Fortitude’s Footing by Mary Ellen Gambutti

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With a thud like a fall from grace, a horror that deepened like dread, like the truth, there was nothing–my right arm, hip, the length of my leg, my right foot—no feeling, no movement. I regained consciousness with the primitive sense of hearing—the voice of a nurse, the rasp of a pager, the call of an intercom—and the smell of the cotton sheet that covered me. 

I flashed on my head pain in the rear seat of the tour bus with my husband and friends. The bus jolted us onto the road from a gravel lot in a picnic ground. Out of cell phones’ reach, in the western Pennsylvania Highlands, the bus driver called the emergency on his radio. Semiconscious and dead-weight in the policeman’s arms, he carried me up the aisle and down the steps to the ambulance. I felt and heard the roaring gust, and dimly saw the helicopter land. The technicians lowered the gurney, and rolled it across the grassy, rutted field at the E.M.T. station. Through the din and storm clouds, I was on board to a West Virginia hospital without my husband. They said he would have to find his way to Ruby Memorial Hospital. The last I heard; the transmissions of pilot and crew, and I was over and out.

“A hemorrhagic stroke,” the petite neurologist told me and my husband, as she pointed to the MRI mounted on the wall across from my bed in step-down ICU. The shading on the image was the left-sided bleed that suffocated my brain cells; the blood and toxins that caused the neurological injury–right-sided paralysis–hemiparesis. Apraxia caused my garbled speech, an effect of brain damage that prevented me from forming words. The doctor smiled and said, “How lucky you are! You can recover with therapy!” I couldn’t fathom that the major stroke would affect me for the rest of my life.


My passion was to grow plants. Life-affirming work in gardens, strengthened my fiber and restored my spirit. I’d found purpose and fulfillment in creating colorful pictures with flowers and greenery. Would I do the work again; perform the tasks that had become second nature during my fifteen years as a gardening business-owner? How could I pinch and prune plants’ new growth for fullness, lop shrubs’ branches to find form and shape, kneel and weed in the fragrant soil; plant and stake perennials? Would I again stride out to a summer border; red handles of pruners that were the hallmark of my trade visible above my back pocket?


With a nasogastric tube for nourishment, I began passive physical therapy on my back.  I struggled to verbalize. A speech therapist directed me to recognize and name childlike images on flash cards.

All but immobile after two weeks, I rocked side to side on a stretcher in the ambulance, transported after hours with my husband by two moonlighting med techs to the Easton, Pennsylvania rehab hospital near our home. Sometime after midnight, the Chief of Neurology admitted me to a two-bedded room.

In the morning, I embarked on months of physical, occupational, and speech therapy, in a regimen of neuroplasticity. (Oxford Living Dictionary: “The ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury.”) The nurses, therapists, and my husband helped me measure my progress. They reminded me that life still held meaning; that incremental changes proved that my neuromuscular system was re-learning. They would not allow me to languish. My native determination and fortitude must work in tandem with the team. I needed to muster courage.  “You can do it. You must do it! Start now, or lose the chance!” But my frail spirit faltered, and I crumbled in a battle with self-pity for what I had become. How could this happen to me?

“How do you feel about the weakness?” the clinical psychologist asked. After a few sessions, I refused to see him. How could he know what it’s like to lose everything? When my devastated, angry tears stopped, I admitted that if I were to walk again, I must make the effort. And I would either stretch, move, reach, throw, and use my fingers, or give in to a sleep that healed my brain but weakened both body and resolve. The choice was mine to fight the temptation to remain passive, or to try and try. 

One early morning in bed, I was elated that my toes could move! A breakthrough! My right foot followed on my journey to walk again. The weeks crawled by, I did the work, and my foggy brain kept healing. 

At last discharged to our home, my speech improved, and I progressed from wheelchair to left-sided walker, then to a cane. I began to read and write again for pleasure. My left fingers fly across my laptop keyboard. I’m fortunate to have had the outpatient therapy I needed, but I’ve never gotten back the full use of my right hand. 

Fifty-eight when my life changed, I’m still the same person, only different. Not a flimsy flower, ten years on I still haven’t gardened. Sometimes I waver; stumble on snags, but each time–with fortitude–I regain my footing.


Mary Ellen writes personal essays about an adopted Air Force daughter in the 1950s and ’60s, search and reunion with her birth family, and survival of a stroke at mid-life. Her work appears in The Remembered Arts Journal, Soft Cartel, Drabble, Memoir Magazine, Bella Muse, Borrowed Solace, Spillwords, BookEnds Review, Mac(ro)mic, and other fine journals. She has self-published three books, ‘Stroke Story: My Journey There and Back,’ ‘Coming to Terms: My Journey Continues,’ and ‘Permanent Home,’ a collection of stories. Her memoir is in progress. Follow her

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