From denial to acceptance: Alberta stroke survivor chronicles recovery in podcast

Christine Holubec-Jackson suspected something was wrong when her left eye went numb and the biting winter wind felt hot on her face.

'Finally I realized something is wrong here'

Christine Holubec-Jackson has penned a book and produced a podcast about her recovery from a devastating stroke in April, 2017. (Christine Holubeck-Jackson)

Christine Holubec-Jackson suspected something was wrong when her left eye went numb and a biting winter wind felt hot.

"The cold wind felt hot on the left side of my face. And then my daughter made us a very spicy meal, but somehow I didn't find it spicy at all."

It was Good Friday 2017 and Holubec-Jackson was recovering from a terrible sinus cold.

By Sunday of that weekend, she was struggling the stand upright and her left arm felt like it had been plunged in a bucket of ice.

Holubec-Jackson was having a stroke, but wouldn't be diagnosed for almost a week after the symptoms began.

She didn't recognize any of the warning signs. Holubec-Jackson said it was a slow, boring beginning to the most life altering event she'd ever experience. 

"Finally I realized something is wrong here," said Holubec-Jackson, who has been documenting her remarkable recovery in a podcast called 7 Jars of Hot Pickled Peppers. She also self-published a book by the same name. 

'So much denial'

A CT scan revealed a bleed on her brain in an inoperable area just above the brainstem.

Holubec-Jackson said she was stunned. She was just 48 at the time, kept fit at her job in a steel mill, and had snowshoed 14 kilometres up mountain a week before.

So how could she be having a stroke?

"I was in so much denial that something could have happened to me," Holubec-Jackson recalled in an interview Wednesday with CBC Radio's Alberta at Noon.

"From there, it took on a surreal quality. This couldn't be happening to me."

They were basically telling me, you're alive now but who knows how long it will last.- Christine  Holubec-Jackson  

After being admitted to hospital, Holubec-Jackson's condition deteriorated rapidly, and she transferred into a special care unit.

Numbness spread down the entire left side of her body. She had double vision. She couldn't walk without assistance.

"My eyes didn't move properly," she said. "My whole face became frozen so I couldn't chew.

"I lost all my sense of taste and even now I don't have much taste, hence the name [of the podcast] Seven Jars of Hot Pickled Peppers. They're my favourite now."

It was unclear what was causing the bleed, which continued unabated for days. There was little doctors could do but watch and wait.

"They were basically telling me, 'You're alive now but who knows how long it will last,' " Holubec-Jackson said.

My stroke did take something from me. - Holubec-Jackson

More than a year and half later, Holubec-Jackson has regained her speech and learned to walk again, though she still struggles with mobility issues.

Walking is difficult and her left arm hangs at her side, largely immobile.

She remains bothered by dizziness and fatigue and has not been able to return to work.

The stroke stole part of her identity, Holubec-Jackson said.

Finding acceptance was difficult. 

She couldn't start healing from the trauma of her stroke until her "wall of denial started cracking."

"I'm a mother, a wife, a sister — many titles — but work was a big part of me. I let it define me," she said. "I had to learn who the new me was.

"My stroke did take something from me. You have to give yourself time to grieve."

Ken Jackson and Christine Holubec-Jackson produce a podcast twice monthly chronicling her recovery. (Christine Holubec-Jackson)

Holubec-Jackson said she feels like she has been given a second chance at life and the podcast, which she produces twice monthly with her husband Ken, is a way to pay it forward.

"We want to transcend more than just stroke recovery," she said.

"Anyone who has had a traumatic event in their life, I hope they can find solace in our podcast and know that they're not alone."