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Ballerina – Stroke Survivor – Mother

  • Category: Stroke, Living Well
  • Posted On:
  • Written By: Sarah Abrusley, Touro patient

Too many times one allows herself to be defined by what one does rather than what her spirit holds dear.  I look at the above facets of my life and feel such great accomplishment that I am proud to be identified in such a fashion!

I studied ballet, tap, and jazz dance with Ellen Hardeman for 15 years, and attended New Orleans Center for Creative Arts briefly before my matriculation at Boston University in 1995.  After studying with Boston Ballet and at The Gorny Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia, I graduated from Boston University with a B.A. in Russian and Eastern European Studies in 1999.  I returned to New Orleans and began a career in the Hotel and Tourism Industry, as well as a dancer with Loyola Ballet, Komenka Ethnic Dance and Music Ensemble, Ballet Hysell, Lula Elzy Dance Theatre, Jefferson Performing Arts Society, and the New Orleans Opera Association.  I have taught ballet at Boston University, Loyola University, Ellen Hardeman Dance Academy, New Orleans School of Ballet, and The Schramel Conservatory of Dance. I’ve performed all over the world as a dancer, in countries as varied as France (2 tours), Italy, Bulgaria (2 tours), and Poland.

Shortly after returning from touring Italy and Bulgaria with Komenka  Ethnic  Dance and Music Ensemble,  I suffered a massive hemorrhage in the right frontal lobe of my brain due to a cavernous malformation,  at age 29.  My life was saved by the incredibly skilled hands of West Jefferson Medical Center’s renowned Dr. Frank Culicchia, who performed an emergency craniotomy.

Thankfully, when I suffered my stroke on September 7, 2007, I had already enjoyed a beautiful 26 years of dancing and had achieved so much as a ballerina and international character dancer.  I have translated my talents as a performer into a vocation as an inspirational speaker and spokes model, or as I call myself, “strokes model” for The American Heart and Stroke Association and as the Ambassador for Loyola Ballet, as well as an actor, appearing frequently with Moscow Nights US.

I am incredibly grateful to have suffered my stroke in 2007, as opposed to even 10 years earlier.  As scientists look back at all the discoveries made in the 1990’s, the so-called Decade of the Brain, one finding stands out as the most startling and, for many scientists, the most difficult to accept: people are not necessarily born with all the brain cells they will ever have.

In fact, from birth through late adolescence, the brain appears to add billions of new cells, literally constructing its circuits out of freshly made neurons as children and teenagers interact with their environments. In adulthood, the process of adding new cells slows down but does not stop. Mature circuits appear to be maintained by new cell growth well into old age. For decades, it was axiomatic that people were born with all the brain cells they would ever have. Unlike the bones, the skin, the blood vessels and other body parts, where cells divide throughout life to give rise to new cells, it was believed that the brain did not renew itself.

Although the Congressionally-mandated ”Decade” produced many other discoveries, from ways to obtain images of fleeting thoughts inside a person’s head to new drugs for a wide variety of mental disorders, the finding that the brain develops and maintains itself by adding new cells is the most revolutionary.  As such, rehabilitation methods offered to stroke survivors are very different now than in 1997, for example. I work now on forming new connections from my brain to my left arm and leg, as opposed to solely strengthening my right side, which is an example of the old rehab philosophy.

mother  and childI always imagined that I would one day have children, but life as a performer and now stroke survivor had delayed my plans for a family, as had living in a perfectly located yet small apartment.  I began to feel a strong pull to motherhood in early 2011. At 33 years of age with so much of my stroke recovery achieved, purchasing a house and having a baby became my focus.  Who could expect that my incredible husband’s tendency to over-plan and be overly cautious would get in my way!  Never one to run from a challenge, I finally convinced my husband to buy a house in Lakeview in July 2012.  At the same time, I began to focus my efforts in occupational therapy with the incomparable Francine Bienvenu at Touro, on the essentials of caring for a baby. Working with a doll weighted and sized to simulate a real baby, I learned to change, clothe, feed and carry with one very strong right arm while relying on support from my weaker left arm.  Through these therapy efforts, I proved to Damien that physically, I was prepared to care for a child.

Damien remained fearful that he would shoulder much of the burden of caring for a baby until he and I spoke in early 2013 to an occupational therapy class devoted to parenting with physical challenges at LSU Health Sciences Center. The incredible stories of perseverance as parents that the other speakers shared finally convinced Damien that we were ready to become parents.    But now I was preparing to perform the role of the Fairy Godmother in Moscow Nights’ production of “Zolushka”, the Russian version of Cinderella with Moscow Nights US.  The show closed on April 9, 2013 and I became pregnant on May 6.

Damien and I were invited to speak on the same panel at LSU Health Sciences for the third time on January 21, 2014. In an extraordinary twist of fate, we could not appear because I was delivering Alexei, our son during the class!  We are going to speak again in September and will introduce the newest, handsomest member of “Team Abrusley” to a whole new class of Occupational Therapy Students!

This incredible journey from world-traveling dancer to half-paralyzed stroke survivor, to mother has been a stunning triumph.  It would not have been possible without my incredible support system as well as my own refusal to be limited in any fashion from living the life that I choose.  I promise to instill these values into my son Alexei Lanaux Abrusley.  He will learn from me, his mother, to always be a survivor and never a victim!  A great hope of mine is that Alexei will one day write an essay about me.

I am constantly amazed that caring for Alexei is much easier than I anticipated, even as my physical challenges continue to improve.  I compare these constant adjustments and transitions to weathering a winter in the Northeast.  As a Boston University alumna (College of Arts and Sciences ’99), I speak from experience when I say that it’s much easier to transition from chilly fall temperatures into a frigid winter because it happens so gradually.  I compare this to being the mother of a 1-year-old baby.  He has grown so beautifully and naturally that caring for Alexei has been much easier than I ever could have imagined!  Thankfully, I’m very creative and thoughtful about my way of moving.  I use the right side of my body, particularly my hip more to support Alexei.  I am now able to hold my 23-ish lbs. 31-inch baby with both arms, thanks to the incredible efforts of Dr. Laborde of Orthopaedic Associates, and, of course, my ongoing work at Touro’s Neuro Rehab Center.  Because I just turned 37, I hope to get pregnant again in May.  My husband Damien is also on board for a second child, although he remains true to his cautious nature and would like to wait a few months longer.  I know that we’ll find the way that is best for our family, and I look forward to my continuing adventure!