Allison Pataki and her husband, Dave Levy. (Photo courtesy BEATRICE COPELAND)

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

  • Apr. 28, 2018 6:00 a.m.

Allison Pataki was pregnant. She and her husband were on an airplane in June 2015, heading to Seattle for a “babymoon” – a couples’ vacation before the little one arrives.

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, North Dakota. 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 was initially unable to speak or remember who his wife was.

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.

Pataki, the daughter of former New York governor and Republican presidential candidate George Pataki, said that when Levy initially regained consciousness after his stroke, he couldn’t do anything on his own, even breathe.

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

She moved him to a hospital in Chicago, near where they lived. And the incremental healing began. He slowly started to gain back his functions. First, he could open his eyes, but he couldn’t move them side to side. If he wanted to see something, he had to swivel his entire head. He could talk but his words didn’t make sense.

There was not a definitive answer why an otherwise healthy, athletic man had a stroke. Doctors could not tell them exactly what to expect in his recovery, or how just much he would recover.

To cope with the stress and uncertainty, Pataki wrote letters to her husband daily. She did it on the advice of people who knew how slow, and maddening, progress can be after a brain injury.

“People told me it would be an important exercise. 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.’”

They were right. But another byproduct of the letters is that she said she fell in love with her husband all over again.

“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 it was also difficult to hear those stories about him.

“It broke my heart because I didn’t know if that man still was there,” she said.

In the middle of it all, their first child, Lily, was born. Pataki said caring for a newborn while caring for her husband was a logistical and emotional hurdle she’s not quite sure how she managed. She said she didn’t imagine she could hold so much love and so much grief in her heart at one time.

She’s frank about how hard the recovery was on their relationship. The book recounts how she once called a confidante and said she no longer wanted to be married to her husband. The confidante 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 as a marriage. Now, almost three years after his stroke, Levy is basically back to who he was before the stroke. Maybe more laid-back, Pataki said. He’s working again 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 for the future, they are expecting another baby in June.

Pataki said that in the past few years she has felt like she has been in perpetual motion and has had little time to reflect. The book helped her do that. Along the way she thinks she’s gained a bit of wisdom. She’s come to understand, she said, 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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