Young stroke survivor spreads the word about rehabilitation and recovery

Group at UCHealth Memorial Hospital helps support stroke patients and their families
April 14, 2017
Cynthia Joi Towner suffered a basal ganglia stroke and tells her story.
Cynthia Joi Towner’s stroke struck the basal ganglia neurons in the brain at the age of 33. She volunteers every week at UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central to talk to stroke patients about recovery and rehabilitation.

Cynthia Joi Towner taps softly on the outside of a patient’s door at UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central and asks if she can come in and tell her story.

Towner is not a formal kind of woman, but when she greets a patient who has just had a stroke, there is a reverence about her. She refers to patients as Sir or Miss, followed by their first name.

She is a member of Memorial’s Stroke Survivors Taking Aim at Recovery, a group formed last fall to provide patients and families with information on how to proceed and navigate through post-stroke rehabilitation and recovery. The splint on Towner’s hand hints that she has been down that challenging road.

At age 33, Towner, an Army wife and mother of two sons, ages 5 and 8, collapsed in her living room. She had just shampooed her son’s carpet when she started feeling weird. Her foot fell asleep, so she called her husband, who rushed home from Fort Carson. In the meantime, her then 5-year-old told a neighbor that “mommy needs help,’’ and the neighbor called 911. Her husband arrived at home, and he wasted no time driving his wife to Memorial, where neurological experts discovered a hemorrhagic stroke.

Towner half expected that one day she’d suffer a stroke. After all, her mother died of a hemorrhagic stroke at the age of 36, and her father had four strokes. Despite those challenges, there’s a light in Towner’s eyes when she speaks to patients.

“I’m just here to give you a little encouragement. Are you up for talking today or do you need a little more time. Can I share my story?’’

Recovery from stroke that struck the basal ganglia neurons in the brain

Adrienne Walsh is a stroke coordinator at Memorial who helped establish the SSTAR program to help patients and family feel supported and to connect them with community resources during their transition through the stroke recovery process.

Cynthia Joi Towner, who suffered a basal ganglia stroke at the age of 33, and tells her story of being a young stroke survivor.
Cynthia Joi Towner talks to patients about her stroke experience and what they might expect.

Four volunteers currently comprise the SSTAR program at Memorial. Volunteers are required to attend volunteer orientation and training from the SSTAR program. Volunteers help to bring unique insight to the stroke recovery process, Walsh said, and they’re there to listen and share their journey.

“My passion is really life after stroke, because not everybody gets better,’’ Walsh said. “Joi is young and her life was forever altered the day she had her stroke, but she has done things that she never thought she would do.’’

In recent months, Memorial has begun to see more acute neuro patients because the hospital offers the most advanced neuro care in southern Colorado. Memorial has hired new neuro doctors – Dr. Daniel Huddle, interventional neuro radiologist; and Dr. Shaye Moskowitz, endovascular neurosurgeon — who provide 24/7 interventional endovascular coverage.

These doctors use highly sophisticated imaging to look at the vessels in a patient’s brain to determine whether they can advance a catheter to a clot caused by an ischemic stroke and use a suction device affixed to the catheter to extract the clot, much as cardiologists do when placing a stent in the heart to open an artery. Once a clot is extracted, blood flow is restored to the brain, reducing the long-term deficits that can arise after a stroke.

Having comprehensive stroke services available in southern Colorado has resulted in an increased need for people like Towner to offer inspiration and encouragement to patients.

Towner’s stroke initially took her ability to move her left side and her speech was slurred. Her face drooped. The stroke struck in the basal ganglia neurons in the brain, which control movement, perception and judgment.

“No matter what,’’ she tells patients, “You don’t just stay in this bed like ‘Woe is me.’ Stretch your muscles. Mine tightened up so quickly …learn from me, I want you to stretch your muscles.’’

Another of her favorites that she relays to patients: “We are not handicapped, we are handicapable.’’

Towner said she gains momentum and strength when she knows she has helped someone else, like a woman she visited recently in the Intensive Care Unit.

Cynthia Joi Towner is shown with her sons, Rhylee and Javyn.
Cynthia Joi Towner with her sons Rhylee, 5, and Javyn, 8.

“She wasn’t in a happy place and by the time I left that room, she was happy and that made me happy. Having that lady in ICU tell me: ‘It was such a blessing to meet you.’  Hearing those kind of things, and knowing that I am encouraging people to keep going, it means so much,’’ Towner said.

Towner tells patients how she again learned how to walk and talk, smile and sing and that she’s a fan of old-school R & B. She tells them how her stroke has created a desire to put words to paper:


Strive is being strong enough to live. You can live still though things are real; time will heal. It’s the will to rebuild. So You had a Stroke but choose to have Strength….

Be strong enough to fight; it’s your life. Make that stroke your wife; love it, nurture it, and work with it and trust it will benefit you in the end. Forcing you to grow spiritually, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Life is not over, it’s just new, so strive for better days; don’t be blue.

Walsh said that having someone like Towner visit, is another way of letting patients know that they are not alone in their journey.

“We know that after a stroke, people are worried about their bills, jobs, and their families. Can they get it back, the life they had before?’’ Walsh said. “Joi has a way of meeting patients where they are.’’

Towner tells people straight up that her recovery wasn’t pretty at times, and she’s posted some short videos to Facebook to document her struggle. “I wasn’t ashamed of anything,’’ she said.

Despite the challenges, she said, the first day she got home from the hospital, she made nachos for her family’s dinner.

In volunteering, Towner has found she offers the gift of encouragement for people who have had a stroke. Tapping on doors and telling her story to people who have suffered a stroke, she said, is a good way to set an example for her children.

“I want to be able to teach my boys, because they saw me go through it. And they have a little PTSD because of it, so I want them to see: “You saw Mommy go through struggle but now, watch Mommy rise. So I’m showing my boys, even though you’re going through something, you’re going to help someone else because you have the power to do it. That’s kind of where I’m at.’’


About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.