How a medical emergency turned an Illinois couple’s life upside down
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. (WMBD) – Dec. 16, 2021, was supposed to be a normal night for East Peoria’s Ame Nunamaker, but instead, It became her worst nightmare.
She thought Derek, her husband, was talking in his sleep late at night, Dec. 16. Since then, she’s been in the hospital, over the holidays and the new year, hoping for her husband’s full recovery.
‘I’m calling 911’
“He was very urgently waking me up, and I asked him what was wrong and his speech was kind of garbled, and kind of gibberish,” Ame said about her husband, Derek.
She also noticed his arm was not moving as well as it normally does.
“I said I was going to call 911, and he says ‘no, wait.’ Then he started to sit up,” she said. “I’m pretty sure he was going to say ‘I think I’m okay,’ but what came out was ‘I sneak,’ and I said ‘I’m calling 911.’”
Luckily, Ame knew Derek was showing signs of a stroke. He was taken to OSF HealthCare St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, immediately given a blood thinner, and taken in for a CT scan. Ame said they found a clot in his brain.
“It was too deep for them to go in safely without causing any more kind of damage,” she said. “They were going to just observe it, and use blood thinners.”
That plan of action changed quickly after his condition worsened significantly, and Derek was life-flighted to OSF St. Joseph Medical Center in Bloomington for brain surgery.
“Unfortunately, the surgery took too long, because there was so much going on, that parts of the brain did die,” Ame said.
Derek is likely to have some brain deficits, but Ame said it could take up to two years to fully understand the extent of the damage.
Because of a neck dissection, or internal tear, his carotid artery collapsed during surgery. Doctors warned this could lead to brain swelling, and advised a second brain surgery.
After removing the left side of his cranium, doctors told Ame his brain had already started to swell.
“We absolutely made the right choice,” Ame said.
After two hospitals and two brain surgeries, Derek started to stabilize.
‘Christmas Eve, he was able to walk’
Twelve hours after the initial 911 call, Ame found a way to communicate with her husband.
“He was squeezing our hands, knowing we were there,” Ame said. “And it was a very purposeful, attentive squeezing, so it was awesome. And then I got him to start responding to yes/no questions with one finger for yes, two fingers for no, and the surgeons were ecstatic. Because he understood speech, and he was able to respond just after two major brain surgeries.”
The medical staff still warned Ame that even though things were looking positive, they were not out of the woods yet.
“There was a huge chance he wasn’t going to make it,” Ame said.
She said he gets frustrated trying to speak, and it is hard for him not to be able to communicate like he used to.
“Just seeing my husband who is so independent and so capable of everything… seeing him so vulnerable and dependent, it’s– I don’t even have the word for it. It’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through,” Ame said.
Derek, a physical therapist at OSF HealthCare St. Francis Medical Center, was now in physical therapy himself, working on his motor skills.
“Christmas Eve, he was able to walk,” Ame said. “The first time he said ‘I love you,’ of course, there were tears.”
A very real danger
The Nunamakers faced a major setback when doctors discovered more blood clots throughout Derek’s lungs. He also had two blood clots in his right leg.
He was given another blood thinner but suffered a brain hemorrhage as a side effect.
As of Jan. 5, Derek is continuing to get stronger, more mobile, and better at communicating. For Ame and the rest of the Nunamaker’s loved ones, it’s a waiting game, wondering how Derek will fare with each neurological exam and each scan.
“There is a very real danger of one of the blood clots being fatal,” she said.
What causes a stroke?
Kelly Kratschmer is a Family Nurse Practitioner at OSF St. Joseph’s, and she has a master’s in science and nursing and is board certified. She said while strokes are more common among elderly patients, no one is invincible.
“Strokes in the younger population are uncommon, however, they can happen to everybody,” she said.
She said a multitude of things can cause a stroke, but some main triggers are high cholesterol, diabetes, and cardiovascular issues.
What are the signs of a stroke?
Kratschmer also outlined the biggest warning signs of strokes with a single acronym.
“There’s an acronym for that, and it’s called fast– F-A-S-T. F stands for facial drooping. A is for arms; arm weakness, or arm deficit between one side to the other. S meaning speech, which could be speech difficulty or speech slurring. And T means time. Time to call for help, time to call 911, and also time of ‘last normal,’ when was the last time you saw the patient at their baseline.”
“My husband is never sick. He’s only had maybe a mild cold here and there and seeing him like this, I can’t even explain. My heart was breaking. It’s just pure fear, every day, every minute,” Ame said.
Most recently, Ame said medical officials need to check on Derek’s liver for clots as soon as possible.
The pair is not working right now as Ame works to assist Derek with his health journey. A GoFundMe has been set up in their name. Find it here.
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