WATERBURY – An Easter miracle, a Christmas miracle and a Saint Thérèse “little flower” were just a few milestones on a long road to recovery that Alicia Townsend traveled from catastrophic brain damage suffered a dozen years ago.
As recounted in To Dance in the Rain: A Mother and Daughter’s Journey of Hope and Healing, a just-released memoir by her mother, Clare Keating, Alicia was near death multiple times following brain surgery to remove a cyst in February 2002. Ms. Keating recounted these events during a book signing May 8 at St. Mary’s Hospital, where she has worked as a registered nurse in the emergency department for 30 years.
“The surgery was in the area of the cerebellum, so they removed the cyst from that area,” Ms. Keating said. “When the cyst was taken out, the area kind of re-expanded. When that happened, a clot formed in that area, and with the clot formation, a lot of pressure built up and she bled.”
The 16-year-old co-captain of Holy Cross High School’s swim team had suffered a stroke. Intracranial pressure (ICP) pushed the brain forward and downward, damaging the brain stem. She was unconscious or semiconscious for months, with “locked-in syndrome,” unable to move or communicate. At this point, many families may have quietly surrendered hope.
Not this family.
Alicia Townsend had always felt a special devotion to Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, known as the “little flower of Jesus.” Many believe that prayers to Saint Thérèse are answered by a gift of roses. When Alicia was still struggling to recover from her stroke, a friend of hers from school brought her a single rose. Her family interpreted it as a sign that their prayers would be answered.
One by one, they were.
Around Easter time in 2002, Ms. Keating tried an experiment. She tied a plastic Easter egg to a string and suspended it from an IV pole in her daughter’s room. She tied the other end of the string to Alicia’s finger and asked her if she could make the egg go up and down by moving her finger. After a few tries, she succeeded.
By December 2005, nearly four years after her surgery, Alicia had recovered many important motor skills, including speech. But she still could not swallow and had to be fed intravenously. On Dec. 23, she asked her mother if she could try eating ice cream, which should just slide down the back of the throat easily. The first spoonful was successful, and she tried another. She swallowed it. Later that day, she ate a slice of pizza.
Her medical team, Ms. Keating said, could not explain why, after three years, eight months and eight days, Alicia suddenly was able to swallow. Ms. Keating calls it the Christmas miracle.
Alicia has not made a full recovery, but she completed high school and later earned a degree in rehabiliative services from Southern Connecticut State University.
She cannot walk, and she has difficulty speaking and writing longhand; but she can type, and she is even able to swim again.
“We found ourselves to be praying a lot even when this happened, and we know that miracles happened because of that,” Ms. Keating said. “Prayer is different for me now entirely, entirely. My prayer is not as much now, ‘Please, please, please.’ My prayer is, ‘God, I give you my life today, and I accept everything that you give me.’”
She said she was never angry that the family had to endure this. “I never said, ‘Why us?’ I was devastated, devastated. It was overwhelmingly sad. There was a lot of emotion. Anger just was not one of them for me.”
Alicia attended the book discussion and told the Transcript that she didn’t wake up until mid-May 2002, about two months after her surgery. “But I remember some things, like bits and pieces of it, I guess, but it’s a bit distorted,” she said. “I wrote a chapter in the book of just things that I observed. It’s just a few pages of what I remember.”
Before her surgery, Alicia asked her family to take a lot of pictures, so she could write a book about her experience after her expected full recovery. Will she still write that book?
“Probably not,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve thought about it, but I don’t remember enough.”
Her mother remembers. And those memories were often overwhelming. She continually told herself and others that she had no idea how to handle each crisis that came up.
“I felt as though my heart was broken,” she writes in the book. “Then in a second, I let go. I talked to God, to a power greater than myself, one I had always looked to for wisdom and truth and life, and I said, ‘Lord, I give Alicia to you. If it is better for her not to live, please take her.’”
Information about the book is available at www.todanceintherain.com.