On Valentine’s Day in 2007, a fifth-grade girl cheered as her older brother continued to score 3-pointers at the last minute. That’s when the strong pain in her head hit.
It was unusual for her because she had never had a headache before. When she reached for her head, she knocked out one of her contacts, leading her to go to the bathroom to put it back in. From there, she does not remember much.
Madeline Ray, a sophomore from Zebulon, N.C., had just started to suffer her first hemorrhagic stroke.
“What I’ve been told is that eventually my mom came in and she found me kind of lethargic, leaning against the wall,” Madeline said. “My speech was slurred, and I remember her dragging me out of the bathroom.”
Her mother, Amy Ray, had followed her into the bathroom to make sure she was safe. A nurse at the time, it did not take long for her to realize that her daughter’s brain was causing this.
“She was lying on the bleachers with her head in my lap, and she looked up at me and mumbled, ‘Somebody call 911. I’m dying,’” Amy said.
A woman behind them dialed 911 for them. Emergency medical services showed up a few minutes later. They took her to WakeMed Health & Hospitals to try to find out the exact cause of Madeline’s behavior.
It was here they found out the stroke was caused by an arteriovenous malformation — a tangle of malformed blood vessels and arteries — near the thalamus and hypothalamus of her brain. Because of its location, doctors did not want to remove it. Doing so would have damaged healthy brain tissue.
“And so now, I live with this fear every day that it’s going to happen again, that she’s going to die, just because I know how serious her condition is,” Amy said.
‘We said goodbye’
After this stroke and losing some mobility in her left arm, Madeline thought she would not be affected by her condition any longer.
“For four solid years, I basically never thought the AVM would bother me again,” Madeline said.
But on March 23, 2011, the next stroke happened. Madeline was doing homework when she tried to turn the page in one of her textbooks and realized she could not move her arm. She called out to her mother for help.
“When she called me up there and said, ‘Mom, I can’t walk,’ it all happened very quickly. I sat down and held her in my arms. I held on to her and we called 911,” Amy said. “Madeline and I both looked at each other, and we knew, we just knew that was going to be it.
So we said goodbye, but then fortunately God didn’t see that was the right time to take her.”
And after four more strokes, the right time still has not come. On Jan. 3, 2012, she had a stroke while in class. On Feb. 9, 2012, she had a stroke while in physical therapy. On Dec. 5, 2012, she had another stroke in the same classroom as in January.
The most recent one occurred in late July 2014, a few days before she was scheduled to fly to Honduras to volunteer in an orphanage. She convinced her parents not to take her to the emergency room.
“I knew if I got scanned and even the slightest bit of blood showed up, I wouldn’t be allowed to go to Honduras, but going to this orphanage was something I felt strongly that God wanted me to do,” Madeline said.
This desire to help others is something that Kenan Bunn, a junior at Meredith College, admires. Bunn has supported Madeline since her second stroke. They got to know each other in middle school and grew closer after they started going to church together and realized their fathers knew each other.
“She always takes the strokes so well. You wouldn’t know anything was wrong with her,” Bunn said. “She’s just amazing. I remember going to see her, and they said she had a terrible day, but I didn’t know until I left and her mom told me.”
‘The perfect attitude’
Her mother, father and two brothers have been her number one fans the entire time, Madeline said. Her mother even quit her job two different times to make sure her daughter had the care she needed.
“The hardest part is knowing that even though I’m excelling right now, eventually that can stop at any moment, and I have to start over again, kind of, and re-learn how to walk, re-learn all this stuff or not be able to do anything,” Madeline said. “They never know how bad each stroke is going to be.”
But she has kept going. She set her eyes on UNC and did not look back. Even though educators suggested she not take Advanced Placement classes in high school, she insisted on taking them so she could get into UNC.
“She’s got a good attitude and a very good head on her. And like, she’s going to UNC,” Bunn said. “Most kids would’ve just kind of quit. She persevered, that’s for sure.”
Madeline used to play violin. But because she doesn’t have total control of her left arm, she had to give it up — and that hasn’t stopped her from looking for a way to play somehow.
“She continues to do therapy and all of that because she’s not one to sit around say, ‘Oh, poor, pitiful me,’” Amy said. “She has — if there’s such a thing — the perfect attitude to deal with such a life-threatening situation.”
Madeline uses humor to get through the tough times. She likes to say she’s undergone “six strokes and counting,” a reference to the TLC reality show, “19 Kids and Counting.” And with this attitude, Madeline still looks forward to what the future holds.
“I feel hopeful that one day I will be able to regain use of my left arm, whether it’s here on Earth or the full restoration when I’m in Heaven.”