KALISPELL, Mont. – Sometimes Liz Gedlaman can't find her car in the Super 1 Foods parking lot. Sometimes she can't remember how to get home.
The 37-year-old Columbia Falls mother of four would like to volunteer in her children's classrooms, but when she did she broke down in a puddle of tears, bewildering the students.
There are a lot of things Gedlaman can't do anymore, but she chooses to focus on what she still can do.
Five years ago, Gedlaman suffered a massive, near-fatal stroke while she was talking on the phone to her husband, Derek, a family practice physician. As she described a severe headache to her husband, she remembers responding to him very slowly, then eventually not at all.
Her husband rushed home to find his wife limply holding their 2-week-old baby. His wife's left arm seemed paralyzed and her speech was slurred.
When a CT scan at North Valley Hospital showed nothing out of the ordinary, the radiologist ordered an MRI and sent her in an ambulance to Kalispell. On the way Gedlaman began to have seizures that didn't stop for three hours. Doctors induced a coma and airlifted her to Oregon Health Sciences, a university hospital in Portland, for an experimental procedure because her brain was hemorrhaging.
"When I came out of my coma (10 days later), I was paralyzed on my left side and couldn't see anything out of my left eye," she recalled.
She later learned that she had suffered two strokes, one on each side of her body.
"It was pregnancy-related," she said, "and one in a million. My husband had learned about it in medical school. It's rare, but it happens."
Gedlaman's doctors determined that she suffers from a rare coagulation-related bleeding disorder.
"They told me this should have happened with your first child," she said.
Gedlaman had given birth to three healthy children prior to the pregnancy that sparked the stroke, and she's grateful it didn't happen earlier.
After five months of occupational, speech and physical therapy, she was able to read, speak and walk again.
Not bad for a woman who wasn't expected to survive.
"They told me I wasn't suppose to live," she said. "I am so grateful for the medical staff who followed their conscience, listened to their guts, and gave me a second chance to live."
Life today is very different for Gedlaman, who investigated computer software piracy cases for a living before she settled into motherhood. Even after her first couple of children were born, she did consulting work from home.
"I can't add and subtract any more," she said. "That means I don't do the bills anymore."
Gedlaman is especially grateful that she regained her ability to read.
"Everything is hard work," she admitted. "It is sometimes even scary to leave the house. I want to keep getting better, but there's a line where I have to stop. It's just hard to give things up, but I know I have a lot of life left."
The family had moved to Columbia Falls just a few months before the stroke changed their lives. Derek had completed his residency in Spokane in June 2003 and they packed up and moved to the Flathead that summer. Gedlaman suffered the stroke on Nov. 5.
It was a serendipitous move, she now realizes. The Columbia Falls community rallied around the recovering mother and her family.
Neighbors offer directions when she can't find her way home. School officials call her when she's forgotten to pick up one of her children. The secretary at the dentist's office makes a special call 20 minutes before an appointment to remind Gedlaman.
"This is exactly where we're supposed to be," she said. "I grew up in Portland, but I can't handle it now. There are too many signs, too many things. It's overwhelming.
The Gedlamans' four children, ages 12, 10, 8 and 4, have learned to keep an eye on their mother. If she begins to cry, they know she's overloaded mentally, and they tell her to go lie down.
"I get easily confused," she said. "Sometimes it's all I can do to keep track of three soccer teams."
The organizational part of her brain has trouble sorting things out. When she's Christmas shopping, sometimes she'll buy 10 things for one person and think she's done shopping.
One of Gedlaman's sisters took a semester off from teaching in Minneapolis to help care for the family immediately after the stroke. Her parents bought a home near Columbia Falls and have spent one week a month helping out ever since that fateful day five years ago.
"Mom still does the school shopping," Gedlaman said.
She feels blessed to have shared how bad her headache was with her husband the day she suffered the stroke.
"If you don't feel quite right, don't keep it to yourself," she advised. "I didn't know I was having a stroke. Maybe if I would have known a little more about the signs and symptoms, I might have thought about it. Luckily my husband knew something wasn't right."
Throughout the ordeal, Gedlaman has kept her sense of humor and a positive attitude.
"Sometimes I feel sad, but really I'm so lucky," she said about her handicap. "And at least I can find a parking spot at Home Depot these days."