Brisa A.

Brisa A.

Imagine what it would be like to be conscious, but paralyzed and voiceless. It is called Locked-In Syndrome and it was a reality for Brisa Alfaro.

Just 32-years-old when she suffered a pons stroke that left her incapacitated, Alfaro had led a busy professional life traveling and teaching in the beauty industry and refused to accept the dire outcome doctors expected. Amazingly, she began to recover and doctors stabilized her condition, enabling her transfer to Ballard Rehabilitation Hospital, where her road to recovery would continue.

“It was so hard for me to accept the fact that this was what my life would be,” Alfaro remembers thinking. “I had two choices: either cry about it–which I did–or move forward. After I was done crying about it, I moved forward. Crying was not going to fix the issue.”

Alfaro’s determined spirit was apparent from the start, according to Jason Roth, the occupational therapist who worked with her.

“The best thing about working with Brisa was when you would ask her, ‘What will you do when you get better?’ It wasn’t one thing, it was a list,” he says. “She was so motivated to do so many things with her life that we were never in search of something to work on.”

In the early days of her arrival, Alfaro was completely flaccid on her right side, barely had a whisper of voice. In fact, she still had a tracheostomy tube to breathe and required oxygen. Limited endurance would make it difficult for her to sit up for a long period of time. However, because she had been an avid kickboxer prior to her stroke, she knew how to train hard.

“As she progressed with occupational therapy, we went from gross motor flexion of the shoulder to fine motor skills,” Roth says, explaining that as a cosmetologist, Alfaro practiced doing hair and doing nails. “Her standards for herself were very high in that regard. We spent a lot of time on those finer movements. I know she was going through coloring book after coloring book practicing those finger movements she needed to paint nails again.”

Ballard’s therapy teams came together to help Alfaro achieve another goal: working in her family’s restaurant.

“Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy together worked on helping her have the strength, balance and ability to maintain a bussing tray as she walked,” Roth says with apparent admiration for all she accomplished. “It is not often that you see someone come that far with so little residual effect from a stroke that severe.”

But setbacks were also a part of her recovery process.

“It would bother me if I was physically unable to do something. Jason saw that I would get very emotional,” Alfaro remembers, adding that she couldn’t speak at the time because she still had a tracheostomy. “I have my arm; it’s just not working. My brain is not sending the signals to my arm. It was very frustrating. Yet, Jason was very patient with me.”

By the time Alfaro completed her inpatient therapy, she was taking steps, but still required an assistive device when walking. Ready to make the most of outpatient therapy, Alfaro arrived with a smile on her face, nails done, dressed and ready for a workout, according to Jocelyn Pimentel, her physical therapist.

“I never had a patient like that,” Pimentel says. “Her spirit, always trying to improve and get stronger. I think that is why she made so many gains, because she had a good attitude.”

By the time she was discharged, Alfaro was walking without an assistive device, was able to help out in the family restaurant and had no outward signs of a stroke. Not ready to stop, she enlisted the help of a personal trainer.

“He helped me make my 90 percent physical recovery possible,” she says, adding that her mental recovery is another thing. “I have little pieces of my memory that are gone, and I have trouble with numbers. There are things I am working on.”

Despite her limitations, Alfaro recognizes that she is a miracle being one of only a small number of cases in the world where a pons stroke survivor has made a near full recovery.

“I feel like it is part of my journey to educate people that having a life changing event is not the end of the world. There is a purpose for me [surviving],” she says. “It is not about what we’re going through; it is how we get through those hard times. Everyone has their own nightmare. We just have to figure out how to get past them.”