Donna's story

Photo of Donna Toscano at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation.

Donna Toscano, 70, is well-traveled. Having visited eight countries, the active retiree was looking forward to an upcoming trip to Africa. Then she had a stroke.

She felt “lousy” for about a week but brushed it off as the flu. When her symptoms worsened and she “had a headache like no other,” she was rushed to the hospital. “I thought my head was going to explode,” she said.

At Valley Hospital, a series of tests including a CT scan, MRI and X-rays revealed Donna had a left intraventricular hemorrhage – bleeding inside the ventricles in the brain. She doesn’t remember anything from her ride in the ambulance or her nine-day hospital stay. The only thing she remembers is waking up at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation – Saddle Brook, which was “a decision I would have totally agreed with if I had the opportunity,” she said.

Upon arrival at Kessler, she was weak, had a loss of balance and required a walker to walk. She also faced cognitive challenges including difficulty finding the right words to say and remembering things. She spoke slowly, was sensitive to bright lights and heard a constant echo.

“I was very frustrated and depressed as to what my future would be like,” she said.

Donna’s goals were clear: “Being able to be independent and not struggle with simple tasks,” and to return to the things she enjoyed including traveling, Pilates, shopping and playing Mahjongg with her friends.

Knowing the various challenges that she faced, Donna’s physician-led team of rehabilitation nurses, physical, occupational, and speech therapists and other stroke specialists developed a treatment plan to help her get back to the things she loved.

In physical therapy, she focused on improving her balance and leg strength through exercises such as squats, climbing stairs and walking over various surfaces. “I sure hate squats, but they do seem to help,” she recalled. With hard work, she progressed to walking without a walker and her balance improved dramatically.

Her occupational therapists focused on improving her hand and arm strength and taught her adaptive techniques to complete daily activities such as bathing and doing laundry on her own. For example, they had her use therapy putty in her sessions to improve the control and flexibility of her fingers and hands. In speech therapy, she participated in exercises to improve her cognitive impairments through various word games and puzzles and she worked on time management.

Donna’s family was a constant source of support throughout her rehabilitation journey. One of her daughters visited her and helped her with showering, and her husband “really stood by my side and took care of everything I needed,” she said.

One of the turning points in her recovery was when she began to do daily activities independently. This included walking up and down the stairs without assistance and doing laundry. “Not to rely on others was a great feeling,” she said. “Even though someone had to drive me to the supermarket and I leaned on the cart like using a walker, I enjoyed shopping — and I never liked shopping for food — I felt liberated.”

After eight days at Kessler, she was discharged home with her family to continue her recovery as a Kessler outpatient, where she continued to make remarkable gains. “I saw amazing improvement from week to week,” she said.

Another “ah-ha” moment came when she attended her first Pilates class since the stroke and credits her care team for helping her achieve that goal. “Without the OT and PT at Kessler, I would not have been ready.”

She describes her overall rehabilitation experiences as outstanding. “Everyone I worked with at Kessler was very devoted to their job and truly cared about their patient’s needs.”

Donna is grateful for her returned strength and independence and is especially looking forward to taking the trip to Africa that she had to postpone.