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After a Stroke: ‘I Just Kind of Kept Going’

Three years later, 16-year-old Arlington swimmer is lauded for remarkable recovery.

It was almost three years ago now that Ariel Cohen was in the pool, when all of a sudden she couldn’t swim anymore.

November 30, 2005 was a normal day otherwise, according to Cohen. The Arlington resident had gone to school at Holton Arms in Bethesda, Md., and after the final bell sounded, was off to the pool for the swim team’s time trials. It was a routine event for Cohen, a talented swimmer for years.

But in the middle of the meet, Cohen went to lift her arm out of the water in a stroke motion like she had thousands and thousands of times before. Only this time her arm wouldn’t work.

“I was swimming and then I just couldn’t swim anymore,” said Cohen. “It was kind of weird.”

After teachers jumped in to save her, Cohen’s mother, Rachel, who had been picking up Cohen’s younger sister, walked in the door of the Holton Arms facility only to be told her daughter had just been rescued from the depths of the pool.

“As soon as I saw her, her whole face was collapsed,” Cohen’s mother said.

Lucky for the Cohen family, the head of neurology at George Washington University Hospital also happened to have a child swimming at Holton that day and was able to accurately access the situation.

The 13-year-old Cohen had suffered a stroke, something seen in only three of every 100,000 pediatric patients.

<b>WHEN SHE ARRIVED</b> at Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., Cohen had no control of her limbs and had lost most of her sight. Doctors would later tell Cohen’s father, Dan, who had rushed back from a business trip in Las Vegas, only that his daughter would be able to use a wheelchair when all this was over.

That’s when the doctors suggested using a revolutionary biotech protein called tPA that helps melt away the blood clots that cause strokes. But tPA had only been used on 12 pediatric patients ever and had a 15 percent mortality rate. Making matters riskier was the fact that tPA is supposed to be administered within three hours of the initial symptoms. Ariel was to receive it three hours and six minutes after her stroke.

All Dan Cohen could do was turn to his daughter’s doctors and simply ask, “If this were your daughter, what would you do?”

<b>IT HAS BEEN</b> a long road to recovery for Cohen, and her speech on Nov. 17 at the National Rehabilitation Hospital’s Gala Victory Awards to honor those who show exceptional determination in the face of physical adversity reflected that journey.

“No one knows why [the stroke] happened, no one knows how it happened, but I know now I couldn’t imagine my life any other way,” said Cohen to the crowd. “Not as if I enjoy the after effects of the stroke; not at all. Every day is hard. But I was never normal before the stroke. And the stroke just sets me apart a little bit more.”

After being in Children’s Hospital for seven days, Cohen spent the next five and a half weeks at the National Rehabilitation Hospital where she rehabbed seven times a day. She had to re-learn the simple things others take for granted like walking, running, fine motor skills, even doing arts and crafts. Experts in the field of pediatric strokes reviewed her records with interest, hoping to find a firm solution to what Cohen had barely survived from.

The message Cohen wanted to convey last Monday, though, was an acknowledgement of collective will more than anything else. Her parents never let her think that anything but a full recovery was possible. Same with the therapists that worked with her for months in rehabilitation. And Cohen said there wasn’t a day that went by when she wasn’t visited by some friend or family member.

“We have this cradle of support that wouldn’t let her fall, wouldn’t let us fall,” said her mother.

Her father still remembers the first time she moved her left arm again. Ariel and friends were watching a horror movie in her room at NRH when a particularly scary scene came on and everyone jumped, and to everyone’s surprise that also included Cohen. They kept rewinding the movie over and over again, just to see the first real movement they had seen out of Cohen’s left side in weeks.

“What sets me apart is that I had a whole army of family, friends, therapists and teachers behind me; I had you,” Cohen said in her speech. “It is because of you that I am here.”

<b>THESE DAYS</b> Thanksgiving takes on a different meaning in the Cohen household. Ariel, now 16, is a junior in high school at Holton Arms. Her life has discovered a sense of normalcy again.

She’s a three-sport athlete whose volleyball team won its division this fall. She’s also back in the pool swimming again and even running track in the spring. But the athlete inside here never really left, even when she was just trying to regain the simplest skills like walking or writing.

“Sports was everything because she was an athlete and she knew how to think like an athlete,” said Rachel Cohen. “For her, it was like working out, it was like going to gym. She was used to that.”

Still, the effects of the stroke are there. Before the incident, Cohen was a top-level swimmer, winning races or at least finishing in the top-three. Her parents describe her as more of a middle of the pack athlete now.

“She feels the difference, she can tell,” said her father, Dan. “She misses and recognizes it, but at the same time it has given her a pretty unique perspective for a young person.”

“I always just say I’m fine when people ask," explained Cohen. "Yeah sure it’s hard, but really I could be much, much worse. I used to be a lot smarter. I used to be a better athlete. It’s not as easy anymore, that’s what it is. I’m not gonna go cry in a corner about it, though.”

That perspective on the world was on display last week, as her parents saw their daughter reach a sense of closure as she “held the audience on the tip of her tongue.” Her recovery and the usage of tPA in the hours after her stroke has made Cohen a case study for medical experts.

Not to mention a study in resilience that everyone who suffers from something traumatic can be thankful for this week.

“When the stroke happened there wasn’t time to go cry and be upset about it. I just kind of kept going,” Cohen said. “Now it’s just what I wake up to in the morning.”