Striking Back

Striking Back
After surviving a life-changing stroke at the age of 38, a local educator learns what she's made of.

By Kristen De Deyn Kirk

The sound of an ambulance causes most people to straighten up and turn their heads, but Allison Zmuda’s children react differently: They flinch.

The siren takes them back to March 27, 2010, the day their then-38-year-old mother collapsed at a Virginia Beach soccer field. “I was cheering for my daughter, Zoe, like a good mom,” remembers Zmuda. “I had just given her a hug for scoring a goal.” Her husband, Tom, and her 9-year-old son, Cuda, were at the YMCA working out. Around 9:30 a.m., a little after half time, Zmuda wanted to get out of her chair. She tried to stand but couldn’t. Her right foot was asleep. “I kept shaking it, thinking ‘seriously?!’,” she says. How could it be asleep when she hadn’t been sitting for long?

Despite the lack of feeling, Zmuda willed herself to stand—and instantly fell to the ground. Parents swarmed her, and a former nurse shouted for someone to call 9-1-1. Another person found Zmuda’s phone and called Tom.

“All he heard was, ‘She’s hurt. Get here as fast as you can,’” Zmuda says. As the soccer coach distracted Zoe (now 6), the paramedics arrived. They asked Zmuda the date, and she replied, “Ma…” “I remember thinking to myself, ‘that was weird!’,” Zmuda says. “I started to realize what was going on. They were trying to ascertain if I had a stroke and what side of my brain it was on. My right side was paralyzed, and the right side of my face was falling. They needed to determine if my language or cognition was affected.”

Zmuda recounts the details of her stroke on an unseasonably warm and sunny day this winter. She walks into a Virginia Beach Starbucks swinging her arms and smiling wide. Her dark, curly hair worn loose, a black and white polka dot dress and a dusty rose purse further reveal confidence and ease. But sharing the details of that shocking March day isn’t pain-free. When a listener chokes up hearing about the collapse and the resulting ambulance ride to Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital, Zmuda nods in agreement. “I’m glad I have my sunglasses on,” she says.

Zmuda is an educator, a onetime social studies teacher who now travels the country consulting at schools looking to improve their performance. She’s written six books on the topic and has been a speaker at national educator conferences. Communicating is a moneymaking must for her and something she always did succinctly and engagingly.

When she speaks nowadays, her intelligence becomes obvious. Most people would have said “The paramedics were trying to figure out if I had a stroke,” but she says “ascertain.” Her occasional struggles with communicating aren’t as obvious, but they do occur. During her conversation at Starbucks,she pauses for a few seconds after flawlessly talking at length. When a question stumps her, she sits back in her chair, and her smile disappears.

Not having all of the answers, or not being able to share them as quickly as before, isn’t something Zmuda has accepted. Nothing stops her from making her point—not even on the day of her stroke.

When Zmuda arrived at Virginia Beach General, she received tissue plasminogen activator, commonly known as tPA. The drug can dissolve blood clots, one of which had traveled to the left side of Zmuda’s brain. Ideally, the drug is given within three hours of a stroke, and thanks to her friends’ immediate response on the soccer field and the paramedics’ and hospital staff’s quick work, Zmuda received it within a half hour. Dr. John Agola, an interventional neuroradiologist who has worked for Sentara since 1994, categorized Zmuda’s clot as “substantial,” noting that it was considered large on a small-medium-large scale. In such cases, he believes tPA works about 50 percent of the time. Unfortunately, it wasn’t effective for Zmuda.

“I was taken by ambulance to Norfolk General to meet with Dr. Agola. He told my husband and me about my options,” says Zmuda. “We could either try another round of tPA or have surgery.” “My husband said, ‘I don’t know,’” says Zmuda. “But I clearly communicated what I wanted.” How did she do so, when she couldn’t speak? Zmuda laughs. “Here I am telling you I can’t talk and that I clearly communicated,” she says. “I nodded ‘yes,’ pointed at Dr. Agola (who was recommending the surgery) and tried to say, ‘I want ... ’ but could only get out ‘I ... I ... I ... ’”

****For the rest of this article, see the May/June 2011 issue of Hampton Roads Magazine.****

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