Admissions coordinator, gospel choir director uses strong faith to recover from stroke

- by Michele Coffill

She sang the national anthem flawlessly hundreds of other times, at hundreds of local and professional sports events.

Yet at an October Detroit Pistons exhibition game at Van Andel Arena, Cassonya Carter Pugh found herself at center court leaning on her cane and praying she wouldn't forget the words.

She didn't. Grand Valley's gospel choir director sang the anthem perfectly; and, minutes later, the Pistons and Chicago Bulls tipped off to the cheer of a capacity crowd. Carter Pugh cheered silently to herself. It had been her first public appearance in four months, following a debilitating stroke.

"I was so glad it was over," said Carter Pugh, admissions coordinator for the Kirkhof College of Nursing. "And I had a sense of thanks. It was something I thought I would never do again. I didn't know if I would remember the words and I was just getting used to the effects of a stroke and the loss of memory."

Last June, Carter Pugh - after months of health problems - was rushed to the emergency room where doctors discovered an obstruction in her stomach and blood clots throughout her body. During surgery, they removed about 15 inches of her intestines and placed her in a medically induced coma to lower the risk of traveling blood clots.

Carter Pugh, who was 41 at that time, suffered a stroke while comatose and woke up two weeks later with paralysis on her left side.

"When they told me I was paralyzed, I didn't want to believe it. The first three days were very blurry," she said. "I tried to sit up and just started to lean over. All my functions were dead. I was so weak & had a breathing tube in, was hooked up to all types of devices and everything.

"I started praying a lot, as did my family. People from my church and former church started coming to the hospital. There were so many people, they said they had to stop them from coming up to the floor. Some people sat in the lobby."

Word spread quickly. Her pastor, Dr. Marvin Sapp, and his wife, MaLinda Sapp, organized prayer groups at her church, Lighthouse Full Life Center. Carter Pugh realized how many lives she touched when she heard that Robert S, a Grand Rapids radio personality, announced on WJNZ-AM that she needed rest and well-wishers should refrain from visiting or calling the hospital. People began to write wishes and prayers in a small, green journal that Carter Pugh now considers one of her most treasured possessions.

"I didn't see myself as affecting so many people," she said. Carter Pugh - many people call her "C.C." - has directed the gospel choir, Voices of GVSU, for nearly 20 years (first as a student) and is an active member of her church. She started working at Grand Valley in 1993.

Learning to walk and talk

Once her condition had stabilized, a small army of therapists was ready to teach her how to walk and talk. "I was going through a whole bunch of emotions," she said. "I couldn't remember phone numbers and kept asking for my planner. That really got to me.

"The hardest thing was knowing that I would have to start the whole process all over."

Carter Pugh said she was often most frustrated by the simple, mundane tasks, like sending an e-mail or applying makeup with use of only one hand. The first time she opened her laptop to type an e-mail turned into an arduous two-hour process. But she did it, and then continued to tackle tasks that most people do without second thought.

"The first time they came to get me to walk - there were two physical therapists - they helped me to the walker and I just fell straight down," Carter Pugh said. "I didn't want to try again. I told them, 'I'll be ready tomorrow,' and I just cried and prayed all night."

She and her family found that a sense of humor helped. Carter Pugh's younger cousins bucked the trend of bringing flowers to the hospital and brought what they knew would be a motivator: a pair of expensive shoes from Chicago. Carter Pugh is well-known for wearing stylish high-heel shoes. She joked that another of her nicknames is the "Black Imelda Marcos."

"I was determined to want to walk and wanted to walk in my own shoes," she said. "I told my family, 'Don't you dare give my shoes away.'"

After several weeks at Spectrum Health's Blodgett Campus, Carter Pugh was moved to Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital. She went home in August.

Her recovery continues - she uses a cane, needs to rest more frequently and said a word or thought will occasionally slip her mind - but Carter Pugh's progress has surpassed her doctors' expectations.

After four months of intensive physical, occupational and speech therapy sessions, she returned to work and resumed direction of the gospel choir in October. Her doctors told her it was too soon to go back to work, but Carter Pugh paid no heed. Her drive and faith in God pushed her forward, she said.

"Even those first few days in that hospital bed, I knew that God didn't bring me this far to leave me like this. He did this for a reason," she said.

The reason, she said, changed her outlook on life.

"I knew what my calling was in life, now I know what my purpose is. I've solidified my purpose," Carter Pugh said. "My calling was to touch people's lives and make a difference and give back as a mentor.

"My purpose now is to be that difference, by acting on what I say and how I say it. My purpose is to now represent more than just me. It's not about me, anymore; I'm representing someone else. Whatever I do I will represent Christ at all times."

A whole different ballgame

Carter Pugh has been asked to tell her remarkable story to church youth groups, women's groups and Grand Valley classes. It's one of the new roles she's taken on somewhat cautiously. Another is the role of recipient, learning to accept help from others.

"I'm very extroverted, but to have people doing things for you - when you've always been the giver - it's a different side, a whole different ballgame," she said.

Since last fall, choir members have watched Carter Pugh's physical and mental transformation. In September, Carter Pugh was driven to choir rehearsals. She would have to wait another month before doctors said she could drive herself. Phoebe James said she and other members took on extra tasks, like scheduling performances, corresponding with other universities and reserving vans for travel. The Voices of GVSU, comprised of more than 130 students, performs at about 25 events annually.

"She's very strong-willed, it was hard to get her to give up control," James said.

Past choir president Monique Hancock visited Carter Pugh in the hospital last summer. She said that while it was difficult to see her cope with temporary paralysis, Carter Pugh now serves as an inspiration.

"We're so used to seeing C.C. just going and going. I remember watching her trying to grab the phone and it just fell off the hook," said Hancock, who graduated in December. "Now I'm just thanking God. I saw her when she couldn't use her limbs - couldn't walk - and it made me realize that I take things for granted. She's really inspiring."

For her part, Carter Pugh said she's gained great strength and inspiration from the encouragement and support of choir members, her family, hospital staff, friends and co-workers. From people who brought meals and food baskets to her husband, Joseph, to those who stopped at her office to say welcome back, the sheer number of well-wishers has been staggering, she said.

"It's really been an awesome experience," she said. "It's been rewarding, humbling, but it also lets you see the true work of God."

To call a near-death experience "awesome" may sound odd, but Carter Pugh said her new outlook has made her a better wife, family member, employee, friend and person. She no longer takes relationships or day-to-day life for granted.

"I've had to learn to talk and think again. Now I know that life could be taken away in a matter of milliseconds," Carter Pugh said.

She has also realized that she did too much too soon; days filled with meetings followed by a choir rehearsal became too taxing. And while the meetings and rehearsals will continue to be scheduled, Carter Pugh has learned to plan "down time."

"I was overdoing it," she said. "I want to be effective in all areas of my life, not just at work, but mentally, physically and spiritually. I came into this running, I think, because I was afraid to face that something had happened to me."

To stay healthy, Carter Pugh watches her diet, walks at least two miles a day and remains focused on her purpose.

"For those who don't believe in the power of prayer, all they have to do is see me," she said. "Prayers for me came not only from family and friends, but from my doctors and nurses. It was awesome, to look back and see how God had all things planned and how it all played out."

Carter Pugh's nurses and doctors gave her another nickname, "Miracle Lady."  She's reminded of that daily when she puts on a small silver medallion her friend gave her when she left the hospital last summer. The inscription reads "Miracle 2005."

Page last modified July 22, 2011