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Struck down by stroke, but not for long

By: Susan Belknap, Special to The Placer Herald
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Imagine being 44 years old, in prime athletic condition and having a stroke. That’s exactly what happened to Rocklin resident Donna von Rajcs five years ago when she was struck with a headache, vertigo and a ringing in her ear unlike no other she had ever experienced. von Rajcs’ health journey began about a month after she completed her second marathon when she experienced what she thought was a bad case of the flu. “I remember it was warm that day and my family was in the backyard barbecuing,” she said. “All I wanted to do was lay down on the tile of my kitchen where it was cool.” Three days later she was convinced to see a doctor when her husband noticed she was slurring her words. “The doctors discovered I had a large tumor on the heart,” said von Rajcs, mother to two teenage boys. “It was a lot to deal with. I was in shock. Of course I was relieved they pinpointed the cause, but was scared when they told me I had to have open heart surgery as soon as possible.” Even though von Rajcs said she did not have any family history of heart disease, she did recall that she didn’t have all her energy she was used to each day a few months prior to her stroke. “In hindsight, I also remember I was short of breath on several occasions,” she said. After several months of cardio rehabilitation, speech, physical and occupational therapy, von Rajcs’ health is good. She recently participated in the Run for the Hungry in Sacramento. Because of the health emergency she went through, von Rajcs wants to help get the word out to others about the warning signs of stroke. Throughout the month of February, which is designated as American Heart Month, von Rajcs is participating in a traveling exhibit called the Survivors Gallery, sponsored by Rocklin-based Horizon West Healthcare and the Sacramento chapter of the American Heart Association. The exhibit consists of the photos and health stories of six local people who have undergone extreme health emergencies related to their hearts. Even though it’s been a few years since von Rajcs was a heart patient, she said she will never forget the support of her family and friends during her health crisis. Friends like Therese Whalen, who von Rajcs has been close to for the past 10 years. Whalen, who also lives in Rocklin and is a mother of three, was diagnosed with breast cancer in September, 2009. von Rajcs is now providing her friend with all the support she needs, just as Whalen did for her five years ago. ”Our two families have been extremely close,” Whalen said. “We’ve been on camping and skiing trips and spend lots of time together.” Whalen said she was 46 years old at the time of her diagnosis and she had no family history or risk factors for the disease. She is currently undergoing oral chemotherapy and said she is feeling good. “I think through all that we’ve both experienced, there’s lots to be learned,” Whalen said. “We both are truly grateful for what we have and we don’t take life as seriously.” von Rajcs agreed and said that being a mom it’s especially difficult to get sick. “We’re always the ones looking after everyone else,” von Rajcs said. “But I think all of our kids have learned to be able to handle what life throws at you because of what we’ve both been through.” Susan Belknap is a spokeswoman for Horizon West Healthcare.