Alexia Pantoja enjoys visiting new places and trying new things, especially if it involves being airborne. Think: skydiving and roller coaster rides.
That all came to a sudden stop when the outgoing 22-year-old bank teller fainted at work.
EMTs rushed Alexia to Mountainside Medical Center where a CT scan revealed she had an intracranial hemorrhage -- a hemorrhagic stroke. The medical team rushed her into surgery. The type of stroke she had occurred when one of her blood vessels ruptured and bled into brain tissue – the surgery stopped the bleeding and saved Alexia’s life.
Once she stabilized, Alexia was unable to move or feel the right side of her body. She had difficulty speaking, processing information and performing self-care activities. Deep down, Alexia she knew she had a long recovery road ahead.
Her journey to regain independence began with choosing Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation – West Orange.
“I came to Kessler because I needed physical, occupational and speech therapy,” said Alexia who “heard nothing but the best about Kessler.”
Kessler’s physician-led care team -- nurses, physical, occupational and speech therapists along with neurorehabilitation specialists -- tailored a plan to meet Alexia’s individual needs and goals. Her main goal was to be able to walk again, and she longed to “move my fingers and hold things with my right hand.”
Her physical therapists focused on restoring Alexia’s strength, balance, endurance and mobility. They employed a LiteGait bodyweight-supported system that would encourage Alexia to improve her motor function, decrease the pain and improve her cardiovascular function.
Within weeks of using the LiteGait several times a week, Alexia was able to walk on the treadmill with weights on her leg – that’s when she realized she was turning a corner. “Never in a million years would I imagine myself pulling down 30 pounds on the weights machine after my injury.”
Still using a crutch, Alexia was discharged from inpatient to outpatient therapy where she continued her progress.
“In the outpatient environment, we worked a lot on her confidence with gait at the start,” said Physical Therapist Danielle Baloga, DPT, P.T. “Initially she came in walking with a crutch and we were quickly able to progress her to walking with no device independently.” Alexia responded quickly. “We were able to get her on the elliptical and treadmill so that she felt confident returning to the gym.”
Every stroke patient is different, but Alexia’s biggest challenge was adapting to using her non-dominant hand. To that end, Alexia’s occupational therapists helped her relearn everyday home and work tasks. They focused on overall upper extremity strength, pinch, grip strength, fine motor coordination, reaction time and endurance.
Alexia remembered her therapists added some creative exercises to help her regain finger and arm strength. “If we had to crawl all over the mat, we would do so to get my arms moving,” she said.
“We worked on her ability to cook for herself, complete personal hygiene and dressing,” said her occupational therapist. “We also worked on her ability to complete work functions to return to her work as a bank teller and back to school such as handling money, typing and handwriting.”
Alexia’s cognitive rehabilitation team stepped in to help reignite and sharpen the skills she needed to return to college. Exercises were introduced to improve her divided attention (the ability to process multiple pieces of information at one time), reading comprehension and short- and long-term memory.
Alexia described her largest milestone when she was able to use her affected upper extremity to create a poster for a Justin Bieber concert, her favorite artist.
Nearing the end of her healing journey, Alexia remarked, “I believe walking without anything has shown me that nothing is impossible. As well as holding things with my right arm to move my fingers individually once again.”
Reflecting on her care team, she added, “Everyone that I’ve worked with at Kessler has made a huge impact in my life and recovery. All the successful therapy has been key to my recovery, especially with the support and the motivation everyone gives me...each one of them has gone above and beyond in order for me to be the way I am now in just six months.”
Post discharge, Alexia was looking forward to getting airborne again. Translation: wearing heels again. And that Justin Bieber concert? Alexia attended and had a great time.
Currently, she’s back in school, slated to graduate in May. While Alexia’s recovery journey is in the rear view mirror, it made a lasting impact on her.
Indeed, Alexia shared that she plans to pursue a career in physical therapy.