2023 Real Woman: Yael Shvetz

The following is Yael's story and not an endorsement or diagnosis. Stories have been edited down for time.

Hillsborough, New Jersey, resident Yael Shvetz has a new outlook on life after her stroke at age 54.

Yael Shvetz wasn’t overly concerned when her head started throbbing earlier this year because she’d dealt with debilitating migraines for most of her life.

But this “headache” was different, lasting an entire week. She also couldn’t keep food or water down.

After several days, Shvetz’s 17-year-old daughter, Ariel, noticed that she was talking more slowly, almost as if she was losing her ability to speak, and she seemed weak and more withdrawn than normal.

“My kids know me for being very lively and bubbly,” she said. “I’m always the center of the party.”

When Ariel found Shvetz on the floor near her bed, she and her three siblings called 911. “She realized that mom isn’t mom and that she needed to act quickly to save me,” Shvetz said. 

The paramedics soon arrived and transported her to the hospital. A CT scan revealed that she suffered a hemorrhagic stroke and had bleeding in her brain. Caused by a weakened blood vessel that ruptures, hemorrhagic strokes comprise about 13% of stroke cases.

“I was told that I kept asking, “Why me? What did I do wrong?” she said. “In the beginning, it was hard, emotionally and mentally.”

To stop the bleeding, doctors performed an emergency eight-hour surgery, removing half of her skull. The doctors told her family she had a 20% chance of surviving. Stroke — the third leading cause of death in women — kills more women than men, and one in five women will have one.

After the surgery, doctors put Shvetz into a medically induced coma. 

Worried that she would never fully recover, her oldest daughter, Kaylee, wondered if they needed to find a facility where she could receive around-the-clock care. She also canceled her destination wedding, which was supposed to happen about six weeks later in Puerto Rico.

Ten days later, Shvetz slowly regained consciousness. While she couldn’t use her left side, she managed to mumble, which her doctors told her was a good sign. The coma “allowed me to heal,” she said.

After about a month in the hospital, Shvetz was transferred to a rehab center. Over the next two weeks, therapists helped her articulate her thoughts more clearly, get back on her feet and improve her motor skills. By the time she left, she could dress herself, take a shower and write again.

“They gave me the tools and kind of kick started me,” she said. “The rest I had to do on my own.”

When Shvetz was released, her children were waiting for her outside. Rather than getting married in Puerto Rico, Kaylee did so on the front lawn. “It was the most amazing day other than the birth of my kids,” she said. 

While they ran many tests, doctors never figured out why Shvetz had a stroke. Adopted as a baby, she doesn’t know if she has a family history of heart disease and stroke.

But at least my kids know now that they need to look out for themselves because of what I went through,” she said.

Aware that she almost didn’t make it, Shvetz feels that life is sweeter now, and she thanks God for the smallest pleasures. Although she has always had a positive attitude, “I find myself being more thankful than I have in the past,” she said. “Everything is a little bit more.”

About six months after her stroke, Shvetz did a 5K walk to raise money for Alzheimer’s research. She had been walking the dogs every night and felt confident that she was ready for the challenge.

“I was so proud of that,” she said. “I feel like I can do almost anything now.”

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