As Catherine Zalewski talks on the phone, you hear her kids toddle in and out of the room where she has attempted to get some quiet. The scene is as close to normal as you can get – “Can you please go clean it up, honey? I’ll be down there in one second, I promise.” – but in Catherine’s story there’s a strange twist. The former Mrs. New Jersey pageant winner and Marlboro personal trainer’s life holds a mystery: she’s a two-time stroke survivor, and the doctors have no idea why she’s had them in the first place.
Six months after her first child, Ava, was born, Catherine was making her a bottle downstairs. But something was off.
“I thought that I was just exhausted,” she says now, remembering. “I was a new mom.”
When she tried to grasp the bottle, she couldn’t. When she tried to talk, she couldn’t. She’d lost all feeling on her left side. But she was healthy, on her way to becoming a personal trainer – so it was by her in-law’s advice, not her own instinct, that she went to the hospital.
But they couldn’t figure out what was wrong, either.
“I just wanted to know what was going on,” Catherine says now.
It was only after a CT scan, an MRI, various tests, and a hospital transfer into Manhattan that she finally got her answer.
“The doctor came in, took one look at the CT scan and the MRI, and said, ‘Oh, you had a stroke.’ Immediately,” says Catherine.
She was relieved to have an answer. But it didn’t make sense. Strokes don’t happen to healthy people. They happen to older people, or people who don’t take care of themselves – right?
“I was extremely healthy. Nobody ever thought anything could be going on with me,” she says. “It was shocking.”
The doctors attributed it to a small hole they had found in her heart. They repaired it and sent her on her way to learn how to walk and talk again. She lived in two months of inpatient rehab, in physical, occupational, and speech therapy, and an additional four months of outpatient rehab. Her first big win: “When I was able to hold my daughter unassisted for the first time after the stroke.”
“She was my reason for everything,” says Catherine, tearing up.
Ava means life in Hebrew. Her daughter and her husband, Catherine says, were what gave her life, and the motivation to get better. So, once she could move without a wheelchair, once she could stand and speak, Catherine decided to push herself more: she signed up for the 2011 Mrs. New Jersey pageant competition.
“I specifically got into the competition to force myself to get better,” Catherine says now, seven years later.
And after a stroke, months of therapy, a patched hole in her heart, and juggling new motherhood, Catherine Zalewski won.
It would make for a perfect ending if that was all there was to her story. But five years later, four months after having her second child, Jaxon, at 33, she was in the Marlboro gym in the middle of a personal training session when she had the feeling again: jumbled speech, a strange fogginess. She cancelled the session as it was happening, walked into her boss’s office, and told him what was going on, except nothing she was saying made sense. She was having another stroke.
When you talk to Catherine, a word you hear a lot is “lucky.” Her second stroke affected the entirety of her right side, which she says is lucky because if it had happened on her left side again, she might not be walking. Her boss at the Marlboro gym knew the signs of a stroke and people training at the gym were EMTs, which she says is lucky because it reduced lag time between the stroke’s signs and treatment. When she got to the hospital, the doctors knew her history and gave her tPA, a drug to be administered within the first few hours of a stroke, which she says is lucky because it made her recovery faster.
For her, the hardest part was the emotional healing she needed to do: the idea that she needs to live with the fact that she will never know why these strokes happened to her – there was no hole in her heart the second time – and therefore how to prevent them in the future.
But really, in a strange way, Catherine feels lucky because these strokes have given her an additional purpose: to help people, to act as a support system, and to raise awareness that strokes can happen to anyone, at any time.
She feels especially fortunate to be a personal trainer.
“I get to help people when they’re feeling the worst they’ve ever felt about themselves,” she says. “I get to help them feel worthy.”
She credits her own support system, both at Jersey Strong and outside of it, for her recovery and continued health. On the phone, her husband, Mark, tells her that he’s taking the kids outside so she can have some peace and quiet.
“See,” she laughs, “that’s exactly the kind of support that I need.”
We’re proud to have Catherine on the team. Come into one of our gyms to meet some of our personal trainers; stay for the support system they give you.