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Regaining Her Independence

As a successful professional employed by a large utility company, Rosalie Pienta used hard work and determination to reach career milestones. Even today, that drive still resides in Rosalie – though now it’s directed toward setting and reaching goals of independence, rather than in her career.

“It was a Monday morning in April of 1996,” recounts Rosalie. “I had been feeling a bit run down the prior week and thought I was fighting an upper respiratory infection so on Friday I went to the doctor. On Sunday, I wasn’t feeling better so I called the doctor and left a message. As I was getting ready on Monday, I felt dizzy and started to get sick. Around the same time, my doctor returned my call and I told him how I was feeling, so he immediately sent paramedics to my home. I heard the paramedics at the door but I could not walk to open it. I literally crawled down the stairs to let them in.”

At the acute hospital, doctors ran a series of tests to determine Rosalie’s diagnosis. It was determined that she suffered a stroke. As it turns out, Rosalie suffered multiple hemorrhagic strokes that affected both hemispheres of the brain, leaving her with paralysis throughout most of her body. It wasn’t until she was transferred to the inpatient rehabilitation facility and ordered to have an MRI when it was revealed she had sustained a severe hemorrhagic stroke, which is caused by a broken blood vessel that ruptures and bleeds within the brain.

“I know I was in the acute hospital for a while but remember very little,” she explains. “The doctors told me there was nothing more they could do, so I was transferred to an inpatient rehabilitation facility. When I arrived, my brother said that I was ‘stiff as a board’ from the stroke. I literally had to relearn everything.”

Unable to swallow, a tracheotomy was performed to help her breath and a feeding tube was inserted to provide nourishment. As her care team was considering her plan of care, she began to regain some movement in her right side, indicating she was making progress, and so began her road to recovery.

For more than a year, Rosalie went through extensive physical, occupational, and speech therapies in the rehabilitation facility. Eventually, the “trach” was removed as she relearned how to speak and swallow. She was then transferred to a skilled nursing facility where she spent an additional two years. Over time, the feeding tube was removed and she started to regain strength and movement in her right arm and leg while working on relearning many activities of daily living.

Aside from her physical recovery, Rosalie was also determined to finish what she had started years ago. “Before the stroke, I was attending night school in pursuit of a degree in business administration,” she explains. “Fortunately, the kind people at the facility worked with the professors and administration at the college to allow me to finish. They would drop off assignments and exams, and with assistance, I was also able to attend classes. The stroke caused some memory issues and though it took a while, I eventually earned my degree. I even pushed my wheelchair across the stage to accept my diploma.”

Once discharged from the skilled nursing facility, Rosalie spent the next few years living with a 24 hour caregiver until she felt she was ready to live on her own. “I was empowered by my progress. It was time to take the next step.”

Showing tremendous initiative and courage to live on her own, not only did Rosalie purchase a condo in Naperville; she had it renovated to make it more accessible. “I had the doorways widened, the bathroom and kitchen redesigned with pull downs for each cabinet. I even had a ceiling lift system installed in the bathroom and bedroom. The system is equipped with a sling that goes around my waist which helps with transfers to the bed, toilet, or shower. It allows me move from room to room and access areas that I normally wouldn’t be able to access,” notes Rosalie. “I did some research online to educate myself on the system before I had it installed. It was very expensive but it’s made things much easier for me. Now, I do pretty much everything on my own with the exception of a caregiver who occasionally helps with bathing and getting dressed.”

About the same time as she moved into her condo, she started outpatient therapy at Marianjoy in Wheaton. Rosalie credits her therapists at Marianjoy for their help in pushing her to make even more progress. “The therapists and people here at Marianjoy are sensitive to each individual. They make you comfortable and build trust. They treat each person like an equal regardless of their abilities.”

While it’s been nearly 15 years since her stroke, Rosalie comes to Marianjoy on a regular basis for what she calls a “tune up”. In these sessions, she works on strengthening muscles and improving her range of motion, especially on her left side which is still much weaker than the right. While she gets around with a powered wheelchair, she has set her sights on walking again. “My goal is to walk on my own again and the therapists have definitely pushed me to work on strengthening my left side to better support myself.”

Aside from her physical recovery, Rosalie continues to live her life to the fullest and she regularly takes trips with friends just like she did before her stroke. Traveling is something she’s always enjoyed.

In fall 2010, Rosalie was contacted by the Naperville Advisory Commission on Disabilities (ACD). The ACD makes recommendations to the administration and elected officials of the city on all matters of accessibility and to ensure people with disabilities feel welcome in the community. It’s no surprise that Rosalie actually applied to join the commission more than two years ago. “I was browsing Naperville’s website one day and noticed this advisory board that works with the city on making it more accessible. So I downloaded the application and filled it out. About two months ago, I got a phone call asking me to join. Of course I jumped at the chance.”

While Rosalie has recently started this position with the ACD, her drive to succeed is something that will greatly benefit the city. “I’m inspired to do what I can to help those with disabilities. Everyone benefits from making things more accessible.”