LeeAnn Walton rushed from work to a fitness club in New York City to lead a yoga class. Her classes had become so popular that she was booked daily at locations in and around Manhattan.
Teaching yoga was a side job. She enjoyed it so much more than her demanding office job that she hoped to make a career out of it.
On this February day, Walton started leading the group through a series of warmup poses. As she walked around the room assisting students, she suddenly felt a snap in her head, as if someone had launched a rubber band inside it. Then came a “pop” sound in her brain.
“That’s weird,” she thought. But she felt fine.
A few minutes later, her right hand twisted unnaturally. Her speech began to slur. She lost her balance and tumbled onto a student, then vomited.
Walton’s next memory comes from two days later. She woke up in intensive care hooked up to multiple machines. Her head hurt with a severity she’d never experienced.
“LeeAnn, you had a stroke,” a doctor told her.
“What?” she said. Walton, then 44, had no idea what a stroke was.
“Can you feel where my hand is?” he said.
“It’s on my right calf,” she said.
“Good,” he said.
Although she could feel the doctor’s hand on her leg, she could barely move her right side. It felt like someone had strapped heavy weights to her arm and leg.
Doctors explained that a blood vessel ruptured in her brain, causing bleeding. This is known as an intracerebral hemorrhagic stroke. She’d undergone emergency surgery to relieve pressure around her brain. Doctors could find no cause for the stroke.
Outside her room, doctors discussed her case. From her bed, she heard one of them say, “She’ll probably never be able to walk or teach yoga again.”
“I’ll show them,” she thought.
A week later, she was sent to an acute rehab facility. By then, Walton was able to haltingly walk with support. She could not grip with her right hand. Being left-handed was a blessing. She had a few lapses in memory, but her overall cognition had returned.
In rehab, she did daily physical and occupational therapy. After working with therapists, Walton did more exercises on her own.
By the second week, she could walk down the hall with support. She would hunch over and pull her leg into a high march or drag it behind her. She refused any sort of walking aid.
After 10 days, the strength in her right side had improved enough for Walton to go home.
“You have a very challenging road ahead of you,” a therapist told her. “Good luck.”
Walton, who lives alone, continued with therapy and improved slowly. Within three months, she returned to her day job to keep her health insurance.
She was allowed to arrive late and leave early to avoid the crush of passengers on the subway. Still, people bumped into her or cursed her for being too slow.
She’d come home from work and fall into bed. The sight of her yoga mat stashed under her couch made her cry.
Six months after her stroke, Walton began to get tremors in her right arm, coupled with excruciating pain. No one knew why.
Injected medication slowed the tremors, though she continued to have sporadic pain.
About a year after her stroke, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Walton was relieved to stay home. She didn’t have to navigate the subway. Friends weren’t pressuring her to socialize. She continued her own therapy.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Walton, who is Korean, feared the increased violence and discrimination against Asian people. She soon moved to Long Island City, a more diverse community in the New York City borough of Queens.
Last spring, her tremors returned.
She left her job to focus on her recovery. She tried holistic and alternative therapies. Her tremors and level of pain have improved significantly.
Walton also completed a new physical therapy program with intensive gait training. She feels like her walk is close to normal again.
Her therapist urged her to try doing simple, gentle yoga moves.
“You’re much stronger now,” she told Walton. “Start working on your form.”
Walton started practicing simple moves daily last fall. In January, she started teaching basic classes, leading as many as three a week.
“I cry every day with gratitude because I never really thought I was going to do this again,” she said.
Her close friend Amber Harrison is a registered nurse, so she knew the obstacles Walton would face.
“But LeeAnn is a fighter,” Harrison said. “Although it changed everything in her life, I look at her now and I think she’s 100% a miracle.”
Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.