By Jill Harmacinski
LAWRENCE — In the first hours after Susan Cuddy Couture suffered a stroke last year, she knew who her husband and her mother were. She could say her children's names. It was almost as if it wasn't happening. Maybe the doctors were wrong.
But as days went by and the swelling in Susan's brain progressed, the damage slowly spread, erasing her ability to speak and move. While the outside of her was dulled, the mind of the 46-year-old brunette with the sparkly blue eyes and the giant smile was working just fine.
"I was just a total emotional wreck," said Joseph Couture, Susan's husband of 25 years. "We were hoping that in a week she'd just get up and go home."
It took months, but Susan did eventually make it home. Her life is now a constant schedule of physical and occupational therapies, guided exercises, and visits from family and friends.
Susan, the nice lady who liked to decorate cakes, coach cheerleading and take motorcycle rides, is the epicenter of a South Lawrence family that simply has refused to give up hope.
"It's hard. Every day is hard," Joseph said. "But we are going to get through it together. We are ready to hit this head on."
A difficult diagnosis
On May 4, 2009, Susan was working at Shaw's in Beverly, where she was the bakery manager. She collapsed at work and was rushed to Beverly Hospital, where doctors found an aneurism in her brain. She was transferred to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and doctors there found four more aneurisms.
It was a tough diagnosis, as Susan's father, James Cuddy, had died of a brain aneurism in 1988. But her prognosis was good, and Susan decided to schedule surgery for July 8 — after her son Jonathan's graduation from Central Catholic High School in Lawrence.
"There was no emergency to get her in," Joseph said. "She still went to work in the bakery. We were out riding on the motorcycle ... She had never had any health problems."
Before going in for surgery, Susan made a point to spend time with her children — Jonathan and daughter Brittany, 22, a hairstylist at Nova Salon in North Andover.
"I remember she kept saying to me, 'I'll see you Friday,'" Brittany said.
On the day of the surgery, Joseph and his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Cuddy, went with Susan into Boston. But nothing could have prepared them for the day they would face.
As a surgeon went to clip an aneurism in her brain, Susan started bleeding severely and then suffered a stroke. Doctors warned her family that it would take a week for the swelling in Susan's brain to peak. And when it did, she would slip into a coma.
A long road to recovery
When Susan arrived at Northeast Rehabilitation Hospital in Salem, N.H. last summer, she was conscious and aware, but completely dependent because she couldn't speak or move. The stroke had also left her unable to fully open her eyes.
But not a minute was wasted. She was immediately immersed into what her daughter Brittany described as "the most amazing, careful, tremendous and unbelievable" course of treatment.
Therapists constantly moved and manipulated her body. Slowly, she was able to start moving the right side of her body on her own. Her head strength also began to improve.
"There were up and down points where she didn't want to do anything," Brittany said. "But even when she was like a rag doll, they were still pushing her to take part in therapy."
In therapy, everything was seen as a task. If someone was helping Susan wash up, she was also given a wash cloth. Even if she just reached one little spot on her face, it was still considered progress, Brittany said.
Thomas Cuddy, Susan's younger brother, said watching his sister's recovery has been "like watching a child learn to walk."
"You're looking for anything — a word out of her mouth or a blink," he said.
One day late last fall, Susan reached a major milestone; she fully opened her left eye.
"I thought I was going to die," said Brittany, who raced to call her brother, who was attending college in Orlando, Fla.
When Jonathan came home from school last November, he was amazed.
"I couldn't believe the improvement," he said.
Susan was now able to signal to her family by giving a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down," Joseph said. By December, she was nodding, saying "Yes" and "No" and speaking names.
By then, Northeast Rehab staffers had become part of the Couture family.
"They couldn't wait for us to get in the building and tell us about her progress," Brittany said.
One of six children, Susan was rarely without visitors. In fact, she had so much company that family members sometimes got irritated that they couldn't spend time alone with her.
Before the surgery, Susan made a point of telling Jonathan that no matter what happened, she wanted him to go to college in Florida.
But the days away took their toll on Jonathan. One day while in Orlando, he heard another student talking in a frustrated tone to his mother on the phone.
"The kid said, 'Mom, I gotta get off the phone,'" Jonathan recalled. "I thought, 'I'd give anything to be on the phone ... Even just to hear a simple hello.'"
When he returned home for winter break, Jonathan decided to stay in Lawrence and enroll at Northern Essex Community College.
While many play a part in Susan's recovery, by all accounts, Joseph's entire life is devoted to his wife.
"It's one of those things that makes your wedding vows pretty clear," said Bill Blanchette, a family friend.
Susan's brother, Thomas Cuddy, said he always knew Joseph was a great guy. "But he really stepped up," he said, tears welling in his eyes. "He brought it to a whole new level."
Doing battle with the health insurance provider has been a big part of Joseph's role. Susan's provider originally wanted to send her to a rehabilitation center in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. But he fought to keep her at Northeast Rehab.
Still, she couldn't stay there forever, and this winter she was transferred to the Wingate Nursing Home in Andover. The care there was wonderful, but Susan's access to therapy was seriously diminished, and her family feared she was regressing.
Emotionally, Susan was having a hard time. She didn't want to live in a nursing home, and cried daily and begged her family to bring her home.
First, there was work to be done.
In only a week's time, family and friends created a handicapped accessible bathroom and a therapy room for Susan. Ramps and railings were attached to the house. And they found a handicapped accessible van.
A series of fundraisers were also organized to offset the cost of the renovations and Susan's ongoing care.
On March 24, Susan finally came home.
Hope for the future
Every night, Brittany writes out her mother's schedule for the next day. Therapists and personal care attendants visit their Hale Street home on a regular basis. Whenever there is a gap, the family jumps in.
"We are doing a lot of the care," Brittany said.
Today, for Mother's Day, Susan is doing what she always does. All of the girls — her daughter, sisters, sisters-in-law and mother — head to the Hungry Traveler in Salisbury to eat. Later, they'll meet up with the guys.
"We are trying to do things as we normally would," Joseph said.
The family admits that life is different, and much harder, but it is their life now. And they will do whatever it takes to help Susan.
A self-described "fixer," Brittany said it was hard for her to accept that she couldn't repair her mother overnight. She now knows she can make her mom's life comfortable and fulfilling in so many ways.
Already, Susan's speech and mobility have greatly improved, and she's able to better communicate her wants and needs to her family.
The doctors are unsure how much more she might improve. But her family will never give up hope.
"Mom, I love you more and more everyday," Brittany wrote on her Facebook page. "Keep fighting."
How to help
Fundraisers are planned to help Susan Cuddy Couture, a 1981 Lawrence High School graduate, in her recovery.
A golf tournament is planned for Monday, June 21. For more information, contact Bill Blanchette at email@example.com, or 978-423-0321. A Cut-a-thon will be held on Sunday, June 27, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., at Nova Salon, 595 Chickering Road (Route 125), North Andover.
For more information on upcoming events and how to make a donation, check out www.sayoneforsusie.com or e-mail Brittany Couture at firstname.lastname@example.org.