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Young Stroke Survivor Recounts Comeback Story

He yelled for Cathy Petersen, his fiancée. Only the yell came out as a whisper, and Petersen was in another room. The couple’s rescue pup, Serra, nudged him to get up, to come play. But Turner couldn’t move his legs, his arms, his mouth—not even his tongue.

It was hard to breathe. Everything was getting fuzzy, and Turner was fading. “It was like someone turned the volume— everything—off,” he recalls.

Thirty minutes passed before Petersen came in to wake Turner for work. Terrified, she dialed 911 right away. Turner was semi-conscious when he arrived in the ambulance at Torrance Memorial. First responders were not sure he would make it through the night.

Doctors believe he suffered basilar artery dissection, leading to a rare type of stroke with a mortality rate of more than 85%, which is caused when the main artery that feeds into the back of the brain pulls apart or is dissected and blocks the part of the brain that controls motor functions.

Jess Turner

They kept Turner in a chemically induced coma for two weeks to keep him calm, and when he woke up, he couldn’t remember what happened. “I had a breathing tube, and I couldn’t move,” he says.

Later Petersen told Turner that doctors had prepared her for the worst, telling her he might not make it out of the anesthesia required to intubate him.

“They said if he did survive, he could be in a vegetative state,” Petersen remembers.

But he did make it, and the breathing tube was soon removed. One week after Turner came out of the coma, doctors were surprised but thrilled he was breathing on his own.

Throughout six weeks of hospitalization, a team of Torrance Memorial healthcare professionals followed a highly focused, determined, one-hurdle-at-a-time, one-day-at-a-time approach. They patiently and compassionately encouraged Turner and Petersen—and each other—to keep looking and moving forward. It was a Herculean effort that Turner and Petersen agree was—and today still is—made of challenges and successes but also mounds of perseverance, devotion and gratitude.

The two continue to be struck by the commitment of the Torrance Memorial inpatient and outpatient teams and the care they gave over the duration of his years-long comeback, which continues today as Turner works to keep moving forward on his own. After all, the team and Turner started at square one.

Conquering The Basics

Not only were Turner’s limbs paralyzed, so were his vocal cords. “I could only blink my eyes. Nothing else on my body worked,” he says.

Jesse Turner

So he used his eyeballs to talk, with speech therapists patiently encouraging him. Eyes up and down for “yes;” back and forth for “no.” Months passed before Turner said his first word. It was October, eight months after the stroke, when he put together his first sentence.

The next step was sitting up. Turner is 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighed 225 pounds, with no muscle control. It took five people to hoist him up. A team of four physical therapists and Petersen helped Turner with this routine every day, several times a day.

Petersen and Turner speak with admiration of the medical team who worked with him—from the speech, respiratory and physical therapists to the nurses and physicians.

Terence Hammer, MD, Turner’s primary physician, remembers the first time he saw Turner, post-hospitalization. “I was struck by his incredible will to live, his will to continue to improve and his attitude,” says Dr. Hammer. “This is a person who had not been dealt a good hand. But he’s a gentle soul. He wasn’t angry; he just wanted to do whatever he could to get better.”

Warning Signs

The same hand of cards had been dealt to Turner’s grandfather, who had suffered his own stroke and a heart attack. But Turner says he hadn’t taken those bad genes too seriously; he was too young to think about it much yet. He didn’t smoke and was only an occasional drinker.

Then, at 35, three years before his stroke, Turner had a heart attack on Valentine’s Day. He had been diagnosed with metabolic syndrome diabetes and high blood pressure. All these signs pointed toward stroke.

Two weeks prior to his debilitating stroke, Turner remembers having a chronic headache—a sharp pinpoint over his left brow. He didn’t worry; it must be a sinus blockage, he thought.

Jesse Turner

A week before his stroke, he suffered a Transient Ischemic Attack or TIA, also known as a mini-stroke, which led to some weakness in his right side, tightening of the throat and a bit of slurred speech. Before an MRI could be scheduled, he suffered the severe stroke.

Next Steps

The end of Turner’s stay at Torrance Memorial marked the start of three years of intense rehabilitation. He spent eight weeks in a transitional rehabilitation center, re-learning how to bathe, shower and dress. Finally, on July 2, one day after his 39th birthday and nearly five months after the stroke, Turner returned home.

Dr. Hammer took the lead in helping Turner and Petersen navigate the long road to recovery, coordinating his doctors and outpatient rehabilitation procedures and creating a comprehensive plan that ensured the healthcare team was working in tandem and communicating often. He also helped navigate the complicated world of insurance and advised on ways Turner could get maximum benefits, the most therapy and the best team. Along with Turner’s cardiologist, Mark Lurie, MD, he worked to get blood pressure and cholesterol under control. (If left untreated, this could have caused another stroke.)

