Stroke survivor Katherine Isaac


‘I don’t want to give up hope’

Katherine had a stroke while in hospital for COVID-19. Now she’s working to put both behind her. 

Chapter 1 “We have some bad news.”

After almost two weeks in hospital with COVID-19, Katherine Isaac finally felt like she was getting better. It was spring, 2021. She had fallen ill with the virus before she became eligible to get vaccinated against it.

Katherine’s laboured breathing had improved after four scary days in the intensive care unit, where she very nearly had to go on a ventilator.

But suddenly the room started spinning and she could not grip a fork. Her left arm felt strange. Her busy healthcare team at Lakeridge Health Ajax Pickering Hospital, east of Toronto, gave her something for vertigo.

When the 45-year-old cybersecurity executive could not walk well enough to do a physiotherapy session, hospital staff knew something else was up. Tests, including a CT scan, proved them right.

“We have some bad news,” a doctor told Katherine. “You’ve had a stroke.”

“No, I’m Katherine,” she replied, convinced he meant to give this awful diagnosis to one of the older women who was sharing a room with her at the hospital, which was close to capacity during the pandemic’s third wave.

Katherine Isaac in a hospital gown with an oxygen tube.

When the doctor told Katherine that she had a stroke, she struggled to take in the news.

Katherine and her family pose for a selfie at Niagara Falls.

Katherine with her husband, Sheldon, and daughters Brooklyn and Imani. She worried what her stroke would mean for them.

Katherine Isaac smiles while standing behind a chair.

Katherine is a cybersecurity executive and led an active life before being diagnosed with a stroke. 

Chapter 2 Coming to terms with stroke

Katherine struggled to take in the news. How could this happen to someone relatively young and active? She was a busy mom of two young daughters, and worked out regularly on her Peloton stationary bike — a substitute for her pre-pandemic routine of gym workouts, soccer and basketball.

The doctors said the stroke was caused by a blood clot in the cerebellar section of her brain. They explained that COVID-19 can trigger clots in some people.

“What’s next? Can I still go home in a couple of days?” Katherine asked. She was worried about her husband, Sheldon, and their girls, as well as her parents. What would she tell them? What did it even mean to have a stroke?

First, it meant she had to start more medications, including blood thinners, on top of the steroids and other meds she was taking for her breathing.

Katherine now needed additional physiotherapy to help her walk and manage weakness on the left side of her body. She went through more tests to confirm she was not at risk for another stroke.

As her walking improved, she graduated from using a walker to a cane. After nearly a month in the hospital, Katherine finally went home.

Chapter 3 Balancing acceptance and hope

Recovery was different than she expected. At first, she said, “I treated it like I was recovering from knee surgery or a broken arm. I failed to take into account the fact that I have a brain injury and brain damage.

It’s been challenging to accept that I can’t do as much as I used to do. 
Katherine Isaac

Katherine found that loud or busy settings could overwhelm her. She became stressed and emotional at a family get-together where a baby was crying, a dog was barking, and the TV was on. She could no longer multitask, and often needed to nap. Once, at a busy Walmart, she had a meltdown, and later realized she should let Sheldon do the shopping.

“It’s been challenging to accept that I can’t do as much as I used to do. I don’t feel as productive. That’s a problem for me as I consider myself a productive person,” says Katherine, who took little time off from her job during her illnesses.

Now, Katherine focuses on following the advice of her doctors and therapists and practicing her own brand of self care, which includes writing herself a kind but inspiring note every Monday. And she works to balance her expectations for the future.

That challenge can bring tears some days. “I hope for a 100% recovery,” she says. “But I also need to accept that I might not get 100%. I don’t want to give up hope.”