Surviving stroke brings lessons in life, love

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - With sly smiles and special glances, Liz and Steve Andersen share a story about love, life, and second chances.

"She was a real estate agent in Holton and sold me a house in the country," Steve recalls of how they met.

Business, became friendship, which turned into love and marriage.

"She's awesome," Steve says.

Over the years, they worked, spent time with their children and Liz even volunteered singing in area nursing homes. Then, one night in 2010, Liz, 50 years old at the time, couldn't get back from the bathroom.

"I understood everything she said, so I picked her up. Her left leg was just dead, so I drug her over, then she started mumbling," Steve said.

"I had a lot of pain in my chest and my stomach," Liz remembers. "I was trying to sleep and I couldn't get comfortable."

By morning, Liz seemed fine, so Steve headed to work. But when he checked in around 10 a.m., Liz didn't answer the phone.

"During that time, I'm googling all these symptoms and I'm thinking, shoot - she had a stroke," he said. "So I get (home), but I couldn't wake her up."

Ambulance crews revived her, but a CT scan showed three clots on her brain stem. Surgeons went to work and removed two, but they told Steve he had to make a choice when it came to the third: if they did nothing, Liz would not survive, but if they tried to get to the third clot, it could cause bleeding on the brain, which also could be fatal.

"I thought well I have to at least give her a chance," Steve said.

The procedure did cause a brain bleed, and the prognosis was grim.

"We started praying and we started actually planning her funeral because they told us she wasn't going to survive," Steve said, to which Liz interjects, "I showed them!"

The turning point came several days later. Liz had been in a coma since surgery.

"Before her stroke, we would be holding hands - and when she'd squeeze me three times, (it meant) I love you," Steve said. "After the stroke, I was holding her hand, and all of a sudden, she squeezed three times and I said she's got this! Liz can do anything!"

It was the start of a new journey. After several years with home health workers, four years ago, Steve decided to retire and become a full time caregiver for Liz.

"I didn't know how to dress her. I didn't know how to do nothing. You learn as you go," he said.

Right down to learning how to style hair and apply makeup.

"Not until I met her did I realize what true love really was, and how to respect and how to appreciate," Steve said. "It's devastating, but the cards that you're dealt - you gotta play em, and Liz and I, when we played our hand, we're all in."

Life, they say, is good - just different. Thanks to physical therapy, Liz can stand and walk with Steve's support. When she said she wanted to go camping again, Steve added a lift to get them into the camper. Plus, a music therapist is helping Liz turn her story into a song which she hopes will inspire other stroke survivors. They plan to debut it at a camp for stroke survivors and their caregivers later this year.

"Strokes are really bad, but you can get out of it okay," Liz said. "I'm surviving."

"This life here is a lot better than what we were living because we just were so, so busy," Steve said. "Now, we just take one day at a time."

Liz and Steve will share their story Saturday, Oct. 13, at the Topeka Heart Walk, at Lake Shawnee Shelter House 1. Festivities begin at 8 a.m., with survivors recognized at 9 a.m. and the walk stepping off at 9:30 a.m.

There is no registration fee, but people who raise at least $100 will receive a special t-shirt. You can find details, sign up, or donate at www.topekaheartwalk.org.