Larry LaRue: Stroke at age 37 made Karen Murdock Dionne a survivor’s advocate

Staff writerJune 20, 2014 

Karen Dionne looks at the place in her Graham kitchen where she had a stroke at age 37. Dionne was saved in part by fast action from her then-fiance, Mike Dionne, who recognized the signs. She is now 44, a volunteer, and a stroke-awareness activist for the American Heart Association.

LUI KIT WONG — Staff photographer Buy Photo

She was five when her father, then in his 40s, developed early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and Karen Murdock Dionne was 14 when he went to live in a home.

“He died when I was 19,” she said.

Having seen a man she adored decimated mentally and physically, Karen chose a life that was a frenzy of activity. If it didn’t include softball, volleyball, tennis or golf, it involved travel, friends, constant action.

That was her life at 37, when she was a representative for a Southern California resort, engaged to a man in Graham and living with her mother in Los Angeles.

“I flew up on a business trip and was staying with Mike,” she said of then-fiance, now-husband Michael Dionne. “My mother called and said she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer.

“It was pretty emotional.”

The next morning, Karen and Mike were in the kitchen, making a light breakfast.

“I felt a pressure in my head, like you do when you’re flying, and I held my nose and blew into my cheeks. Then I told Mike I felt dizzy, light-headed, and I went to sit on the couch.

“I was thinking, ‘I have no time for this.’”

Mike stayed beside her.

“I realized I couldn’t feel my left foot, and as I was telling Mike, it started to spread up my left side. I said, ‘Help me,’ and he said, ‘You’re having a stroke.’

“He carried me to the car and drove me to Good Samaritan in Puyallup.

An avid reader, Mike can’t recall where he read the signs of a stroke, but he knew them then – March 2, 2007 – and knows them better now.

At the hospital, after a CT scan, doctors told Karen there was bleeding in her brain.

“I said, ‘So I’ve had a stroke….’ and they said, ‘No, you’re having a stroke,’” Karen said.

A helicopter flew her to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. On the flight, she thanked a medic for holding her hand. The woman said she wasn’t – and Karen realized her hands were folded together on her chest.

“My right hand felt a hand holding it,” she said. “I couldn’t feel my left hand at all.”

She spent 10 days in ICU. On the second day, realizing the stroke had left her unable to feel half her body, Karen tried to give her fiance a way out.

“She told me, ‘You don’t have to go through with the wedding or stay with me, you didn’t sign up for this,’” Mike said.

His response?

“Mike told me, ‘I signed up for this the first time I told you I loved you,” Karen said.

Sent home March 28, Karen began working toward a walk down the aisle with one leg she couldn’t feel.

“I put a mirror at the end of our hallway so I could watch myself, and got a metronome and set it to the gait I wanted. I’d go back and forth, back and forth, watching my feet as I did.

“I still use that mirror.”

In July, Mike and Karen married.

“My mother was in chemotherapy but she was so happy that day,” Karen said. “A month later, she died.”

As Karen worked on her own goals, she reached out to the National Stroke Association, joined the American Heart Association in Tacoma. She started Reclaiming Ourselves, a support group for peers on Facebook, that now has more than 1,000 likes.

“I had to adapt to everything after my stroke. How to dress myself, from underwear to socks, with one hand. How to tie my shoes, use a can opener,” she said. “It took forever to fold a load of laundry.”

She’s put videos on YouTube that show other stroke survivors how to deal with those challenges. She went to Washington D.C. with the National Stroke Association and spoke to members of Congress.

“I told them I was speaking for seven million stroke survivors who didn’t have a voice,” Karen said.

She entered the Mrs. Washington contest, became Mrs. Pierce County. In 2012, she was named the Go Red For Women Ambassador of the Year. Two weeks ago, the American Heart Association gave her the Outstanding Advocacy Efforts Award .

“Karen is my best friend, and I’d rather spend time with her than anyone I’ve ever met,” Mike said. “She’s an inspiration. It’s kind of hard to feel sorry for myself when I’m having a bad day. She’s a force of nature.”

She has bad days, too.

“Are there things I still can’t do? Now, yes. That doesn’t mean I won’t be able to do them later,” Karen said. “My philosophy is, ‘If you can’t do it, put it aside and try it later.’ I know all about depression. I’ve been there.

“But I won’t let a stroke define my life. I’m a survivor, not a victim. No victory is too small to celebrate. They add up.

“I’ve got nothing to complain about.”

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638 larry.larue@thenewstribune.com @LarryLaRue

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