As a 19-year-old woman, there were many things Isabel Pazmino looked forward to, like getting into university and living on her own for the first time. She had the whole world in front of her and felt there was nothing she couldn’t accomplish. Then came March 2, 2008, when a simple headache altered her life forever.
The night that changed everything
It started when Isabel and her sister Gabriela were watching poker on TV and her middle sister, Ana Pazmino, was busy downloading an antivirus program for their computer. All seemed normal until Isabel started complaining she had a headache. Thinking that it was just because her sister hadn’t eaten, Ana wasn't too concerned.
Ana tried giving Isabel some food and something to help with the pain, but it didn’t seem to make a difference. Ana finally told her father, Lucio Pazmino about the growing headache.
Lucio decided it was best to call an ambulance. By the time the paramedics arrived, Isabel was unconscious and they assumed she had overdosed or was intoxicated. Lucio argued that his daughter didn't drink, smoke or do drugs and she was a healthy 19-year-old. The paramedics appeared skeptical but continued to try to wake her. Their efforts were futile, and Isabel was rushed to the hospital.
The family — who originally emigrated from Ecuador to Tennessee, where the stroke occurred, and later to Calgary — rushed to be by Isabel’s side. Upon arrival at the hospital, her family waited anxiously for news and were told that she may not even survive the night.
“That was the [most] crazy moment in my life,” Lucio said.
Isabel had suffered a stroke, which, given her young age, was surprising for the family.
In an effort to aid her recovery, doctors induced a coma, and to the family’s relief, Isabel survived.
Eight days later, the family was informed that Isabel suffered an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) — a tangle of malformed blood vessels, which bleed easily — within the brain. Her father was in complete disbelief.
“She is the last one of my daughters, so she is my baby daughter, so you can’t understand or accept,” he said.
Until Isabel awoke, nobody knew exactly how her brain function had been affected by the stroke.
“We didn’t know if she was able to talk, to breathe, to eat, to swallow, to walk, to understand. If she was able to understand English, Spanish. We had no idea,” said Gabriela.
Once doctors determined that it was safe to wake Isabel, they did so slowly. At first, she was disoriented.
“I thought I was there because I had my gallbladder taken out two weeks before the stroke,” Isabel said.
The New Normal
“As a family, we all had to work together. We all had responsibilities. We had to take care of each other also. We used to alternate because she was in the intensive care unit for about a month. Someone had to be there. We always used to make sure there was somebody there because there was only a few visitation hours,” said Ana.
The family had to put their lives on hold to help Isabel recover, including Ana — who was in school at the time — and Gabriela.
“My two daughters dedicated 100 per cent with Isabel. I dedicated myself at home with Isabel. It’s like everybody worked,” said Lucio. “This kind of problem is not possible to do with one person, and believe me it’s impossible.”
As part of the recovery, the nurses conducted small tests on Isabel to determine her awareness and ability. The tests revealed that her left side had been affected by the stroke.
Over the next three years, Isabel had to undergo crucial therapy to help her relearn how to use the left side of her body.
“For me, it was like, I’m 19, I shouldn’t be like this. It’s for old people, like why am I here, you know? It was really hard,” recalled Isabel.
“She cried during the therapy. Really cried saying ‘No, no I have a pain’ and the therapist said ‘No you have to do, you have to do, you have to try’,” said Lucio.
Had it not been for her father’s health coverage from his job, seeking treatment would have been extremely costly for the family. Once the family had reached their $1-million limit, they had to start paying for therapy out of pocket. The family then moved to Canada for access to better healthcare, as well as for Lucio’s career.
Being new to Canada, Isabel’s mother, Rocio Pazmino, was unaware of universal healthcare. Once she discovered it, she was able to help Isabel access her much-needed treatment and continue her recovery.
“She has had all the therapies possible. You can name it she had it. The speech, recreational, physical,” said Rocio.
However, waitlists sometimes made seeing specialists difficult. Isabel received letters from doctors about appointments a year in advance for some of the treatments she needed.
“There’s a lot of demand, but I cannot be more grateful,” said Rocio.
Getting Her Life Back
Once recovered, Isabel attended Mount Royal University in hopes of getting her certificate in early learning childcare and to keep her Canadian residency. But returning to school presented its own challenges.
Doctors had told Isabel that through continuous treatments, she would be able to use her left side once again, but it would never be the same.
Isabel said, “That’s just hard to hear, you know? I mean, you were completely normal before, you never had any problems, I didn’t even break a bone. I’ve never broken a bone, and so being so healthy and so active, it’s hard to like hear that I’ll never be 100 per cent back.”
Despite Isabel’s condition, she was determined to get a sense of normalcy back in her life through school, even though sometimes she would feel dizzy in the middle of class.
Apart from going back to school, Isabel had set up two other goals for herself: learning how to walk and drive again.
“When I learned to drive, and I was able to drive, it was like a relief. And it was like my dream actually, because it was like my freedom,” said Isabel.
Grieving a Loss
Her parents also had to come to grips with their new reality. Somehow, they had to remember that Isabel had changed, but inside she was still the same person they loved.
“It was hard for me because I knew her life would change and I knew things were going to be different,” said Ana.
“It’s like losing one person and having another,” Rocio realized. “You forget those social skills in a sense and you turn to be like a little child who can say anything that they want without filters, but very happy and loving, and she’s still like that.”
Lucio shared the same feelings.
“We believe in God, and I remember I said ‘God why not me? I’m old. Why my baby?’ It was difficult to accept, very difficult.”
When talking about their daughter’s future, Lucio and Rocio are optimistic.
“Our hope now is that she can live independently because at the end she’s going to be by herself,” said Rocio.
Isabel believes that there could be more improvement in making the public aware of what happens during a stroke, as well as some of the causes and triggers.
Isabel is proud of how far she has come, and how much all her hard work has paid off. As she walks down the street, a casual observer would never know that she had a stroke.
“I’ve learned that I am really strong and determined — things that I maybe didn’t realize before, it’s really nice to know that ‘yeah I am really strong’.”
For additional information on Isabel’s story, as well as content about identifying strokes and ongoing medical developments, please visit
- By Sarah Harrower