Neurologist Dipika Aggarwal suffered a stroke, fought to walk and talk again and faced deep depression. She encourages fellow survivors to reach out for help if they are struggling with their mental health because it’s often difficult to do it alone.
Dr. Dipika Aggarwal had returned to work after a yearlong battle with stage 4 colon cancer and on a day off was treating herself to a mushroom omelet at a favorite brunch spot in Kansas City, Kansas, when her head began to pound. Feeling nauseous, she paid her bill and went to her car, where she continued to text a colleague and friend.
Dipika told her fellow neurologist friend that she thought she was having a migraine. Her colleague told her to wait 15 minutes before driving and that she would check on her. Then she apparently lost consciousness. Her friend tried calling her and kept retrying until she finally answered, slurring her words. Her colleague rushed to the restaurant and found her with a drooping face and not making sense. She immediately called 911, and an ambulance drove Dipika to the hospital where she worked.
The 37-year-old had suffered a ruptured aneurysm. While doctors tried to stop the bleeding in her brain, Dipika had a massive stroke. Days later when she woke up, things looked strange.
“Why am I wearing a patient’s gown? Why am I having trouble in moving my body, and why is my brother in here in the hospital room?” Dipika said.
That is when it gradually sunk in that the roles were reversed. She wasn’t the doctor here; she was the patient who had suffered from a stroke.
Dipika, who is right-handed, couldn’t move her right arm and leg. She was in a wheelchair for about four months after moving from the intensive care unit to inpatient rehab, subsequently followed by long term outpatient rehab, where she worked intensively with physical, occupational and speech therapists. She had difficulty talking and understanding. When asked to name some animals she could think of in a minute, she could list only three or four. Completing a sentence was then out of the question.
The once-optimistic doctor and a cancer survivor had transformed into a pessimistic stroke sufferer. She wondered if she would be able to take care of patients again or even stand on her own feet again. The other setbacks she faced at that time was when her fiancé broke off their engagement. And then her father, who flew from India to be here and helped her with her stroke recovery for nine months, died suddenly. All this, completely broke her.
Dipika had lost all hope and decided to end her life. She tried to come up with a plan but couldn’t think of one. She credits the support of her family, friends and work colleagues with helping her get through it all. She did therapy and took care of her mental health.
“It’s difficult for a person to fight alone, especially in a stroke or any chronic medical condition,” Dipika said.
Now 42, Dipika returned to work after 15 months of recovery, seeing patients in the outpatient neurology clinic with strokes, seizures and other neurological diseases. Her speech is almost completely normal, although she occasionally struggles to find the right word. She walks and lives independently, and can drive, but her right hand is still not completely functional. She can’t write but has learned to do most things with her left hand and is still doing therapies to make her body stronger.
Because of her stroke in September 2019, Dipika now has a deeper understanding of what her patients are dealing with physically, mentally, socially and emotionally. She talks openly with them about her recovery and encourages them to continue their therapies because stroke recovery has “no expiration date.” She said her doctors saved her life, but her therapists are the ones who gave her back her life.
She also is vocal about emotional resilience and mental health.
“Be open talking about your mental health,” she said. “It's not that I'm completely 100% positive now, but I’m in a better place now. It's OK to ask for help if you need.”
Dipika continues to see a mental health therapist and practices mindfulness and meditation. She is a co-founder and facilitator of a stroke support group that helps other stroke survivors. She feels good about where she’s at in her career and personal life and accepts her physical limitations. She finds satisfaction in helping others see that they, too, can make it through a medical crisis and have a fulfilling life.
“I’m here again. Thriving again, living life again, and recovering from stroke,“ she said. “So don’t give up, stay strong, and keep fighting.”
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