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Woman finds hope after husband's stroke at 35,000 feet

By: Allison Klein, The Washington Post
May 15, 2018 Updated: May 15, 2018 at 3:56 pm
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Allison Pataki and her husband, Dave Levy. MUST CREDIT: Courtesy of Beatrice Copeland.

Allison Pataki was pregnant. She and her husband were on an airplane in June 2015, heading to Seattle for a "babymoon" - a vacation before the little one arrived.

Dave Levy leaned over and asked his wife if his eye looked strange. Pataki looked up. She watched as her 30-year-old husband had a stroke and lost consciousness while they were 35,000 feet in the air.

The plane made an emergency landing in Fargo, N.D., and Pataki spent the night in a hospital waiting area while doctors worked on her husband. She didn't know if he'd ever wake up.

Levy, then a third-year resident in orthopedic surgery, did wake up, but he initially couldn't speak or recognize his wife.

His hard-fought recovery is the basis for Pataki's new book, "Beauty in the Broken Places," a memoir about their determination and gratitude, and the value of putting one foot in front of another during a crisis.

When Levy regained consciousness, he couldn't do anything on his own, even breathe, said Pataki, daughter of former New York Gov. George Pataki, a Republican presidential candidate.

"We had to start from ground zero. When he woke up, he was less functional than a newborn baby," said Pataki, 33. "He had to learn to do everything again."

She moved him to a hospital in Chicago, near their home, and the incremental healing began. First he could open his eyes, but he couldn't move them side to side. He had to swivel his head. He could talk, but his words didn't make sense.

Why an otherwise healthy, athletic man had a stroke wasn't certain. Doctors could not tell them what to expect in Levy's recovery.

To cope with the stress and uncertainty, Pataki wrote letters to her husband daily.

"I was so close to the situation every day," she said. "People told me, 'You won't see the hard-fought progress day to day unless you write it down.'"

And she found herself reading about her husband as much as she was writing.

"People were flooding us with these emails, cards, text messages, letters. So many of them were memories of Dave - small things he'd done for a friend that changed the friend's life. Or how they'd always looked up to him. They were these poignant, heartfelt stories of Dave," she said. "I fell in love with the man I married all over again."

But, she said, "It broke my heart because I didn't know if that man still was there."

Then Lily was born, and Pataki was caring for a newborn and her husband. She said she's not sure how she managed the logistical and emotional hurdle, holding so much love and grief in her heart at once.

The book recounts how she once called a confidante and said she no longer wanted to be married to her husband. The friend talked her off the ledge.

"Our union and our partnership was stripped to the fundamentals, I didn't realize we'd be reckoning with those values so soon in our marriage - sickness and health, better and worse," she said. "We were in the fight of our lives. We were doing this for our past, were fighting for our future together."

As Levy recovered, their relationship regained its footing. Now, almost three years after his stroke, Levy is basically back to who he was before.

Maybe more laid-back, Pataki said. He's working full time as a medical consultant, and he takes outsized joy in his family, especially Lily.

"If you talk to him or you see him, you'd never know," Pataki said.

She credits her faith, hope and old-fashioned determination with getting her through the hardest days. And in their most profound display of hope, they are expecting another baby in June.

Over the past few years, Pataki said, she's felt as if she was in perpetual motion and has had little time to reflect. The book helped her do that. Along the way, she said, she's learned that control is an illusion.

"I have a sense that things can shift in the blink of an eye," she said. "I have that outlook of appreciating the good moments."

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