Tuesday, June 14, 2011
The onset was sudden and brutal.
On a spring Sunday in 2007, longtime Walla Walla resident and businesswoman Libby Frazier had sold a house.
The next day she felt a tiredness.
The following morning she told her husband Bill that she thought she might have the flu and that she would stay home from work.
Bill went to an hour-long meeting that day, and when he returned home he found his wife unconscious.
"He took me to the ER Tuesday and I think Wednesday they took me to Virginia Mason," Frazier said in a recent interview. "They did all these tests. I don't even remember going to St. Mary's. I was semi-conscious, saying things with no recollection. I was in a coma for a month."
Doctors diagnosed her with a near-fatal case of encephalitis, a virus-caused inflammation of the brain. When Frazier regained consciousness, she realized she had lost her ability to speak, to write, to walk, to do most things people do automatically.
A huge part of her life and career -- managing a downtown department store and now as a Realtor -- has been about enjoying people, being driven to succeed and maintaining an outgoing, inquisitive, cheerful nature. Doctors could treat the encephalitis, but it would be up to her to tap her emotional and spiritual strengths to get her life back.
And the indomitable Frazier, who believes in living life to its fullest and not waiting to do things she dreams of doing, wasn't about to accept what fate had wrought.
"I could hardly talk, I worked on one word a day and it took so much energy, so much effort," she said, crediting nursing assistants with helping her stand and take her first few steps.
"The brain is so interesting, it was difficult learning how to walk again," Frazier said. "We take so many things for granted, like walking, waving and talking at the same time. I had to keep it simple and take each step. But I'm by nature so curious, if I even glanced into another room, it threw me off balance. It was so good to be able to walk, then I could look and wave.
"I learned a lot about myself during that. I focused on every day doing better. That's what got me through. Every time I did something, each time it got a little bit better," she said.
She was not in the fight alone. Also helping her was her husband, whom she'd met in a geometry class at Walla Walla High School, and a legion of family, friends and people she had helped find success in their own lives.
"I bet I got 250 cards, flowers coming in all the time," she said. "Here I am off in Seattle and I had so much support from family, friends and even people I didn't know. And there were prayer chains, so many prayer chains. Bill was here all the time, my sister from Renton would come up during dinner and my sister from West Seattle would visit at lunch.
" ... Dad had taken photos of my house and farm land. That was one of my goals, I want to get home. I need to do things in order to get home."
She was transferred from Virginia Mason Hospital to the rehab department at the University of Washington. There she had four therapists -- speech, occupational, physical and psychological -- and a week of rehab.
"I didn't have any visitors, I had to conserve my energy for those four people; they just exhausted me," she said. "But every day I got a whole lot better. I started walking down stairs, walking on trails, doing everything. I had goals, certain milestones."
Writing was frustratingly difficult to relearn.
"My brain knows how to write but it was not transferring to my hand," she said. "It went from scribbles to printing real badly to cursive. Everything came flooding back in that week."
Just as in her businesses life, day-to-day goals were important for her recovery. Each word, each success. Another goal was to be home for her anniversary. She made it back in time, when she and Bill returned to Walla Walla near the end of April.
When they returned to Virginia Mason in June the nurses recognized her husband not the former patient in Room 1612.
"I had my hair done, make up, normal clothes and they just didn't recognize me," she said.
How she contracted encephalitis remains a mystery.
"The doctor said I could have just been unlucky, absorbed a virus somehow, usually there's antibodies in our immune systems but somehow it snuck in there," she said, adding that she suspects a relentless schedule might also have been a factor.
"You've got to take care of yourself," she said. "I think I partly got this pushing too hard. I got run down."
After she got back home, a major goal was to get back to work.
"I thought I was well and I'd work during the day and I'd just crash at night, I was so exhausted. I learned a lot about myself," she said. "Bill was so helpful, my advocate. Everyone needs an advocate."
Frazier stayed determined for the most part.
"There was one time I was kind of down. It was dark at night in my [hospital] room. I was alone and crying. I lost my mother before Bill and I got married. My daughter Megan was going to get married the next February, I wondered if history was repeating itself. I was so sad and worried," she said.
But a nurses aide, whom Frazier recalls as a "little angel sent to me," assured her that all would be OK.
Today, she's back to working full-time and enjoying life. And a little bit wiser from experience.
"You realize without your health you can't do anything. To be healthy all these years and then out of the blue have something like that happen -- don't put off what you want to do today, do it. Do the things that are important to you at the time."