Higgins Back on Top after Battling Stroke and Cancer

Caroline Higgins was at the top of her game six months into a new job as an equity analyst for a financial firm in Boston. The career move was exciting, and she worked hard. She was 38 and had a history of Lupus, but that didn't stop her when she was tapped to work on a big merger. The week of the merger, she felt ill and thought she might have the flu. When she didn't report for work, her alarmed sister came to check on her. Caroline was confused and had no balance. At Massachusetts General Hospital, physicians determined she had had multiple strokes.

'I had no idea what had happened to me,' she told guests at a Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital Cape Cod patient reunion in May.

Physicians think her strokes were related to an uncommon complication of Lupus. 'I'm the one in a million susceptible to blood clots,' she said. After being stabilized at Mass General, Caroline began months of inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation at Spaulding Cape Cod, where she could be near her family in Osterville.

Her MGH Case Manager, Kathleen Grace, knew that it was critical for her to have the support of her family during her recovery process. Grace states, 'It was vital that Ms. Higgins remain connected with her own community, where she was able to receive the best care and the support of her family and friends while she recovered from her devastating illness.'

As a young stroke survivor, Caroline had ambitious goals. She had been running to keep fit and she was thrilled with the opportunities in her new position. Susan Ehrenthal, M.D., staff physiatrist at SCC, worked with Caroline's team to design a treatment program of physical, occupational and speech therapy to address her deficits and give her the best chance of reaching her goals, which included returning to her fast-paced job.

Caroline had some problems with balance and perception, but her greatest challenges were cognitive. Given her career, which required high level reasoning, analysis and the ability to do complex calculations, speech therapy played a pivotal role in her recovery.

'I couldn't do calculations, and that was my job. I didn't know if I'd ever read again,' Caroline remembers. 'This was the scariest part because I wasn't myself.'

Helping patients come to terms with what has happened is an important part of rehabilitation. 'Caroline's situation struck a chord with staff,' says Dr. Ehrenthal. 'Here was a young, active, career woman whose life was disrupted by the stroke. We connected on an emotional level.'

The palpable support made all the difference to Caroline. 'I felt everyone was pulling for me and was on my side,' she said. 'Recovery wasn't a fast process, but they encouraged and helped me emotionally. I took little steps and realized I can do this.'

Then a setback tested Caroline's resolve even more. When reviewing her history, Dr. Ehrenthal had noticed a notation of an abnormal pap result and encouraged her to follow up. Caroline did and was diagnosed with uterine and ovarian cancer. She took a break from rehab so that her cancers could be treated at Dana Farber, then Caroline resumed outpatient therapy at SCC. She has since recovered from her treatments, is cancer-free, and she is once again passionately pursuing her career.

Dr. Ehrenthal says Caroline's successful recovery is due to her determination and optimism plus the dedicated involvement of her family. It's also somewhat due to her age. 'The brain is more plastic at a younger age, plus she was fit to begin with. We could push her harder and she could tolerate it. It helped that she had concrete goals to work towards,' says Dr. Ehrenthal.

As she looks back over her battles with stroke and cancer, Caroline expresses gratitude for everyone who cared for her and gave her the tools and support to recover. 'I stand here as a testament to the spirit of a collective group of people. I am forever indebted to all of you.'

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