BLOOMINGTON — Jennifer McCoy begins 2019 with something she didn't have at 3 a.m. Dec. 7.
"When I got to see her at 6:30 a.m. (Dec. 7) and she smiled at me, it meant the world to me," said her husband, Scott McCoy.
Jennifer, the popular associate principal of Parkside Junior High School in Normal, suffered a massive stroke, paralyzing her left side, late on Dec. 6 or early on Dec. 7.
What was shocking to everyone is that she was 44 years old and a runner in good health with no family history of stroke.
But what is equally shocking to the McCoys — including their children, Joshua, 23, Hannah, 20, and Elizabeth, 16 — is what has happened since then: Jennifer's complete recovery, with the exception of some fatigue.
"I have no deficit," Jennifer, who turned 45 on Dec. 18, said on Friday in the Bloomington home that she shares with Scott and Elizabeth. "I still get tired some times but I will try to listen to my body."
"She has zero restrictions, except for 'Don't overdo it,'" said Scott, 48.
"I can't see it (evidence of a stroke) in your smile," he said to his wife. Their 26th anniversary was Dec. 20.
Credit for the recovery goes to Scott for quickly recognizing stroke symptoms and calling 911 and to Dr. Ajeet Gordhan and staff at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal for responding quickly with an evaluation and procedure that removed the blood clot that caused the stroke.
"If we had not taken that clot out, her outcome would have been very dismal," said Gordhan, an interventional neuroradiologist at both BroMenn and OSF HealthCare St. Joseph Medical Center in Bloomington.
The McCoys moved to Bloomington-Normal from Pontiac four years ago.
"Jennifer is very good at what she does," said Parkside Principal Darrin Cooper. "She works very well with our students."
A runner with no family history of stroke or cardiovascular disease, Jennifer said her health on Dec. 6 was "excellent."
At 3 a.m. Dec. 7, she woke up shivering and with leg cramps in her thighs and woke up her husband.
"I could hear her moaning," recalled Scott, who develops software technologies for businesses. She told him her head hurt but she couldn't sit up.
When he turned on the bedroom lights, he saw that the left side of Jennifer's face was drooping. All facial movement was on the right side.
"It's the scariest damn thing I've ever seen in my life — to see your wife like that," Scott admitted. When he asked her to squeeze his hands, she had a tight grip with her right hand but almost no grip with her left hand.
"I knew he was going down the stroke path," Jennifer said. "I thought, there has to be another thing."
Scott called 911 and described the symptoms. When the paramedics arrived, they immediately took Jennifer by ambulance to BroMenn because it was the closest hospital. The McCoys were living in Normal at the time.
"I was really worried that I wasn't going to get my mom back," Elizabeth said.
"I was shocked," Cooper said.
When Jennifer arrived at BroMenn, Dr. Caroline Agha, a neurologist, spoke with the McCoys and concluded that it was unclear whether Jennifer's stroke symptoms began within three hours.
The last person to speak with Jennifer was Elizabeth and that was 4½ hours earlier.
As a result, Jennifer was not eligible for tPA (tissue plasminogen activator), a drug administered intravenously to dissolve the clot. Blood vessels without blood for a while become fragile, so when blood is reintroduced, there is a risk of hemorrhaging. Results could be fatal.
The only other option for Jennifer, Gordhan said, was mechanical thrombectomy. That involves threading a micro-catheter from the groin up to the brain using image guidance. There, the clot is retrieved and removed, restoring blood flow to the brain.
"We've done 180 to 200 (thrombectomies) at both hospitals (BroMenn and St. Joseph) since we started in 2005-2006," Gordhan said.
With the family's OK, the procedure was performed and was successful, said Gordhan, who said the cause of Jennifer's stroke is unknown.
By 6:30 a.m., she was regaining movement on her left side. Despite a surgical complication of internal bleeding in the abdomen — which was treated without surgical repair — Jennifer was released from the hospital on Dec. 13 and has recovered without therapy.
"This technology and trained staff help young patients to live a life of quality that they might have not otherwise," Gordhan said. "Her life would have changed in a dramatic way."
"It's a miracle, honestly," Elizabeth said.
Jennifer takes only aspirin and Plavix, a blood thinner. The McCoys, who have moved to a home in Bloomington, appreciated the get-well cards, flowers and food that they have received from Parkside staff, students and families.
"She's a big part of the building and everyone wanted to offer their support," Cooper said.
"They are family," Jennifer said.
Jennifer has joined a support group for young stroke survivors.
"I could choose to say 'Why me?' But I am grateful for my recovery. I want to hear other people's stories and lend support," she said. "I am part of an exclusive group that I never expected to be a part of."
Jennifer plans to return to work on Jan. 7 without restriction. "But I will listen to my body," she admitted.
"I'm going into 2019 grateful for my health, grateful for the timing and blessed to work with wonderful people at Parkside and Unit 5."