Like many people in the world, Andee Poulos suffered a few headaches when she was in her early teens. And, like many people in the world, she didn’t seem to think that they were anything unusual. However, one day, almost entirely out of the blue, Andee became catatonic – and it would be months before she would become responsive again.
It all happened very suddenly one January evening back in 2011. On the way home from swim practice, Andee complained that she didn’t feel well. Shockingly, though, by the time she and her mom Lyn had arrived home, Andee couldn’t talk or walk.
Of course, Lyn immediately contacted her pediatrician. At the time, the doctor was confident that this was nothing more serious than a migraine, but he referred Andee to the hospital for a checkup nonetheless. It was just as well, too, because that’s when they all learned that it was, in fact, something far more serious.
The tests concluded that Andee had had a rare brain defect from birth, and it was called a arteriovenous malformation (AVM). In short, this means that the veins and arteries in her brain were weakly connected.
And that January night, one of those connections ruptured. In fact, Andee wasn’t just suffering from a migraine; she was having a stroke at just 14 years of age.
“I knew it was bad when I walked into the operating room,” her dad John told MCT News Service. Andee had been rushed into surgery so that the doctors could insert an external drain and remove the blood that was pooling between her brain and her skull. “Being in that OR room with Andee being ventilated and all really hit me hard,” John added.
Of course, the procedure was necessary. After all, if left untreated, the bleeding could have built up pressure that may have bruised the brain or, worse, caused another stroke – one that might have permanently disabled or even killed Andee. But even with the rapid and successful treatment, the young teenager had years of recovery in front of her.
Prior to the incident, Andee had been active in sports and at the top of her class for grades. She was an eighth grader at Atlanta’s Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School, where she had attended since pre-school, and she loved swimming, softball, singing and shopping. Now, however, Andee was fighting for her life.
After the bleed was drained, Andee’s condition was monitored overnight. Then, two days later, she was transferred to another hospital, where she underwent surgery for six hours before spending more than a month in intensive care. During all this time, Andee relied on doctors and machines for everything, including helping her breathe.
Indeed, the injury left Andee unable to move, talk or eat on her own. And while she did master breathing on her own by April, she would need years of physiotherapy for the rest of the activities that most people take for granted.
Not only were her physical limitations holding Andee back, but her personality also seemed to have changed, too. In fact, the once outgoing and friendly young lady suddenly didn’t seem to want anyone near her. “She was resisting anybody being in her space,” her dad told the Shepherd Center.
Though progress was slow, Andee eventually was released from the hospital care to return home and continue physical therapy there. But instead of getting better, Andee only got worse.
So in June 2011, a hospital in Houston offered to treat Andee with behavioral therapy as well as the traditional rehab she had been receiving. For the next five months, then, Andee’s parents would take turns visiting their daughter in Houston and looking after their seven-year-old son George.
Then, after trying their hand in Houston, Andee’s parents found out about even more specialized help in Boston. So from April to June 2012, John and Lyn again took turns commuting, and Andee received therapeutic treatments that included magnetic brain stimulation. Finally, in June 2012, a year and a half after her stroke, Andee began to nod her head and respond vocally.
“[She wasn’t] talking or crying – maybe screaming, but no tears or facial expressions. I said, ‘Andee, I’m just trying to figure out if you understand me. What’s one plus one?’ and she held up two fingers,” Lyn recalled. The questions got harder, but the answers still came.
And so, the long struggle to bring their daughter back began to show promise. It wasn’t always easy, but when the going was tough, nurses reminded Andee of her ultimate goal: to return to school.
Indeed, Andee had turned a corner; her learning progress improved rapidly, and she was able to return to school in the fall of 2013. Fortunately, Andee herself has no recollection of her illness or rehabilitation. She told Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, “I felt like I’d been asleep for a long time, and then I woke up almost two and a half years later.”
What’s more, while Andee was going through rehabilitation, her friends wanted to do something to help her. So they formed what they called “Andee’s Army” and attempted to raise money to help her family pay for her hospital bills. Today, though, the goals of the group have changed. It states that “with the same steadfast resolve as Andee, [the group works to] identify and help families of children with non-traumatic brain injuries” in need of financial assistance.
In fact, Andee’s Army has, as of 2016, raised around $1.3 million through charity runs, bake sales and other fundraising events. Recently, meanwhile, Andee herself was awarded recognition as one of four Atlanta Braves Community Heroes honorees.
Her dad recalled, “Doctors told us she’d never walk again, or talk again, or go to school again. Now she’s a straight A student.” In fact, Andee is starting her senior year in high school and expects to go to college after graduation – a feat that seemed all but impossible just a few years ago.