Erika Yourkiewicz’s formal title is post-acute care coordinator for stroke at Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center. The stroke survivors who are forever thankful for her support have their own job description.
“She’s a godsend,” Michael Erwin says.
He ought to know. One Sunday morning in 2017, as Erwin and his wife, Jennifer, were deciding who would take the first shower before church, he fell back onto the bed. His right side went numb. At 57, he had suffered a stroke. At first, his life hung in the balance. Then doctors said he might never again walk, talk or regain the use of his right side.
Erwin says he’s at two out of three and counting. He’s walking and talking. His right arm is still a work in progress. He’s grateful to his wife for immediately calling 911, the medical team for taking care of him, and Yourkiewicz for helping him and others survive and flourish.
“She does more to promote wellness for stroke survivors than anybody I know,” Erwin says. “Erika is probably the most major stroke advocate in North Carolina, if not other places.”
Says Yourkiewicz: “My personal mission is simple: just making people feel supported. I just don’t want people to feel lost.”
Stroke survivor Michael Erwin and his wife, Jennifer, of Wake Forest, NC, cofounded BELIEVE – Stroke Recovery Foundation. The nonprofit provides stroke and brain injury survivors with financial assistance for continued therapy. The Erwins are helping plan Step Out With Stroke Warriors, a free family-friendly event to share resources and promote independence for stroke and brain injury survivors. It’s from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, May 14, at E. Carroll Joyner Park in Wake Forest. Visit www.BelieveSRF.org.
Fight. Believe. Recover.
May is National Stroke Awareness Month, focusing attention on an affliction that strikes more than 795,000 Americans each year. A stroke results from a lack of blood flow to the brain. Symptoms are sudden and include weakness or numbness of face and/or limbs, difficulty speaking or comprehending and change in vision. One in three Americans have at least one of the conditions or habits that can contribute to a stroke: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes and obesity.
In 2020, 1,200 stroke patients turned to Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center for medical care and the counsel and assistance that follows. New Hanover is a comprehensive stroke center and serves the rural, often impoverished counties near Wilmington in eastern North Carolina. As her formal title implies, Yourkiewicz and her team enter the survivor’s life after the stroke. Whether it’s the nine-year-old girl whose stroke came out of the blue (you’ll meet her later) or centenarians in fragile health, their mission is to help survivors knit their lives back together.
“You’re taking care of patients and helping them get back to a livable life,” Yourkiewicz says. “This is my cup of tea.”
Yourkiewicz, 45, has been at New Hanover for 18 years, the last four in her current position. The heart of her work begins after a stroke survivor goes home from the hospital or to rehab, in either case to tackle physical, speech and occupational therapy. The uncertainty they feel, the details that can overwhelm them – this is where Yourkiewicz comes in.
“We’ve got this.”
Find the care you need in seconds.
In a typical week, she’ll reach out to a dozen survivors by phone She will go over medications, help with insurance forms, answer questions about blood pressure and other health-related matters, help coordinate appointments and arrange rides if necessary.
Yourkiewicz oversees the stroke support group that meets monthly in person or via Zoom. Meeting online means the group can reach people from farther away. But, she says, “I’m a hugger and I miss hugging.” Twenty-five or so survivors and caregivers come together to share successes and frustrations, and to affirm the creed they live by: Fight. Believe. Recover. “It’s very gratifying to understand that you’re not alone,” says Michael Erwin, who’s been in the support group for two years. “It’s great camaraderie.”
Yourkiewicz also runs an aphasia support group for those dealing with the brain disorder that affects how you speak, write and comprehend. The group, now at about a dozen members, aims to meet weekly. Actor Bruce Willis recently revealed that he suffers from aphasia, bringing valuable attention to the disease.
In late 2019, she helped organize a “Retreat & Refresh Stroke Camp” attended by 20 survivors, caregivers and volunteers. At no cost, Azalea Limousine Service chauffeured participants to Rockfish Camp and Retreat Center outside Fayetteville. The weekend featured skits, trivia and a hayride, reminding participants that life goes on after a stroke, sometimes with a deeper sense of gratitude.
“Every time I feel a little bit bad,” Erwin says, “I thank God for giving me a second chance to watch my grandson grow up, my son grow up.”
Says Yourkiewicz, “You keep moving. You keep recovering. You change your life. You adapt.” She hopes to hold another camp in 2023 when COVID-19 is behind us. Like the first one, it will include Pamper Day. “It was hilarious watching these burly men enjoy a manicure and massage,” she says.
Offering friendship, comfort and more
MacKenzie Armstrong is 11. She was nine when she had her stroke.
It came out of nowhere on Nov. 10, 2019. It was a Sunday morning. She was at her grandmother’s house outside Wilmington. She had just gotten out of the shower and was dressing for church when her left side went numb from head to toe. Her face drooped. She couldn’t move her arms or legs. She could talk but made no sense.
“I thought I was going to die,” MacKenzie says.
MacKenzie’s mom, Taleshia Henry, recognized the symptoms of a textbook stroke. The realization consumed her with guilt. A perfectly healthy nine-year-old having a stroke? “I‘m a horrible mother,” Henry recalls thinking.
MacKenzie’s grandmother and aunt, who was also there, sat her in a chair and called Henry and 911. Much of what Henry learned about MacKenzie’s symptoms and the urgency of calling 911 she learned from Yourkiewicz during the 18 years Henry worked as a lab technician at New Hanover. The ambulance rushed MacKenzie to Novant Health Pender Medical Center. Then she was airlifted to New Hanover Regional Medical Center (her first helicopter ride) and spent a week in pediatric ICU. Then she spent several weeks rehabbing at WakeMed in Raleigh.
Yourkiewicz was there every step of the way, explaining to MacKenzie what was happening in terms she could understand, and comforting Henry with helpful information. And love. Henry nearly runs out of words describing Yourkiewicz’s role in her family’s story. Devoted ally. Friend. Mental health advocate. Recovery coach “even when I lost my sense,” as Henry recalls. Since the ordeal took the family through Christmas, Yourkiewicz’s team took care of gifts for MacKenzie (a camera) and her sister.
MacKenzie is now home, 100% recovered. She’s in fifth grade, playing kickball and sleeping as much as her mom and grandmother will allow. She is, after all, approaching the teen years. She thinks about the stroke sometimes but says she isn’t afraid.
MacKenzie’s story ends where all stroke victims hope their story ends, where Yourkiewicz works to make it so. It ends with MacKenzie’s mom saying, “If you look at MacKenzie now, you’d have never guessed in a million years.”
Top photo: Erika Yourkiewicz (standing on the right in blue scrubs) regularly meets with her stroke support group patients on the coast of North Carolina.
BE FAST when it comes to possible stroke
- B: Is the person suddenly struggling with balance or coordination?
- E: Is the person suddenly experiencing blurred or double vision or loss of vision in one or both eyes?
- F: Face: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
- A: Arms: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
- S: Speech: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is the speech slurred or strange?
- T: Time: If you see any of these signs, call 911 right away.