Mike Tharp: They thought she would be a vegetable

February 4, 2012 

What if you had to learn to think again?

What if you had to learn to speak again?

What if you had to master the act of typing only with your left forefinger?

What if you had to eat through a tube in your stomach?

Angela Ronson, a 42-year-old Atwater native, has had to do all that -- and more.

And she's done most of it all by herself.

In 2002 while at work in Sierra County she had a bleeding stroke, an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) burst. She wrote about it all in a 2009 article in a publication called "Stroke Connection." Even after the AVM burst, she didn't feel bad enough not to drive home for lunch. While driving, she passed out and had an accident, but was taken back to work. With a bad headache, she walked to a nearby clinic.

"At the clinic I stopped breathing," she wrote. "They took me to a hospital, where they put me on a helicopter and flew me to a trauma center."

Surgeons operated on her brain; afterward, she was in a coma. Her family was told that if she came out of surgery alive, she would be a vegetable.

"I did come out of the coma but couldn't talk or move, which made me appear to be a vegetable," she wrote. "I was alive but I had something in my head that could kill me any time -- from something as simple as shaking my head 'no.' "

She started therapy, only able to use her left side. She taught herself how to use the controls on her wheelchair with her left hand, how to type on a computer with her left index finger, how to write left-handed.

"I had worked with babies as an infant development specialist," she wrote, "so I already knew a lot of what to do."

In 2004 doctors at Stanford removed the AVM. She has continued with her therapy, largely on her own. Today she specializes on her right side. One of her victories has been to place 20 or so colored plastic pegs into holes in a plastic square with her right hand, then remove them. She's cut her time down to 30 minutes.

"Nobody expected this kind of recovery," she wrote. "What kind of vegetable can think, talk or write? I still don't know what kind of vegetable I am."

During her long recovery, Angela says she lost her house, job, most of her savings and possessions and, for a while, her two daughters, Marina, 17, and Sarah, 16. Five years ago she moved into a house in Merced owned by her father. It's been in that small bungalow that the miracle continues.

She gets by on In-Home Supportive Services and Medi-Cal.

She has used her master's in special ed and experience as a program manager for early intervention programs for babies to reach out to others -- through cyberspace. She blogs, she tweets, she consults dozens of websites every day and carries on a lively email correspondence. She's on Facebook and Google. She's got a PC at a desk in her living room and a laptop in her bedroom. "I'm thinking about getting an iPad," she says.

Dr. Melvin Morse, who has published several articles in medical literature on near-death experiences, writes of Angela: "She has developed an impressive network of cutting-edge brain researchers. ... Her extraordinary recovery and what she has done with her life after seven years of coma (and semicoma) are one of the most inspirational stories I know."

In her 2006 book "My Stroke of Insight," Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard-trained brain scientist, relates how she suffered a massive stroke similar to Angela's. The book is about the eight years it took her to heal. At the end of the book she writes: "Your body is the life force power of some 50 trillion molecular

geniuses. You and you alone choose moment by moment who and how you want to be in the world."

Angela does just that, day in and day out. She awakes at 7 a.m. and her nephew Brandon, who lives next door, comes over a little later to fix up her feeding tube. She maneuvers her electric wheelchair around the small living room and kitchen, and her sister and daughters help out during the day and night.

"When I need something they help me," she says. "They make everything accessible."

Her eyesight remains weak so it's hard for her to read books, though she watches CD movies and perceives online images. Besides her life on the Internet, her short-term goal is to be able to use both hands to type. Her long-term goal? "I'd like to be able to walk or something."

With that she pushes up with both hands from the sides of her wheelchair to a slightly stooped standing position. The feeding tubes are visible under her shirt. She stays there for a few seconds, then slides back down.

"What the heck?" she asks. "It's a miracle. I'm supposed to be lying in bed, not trying to stand."

In her two blogs Angela dispenses guidance to others with similar problems. "Rehab is so little you will have to do more on your own," she wrote in December 2010. A month earlier she wrote a long post on how to best use Medi-Cal and Medicaid.

In a story on PopSci.com earlier this week, Rebecca Boyle wrote about UC Berkeley researchers trying to "decode patterns of activity in the brain. It's a major step toward understanding how we hear -- and a possible step toward hearing what we think."

It might be a good idea for those scientists to drop by Angela's place on 25th Street. There they'd find that an amazing woman has decoded her brain and is rebuilding it. As Angela puts it: "My mind is making itself better."

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsunstar.com

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