just of the right eye, though, so it was asymmetrical - it was so dilated, it was this pool of black that had just seeped across his entire eye. And I just said, Dave, are you having a stroke? And his voice got really low, and he just nodded, and he was like, I think I might be. And a few minutes later, he lost consciousness. And that was really everything from that moment on - you know, he was gone.
MARTIN: Why did you want to write this book? Because the circumstances were so rare, this is just not the kind of thing that is - you know, one hopes is likely to happen to kind of the average person walking down the street. But I get the sense - a very strong sense - that there was something about this experience that you really thought it was important to share. So why did you want to write this book?
PATAKI: Yeah. You know, it was obviously an experience that neither, Dave nor I ever expected or intended to live through, and it was not anything I ever intended to write about. What happened was when Dave woke up from his stroke, we didn't know when he woke up where the actual Dave was and if we would ever be able to get that man back because the man who woke up was less functional than a newborn baby.
You know, newborns - what's the first thing they do? They can drink milk, and they can breathe through their lungs, and they cry. You know, Dave couldn't breathe. He couldn't swallow. So he was not my Dave - who woke up. And we didn't know if my Dave would ever come back. Nobody could tell us with any certainty. And so what happened was, when it became clear to me that Dave could not make new memories, I thought, gosh, how will I ever explain to my family what we lived through, what we went through?
And so I started writing Dave a series of letters. It was therapeutic, and it was something that I hoped that someday I could share with Dave, and he'd be well enough to process it and read it and understand and someday, maybe I would share with our daughter when she, you know, was old enough. And I never thought that it would turn into something larger.
MARTIN: Would you mind reading one of the letters that you wrote to him?
PATAKI: Absolutely. Here it is.
(Reading) Dear Dave, you kissed my belly and said good night, Lilly (ph), before going to sleep tonight. You kicked butt in PT - physical therapy. You walked sideways on the treadmill while throwing a ball and answering questions. I'll be going home to our new apartment, and it will be empty. My goodness, I miss you. All of the memories that were supposed to be ours would have been ours in an alternate life, a life when you would not suffered an inexplicable stroke at age 30. It feels so cruel. So today when I see you, I cling to you and tell you how much I love you. And I can't stop thinking, thank God you are still here with me. I'm watching you fight sleep. Your eyes slowly getting heavier. And all I can think about is that I just love you so much.
MARTIN: It's amazing that you were able to find that in the midst of so much drama and fear. I mean, you were pregnant. You must have been terrified, you know?
MARTIN: Do you know what I mean? It just...
MARTIN: ...You see your whole life changing. On the other hand, one of the things I do like about the book is that you're very honest about some of the low moments.
PATAKI: Yeah. Brain injury is not linear, and the recovery is not linear. And you can have a really good day and think, oh, we took a step forward. We made progress. That doesn't mean that the next day is going to be as good or better. And so, yeah, we would have those moments, where I would just think, gosh, this is not my husband.
MARTIN: Let me - from the book - and the same - the path - the same page that you read from. I mean, you talk about some incidents that could actually have been kind of scary. For example...
MARTIN: ...It was pretty common for him to burst into outrageous and offensive epithets directed at strangers. Hey, move aside, slowpokes. And you're walking along Lake Michigan, and there was some - a guy walking along and a woman walking along. You really were worried that the guy was going to turn around and challenge him to a fight because he was rude.
PATAKI: Absolutely. And because, physically, he looked so similar to who he had been before the stroke, so it wasn't easy to look at this person and think this person is impaired. This person is clearly not in their right mind. He looked, outwardly, healthy and whole, and it doesn't really jibe with why he's speaking and behaving like a toddler, even up to the point where he used a baby voice - he spoke like a baby. And so then, you know, through time...
MARTIN: That must've been freaky.
PATAKI: It was freaky...
MARTIN: And you're his wife, and you're pregnant with a baby. And you're like, my grown husband's talking like a baby. That must have been really...
PATAKI: Oh, yeah, we had to go over it...
PATAKI: ...Specifically with a therapist. They had to show him that he was using this baby voice, which, you know, is one thing when you want to speak to your dog that way, but you can't be talking to your neurologist in that tone of voice. And it's - you know, they had to just - we had to literally watch his brain come back online, and it took a while, and it was hard to see.
MARTIN: I wonder if you - well, let me put it this way. There - this obviously is a terrible blow, but there are many ways in which you and your husband were incredibly advantaged - for example, that your husband was a resident - a medical resident. And after the stroke, you called your husband's med school classmates, and they rallied to get him medivac to a hospital in Chicago, which had a world-class stroke unit. And your father-in-law is a neurologist.
I wonder, though, if this experience maybe caused you to be more sympathetic to people who, for whatever reason, fall apart and can't get back up.
PATAKI: Absolutely. I mean, we had health insurance. Let's just start there. We had - how fortunate were we that we had health care? And so I am aware of that. And actually, that was sort of one of the reasons why I thought maybe this isn't something I want to do publicly because I am aware that, as hard as this situation was for us for so many reasons, I still, you know, have to acknowledge - you know, a full-throated acknowledgment - of the fact that we had this support. We had loving families. We had educated doctors. We had health care. We had access to treatment for Dave.
And that's why I really tried to focus on the universal aspects of this story - loss and love and healing and pain and family and marriage and, you know, parenthood and health and sickness. And no - there's nothing really more universal than those aspects of the story.
MARTIN: So spoiler alert, the epilogue of the book is written by Dave.
PATAKI: It is.
MARTIN: He survived.
PATAKI: Yeah, he survived.
MARTIN: And he not just survived, but he's functioning - and well enough to write this epilogue and to resume much of his former life.
What can you tell us? I mean, is he back to medicine - or what can you tell us?
PATAKI: So yeah - so Dave is - he's back in health care. He's not practicing surgery on a day-to-day basis, but he's in consulting for health care-specific topics. He's also an advocate now for stroke survivors and working with survivor groups on education and access to information. And he just has this appreciation for life now. We went on to have our baby girl - and she was healthy - a few months after the stroke. And he loves fatherhood. We are actually expecting our second child, and he couldn't...
MARTIN: Oh, congratulations.
PATAKI: Thank you. We just passed the same week, where, in pregnancy No. 1, Dave had his stroke. And I looked at Dave, and I said, Dave, this was the day. This was exactly how pregnant I was when you had your stroke last time. I said, from here on out, we are getting to experience this together for the first time.
MARTIN: That's Allison Pataki. Her memoir, "Beauty In The Broken Places," is out now.
Allison Pataki, thanks so much for joining us, and good luck to you and to your family.
PATAKI: Thank you so much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.