“We wanted to make sure that, as a young person, he had the very best chance of returning to an as-normal-as-possible life,” says Dr. Hammer. “Jesse came into the office once a month, and while our staff was his cheerleading team—telling him, ‘Look where you were then, and where you are now. Look at all your progress!’—they often told me that Jesse gave them an infusion of positivity and hope. He was usually our last patient of the day, and we wanted to make sure he got positive reinforcement for all he was doing to improve, but at the same time, he gave us hope. We really believed in Jesse.”

Marianna Newsam, an occupational therapist with the Outpatient Rehabilitation Department at Torrance Memorial, worked with Turner for four of the eight months he did therapy there. She, too, was touched by his work ethic and commitment to improve.

“Jesse’s will and determination have gotten him where he is today,” Newsam says. “He is very positive and strong. If I asked him to do something at home before his next visit, it would be done when he came back. Turner didn’t wait around for things to get better; he made them happen.”

Jesse Turner and Fiancee

Twice a week for an hour each visit, Turner worked with Newsam and other therapists, concentrating on stretching, alignment and balance work. Stretching in particular is critical in stroke rehab, as many post-stroke patients can have involuntary muscle contractions, known as spasticity. Untreated, spasticity can worsen and decrease muscle function even years after a stroke.

Balance therapy played an integral role in Turner’s occupational rehabilitation. Newsam and the team worked with him on alignment and range-of-motion exercises as well as reaction time and speed. Another form of balance therapy, known as vestibular rehabilitation, is also practiced in Torrance Memorial’s new Neuro Balance Center (see sidebar), though this treatment was not necessary for Turner.

Prior to his discharge from Torrance Memorial’s outpatient rehabilitation program, and as insurance coverage of the therapy expired, Newsam and Dr. Hammer worked to ensure he would be able to continue rehab in his home and in the community. Turner still practices speech and physical therapy at home. Thanks to his therapists, he learned exercises he could do there without spending money on fancy equipment.

And through extensive research, he learned of an Adaptive Physical Education program at Los Angeles Harbor College. The class has equipment for people with physical challenges, such as a treadmill with a harness system designed to aid in helping patients walk again.

Today Turner uses bilateral forearm presses, or crutches, to help him walk. Newsam says that Turner’s progress over the past four years is close to unbelievable.

“You see cases where the amount of damage done to the brain is so significant, you’d never expect the patient to be walking—you’d assume they would be institutionalized. This is Jesse’s case. He had massive brain damage, yet through the work of everybody—therapists, medical professionals, Jesse himself and his caregiver, he made unbelievable progress.”

Newsam puts a special emphasis on Petersen as caregiver. “In my experience, people with a good support system progress well,” she says. “Jesse and Cathy are an excellent team. It made a huge difference in his recovery.”

The Caregiver's Miracle

By Turner’s side at every step, literally, Petersen prefers to shine the spotlight on Turner’s healthcare team when giving credit for the strides he’s made. “Doctors don’t like to use the word ‘miracle,’” she says. “But I’ve heard them call Jesse’s case a miracle. When we’ve been back and seen some of the team who treated Jesse, they thank us for coming back, saying they just don’t get to see that very often. He’s like a unicorn!”

Jesse Turner

The two have been together since before his heart attack. They are both appreciative of the humanity of the hospital team. Turner says, “When I couldn’t speak or move, the nurses still talked to me like I was there and an active participant, which helped me be more aware and feel more comfortable.”

Petersen agrees, saying, “They were always considerate of Jesse’s thoughts and emotions, and that can be tough when you’re dealing with traumatic issues every day. The kindness and diligence of the team made me feel comfortable that things were being handled properly. They genuinely care for their patients.”

Moving Forward

Turner admits that it’s tough to stay positive around the clock. There are things he can’t do and might never do again, like playing the guitar—a favorite hobby for 24 years—or throwing a ball with teenage son Elijah.

But his motto is “Keep Moving,” a reminder to not stop. “If I fall, I get back up. I figure if I don’t fall, I’m not trying hard enough. So I keep trying. I keep moving forward.”

Turner has short-term and long-term goals. He’s taking computer classes and is within a few units of earning an associate’s degree in math. He wants to go back to work. He wants to walk on his own. Those are longer-term goals.

In the short term, he wants to take perhaps life’s most important next step—marrying . “When we walk down the aisle,” he adds, “I plan to do it with one cane.”

Cathy and Jesse are hopeful future Valentine’s Days are cause for celebration and reminders of the power of perseverance, devotion, gratitude and strength.

For more information on Torrance Memorial's Certified Stroke Center and other stroke-related resources, visit torrancememorial.org/StrokeCenter.

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