11:45 AM

Student, 47, a Stroke Survivor with Plans to Pay it Forward

antigua johnson1Antigua Johnson, 47, a determined mom and UHD undergraduate, has a special motive for educating and encouraging others during National Stroke Awareness Month - she overcame her own debilitating stroke at age 40, and is on a mission to support others with the same diagnosis.

At the time of her stroke, Johnson had served three years in the Navy Reserves and was an avid runner and kickboxer. In addition to having no family history of stroke, she did not smoke or drink and had low cholesterol and blood pressure levels. A life-changing stroke was furthest from her mind.

When her stroke symptoms first presented, she thought she might have the flu. She then developed an excruciating headache with slurred speech, and her boyfriend noticed that the left side of her face was drooping. He asked her to lift her left arm and leg, and Johnson realized the left side of her body was paralyzed. When they arrived at the hospital, Johnson learned that she had experienced a massive stroke.

"Stroke can happen to anyone and, contrary to what many people think, young people are not immune," said Johnson. "Throughout my own journey in relearning to walk, brush my teeth and live independently, I found my true calling - starting a non-profit that will support other stroke survivors from the time they enter the hospital until they've healed enough to pay their own success forward."

Johnson already has decided on a name for the organization, an acronym for STROKE, called "Success Together Raising Our Kind Everyday." She aims to incorporate essential stroke recovery elements of homecare, transportation and encouragement in her non-profit and looks forward to possibly attending law school to help further her dream.

Following her stroke, Johnson spent four months in a hospital in Ohio with extensive daily physical, occupational and speech therapy, including re-teaching herself to notice text on the left side of the page while reading. She and her two sons, aged 15 and 22 at the time, moved in with her mother for six months until she could live independently. Shortly thereafter, the family moved to Houston and Johnson decided to return to school to complete her bachelor's degree in business management.

UHD's compact campus and downtown location appealed to Johnson and she enrolled in spring 2009. "My professors have been so accommodating and there are always students helping me zip my backpack or prepare for a test.

"It takes me a little longer to grasp class material, but that's OK," said Johnson. "I'm the first to ask my professors questions after class and I spend so much time in the math lab, people think I work there!" A fellow student also serves as Johnson's scribe for one or more classes a semester to help her capture all the material.

Remnants of Johnson's stroke still remain, as she wears a brace on her left leg to keep from hyperextending her knee, a brace on her left hand to straighten her fingers, and a surgically implanted medicine pump to reduce spasticity. But her optimistic attitude and ready smile more than overshadow her slight limp as she travels from class to class.

"Antigua is one of the most hardworking, determined students I've ever taught," said Susan Beane, lecturer in UHD's Department of Mathematics and Statistics. "She has spent hours with me - working one-on-one - to ensure that she masters the material. And when she couldn't make my 7 a.m. class because of travel complications getting to campus, she was always diligent in making up the class as quickly as possible. She is always willing to do whatever it takes to become successful and is a true inspiration for her fellow classmates."

Johnson makes appointments each day with METRO Lift to take her to and from campus, trips that can often take several hours, depending on the number of fellow passengers. While this process can be arduous, it also proved to be life-changing for Johnson late one evening following class. When her METRO Lift driver, Olander Ellis Jr., picked her up from campus, they struck up a conversation that developed into a friendship. And six months later, the two married at City Hall. "That night, I not only found a ride, but my husband, too!" said Johnson.

"I believe that God has set me up to mentor and enlighten stroke survivors who come after me," she said. "Now that I've overcome these obstacles, I feel it's my mission to help others stay determined and find their own independence following stroke, just like I've been able to do."

UHD undergraduate Antigua Johnson (right) participates in a Buffalo Bayou clean-up project near campus. UHD undergraduate Antigua Johnson (right) participates in a Buffalo Bayou clean-up project near campus.