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River Forest stroke survivor on the comeback trail

Liz Coughlin, stroke survivor, at DePaul University where she worked before her stroke. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Liz Coughlin awoke one morning in early December 2012 and instantly knew something was terribly wrong: The right side of her body felt as though it were being pulled down by a great weight.

“I went right into survival mode, suppressing any panic and realizing I have a very serious problem here and that I have to get to the hospital,” said Coughlin, 62, an administrator at DePaul University for many years before retiring in August 2016.

At Rush University Medical Center, Coughlin and her husband, Terry Kennedy, got the diagnosis they’d suspected: stroke. She spent 11 days at the medical center, although her recovery was just beginning.

Some 4 1/2 years later, Coughlin is getting set to take part in Comeback Trail-Chicago, a 5K run/walk put on by the National Stroke Association to raise awareness about the condition. Similar events are being held in five other cities across the country this year, although this is the first time for Chicago. Every year, about 800,000 people across the the United States have a stroke — about one every 40 seconds, according to the stroke association.

Coughlin was a prime candidate for a stroke. She smoked, had high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and she was a workaholic.

“I was never in denial that there were consequences to smoking and working hard,” she said. “It was always on my to-do list to stop and take care of myself.”

But Coughlin was luckier than many who’ve suffered a stroke. She never lost her ability to speak, and even though she initially needed help, she could still walk.

“A stroke can kill, and it often does,” she said. “I was grateful that my stroke was not devastating.”

Nevertheless, some of the most basic tasks had to be relearned. Before the stroke, she typed 120 words a minute; after, about 12. Bending down to pick up something off the floor required an effort that was “unreal,” Coughlin said.

She also didn’t quite understand how long her recovery would take. She assumed she’d be back at work just a few weeks after her stroke. She finally returned to DePaul five months later.

Last year, she was well enough to take part in New York’s Comeback Trail.

“The walk was wonderful. The weather was absolutely terrible, but in a perverse way that made it even better,” she said. “We were all huddled together, bracing against the wind and walking through the rain. … It was almost a physical metaphor for our journey of recovery.”

The Chicago walk is set for Saturday, June 3, following the lakefront trail from the DuSable Harbor to the Shedd Aquarium and back again. Some participants are expected to walk, others run, some will come in wheelchairs and still others may only make it 100 yards or so.

“If that’s meaningful to them, we absolutely encourage them to come out,” said Betsy Hailstone, the stroke association’s manager of special events.

For more information, go to comebacktrail.org.