Medical student returns to thank University Hospital doctors after miraculous recovery

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COLUMBIA — With a tearful smile and walking on two legs, 26-year-old Sydney Priest returned to University hospital Friday to thank the doctors who helped her recover just a few months after having a rare stroke.

Priest, a former student at the Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine, spent two weeks in the neuroangiography suite after having a basilar artery occlusion, the worst kind of clot-related stroke. There were smiles and laughter as she hugged hospital staff.

“I’m extremely thankful," Priest said. "I wouldn’t be here today [if it wasn't for them].”

Priest, walking on two legs, was surprise to the doctors as many of them expected her recovery to possible take years.

“For her to recover this quickly is quite rare," University Hospital stroke coordinator Tami Harris said. "We expected it to take years probably. Mostly six months is where we were thinking she might be able to walk or balance, but when she gave us a call that she was actually walking, we were all surprised.”

“I promised [the] nurse that I would walk in six months and it’s been even less than that,” Priest said as she struggled through tears.

When Priest was first admitted to University Hospital, she was unable to speak and the right side of her body was paralyzed. She needed two people to help her whenever she moved up or down.

Doctors said that although strokes happen to anyone, it was unusual for someone so young to have one. University Hospital neurologist Vikas Gupta, who helped treat Priest, said her progress has been a miracle so far.

“It is rare for us to see these kinds of strokes, especially in patients as young as Sydney,” Gupta said. “When we do see these strokes, the damage often is severe and widespread. However, Sydney’s resiliency surprised us all. Once we removed the clot, she began to regain normal blood flow to her brainstem, and her condition gradually improved. Her recovery has been nothing short of phenomenal.”

Priest says she's lucky to be where she is. 

"It takes a long long time," Priest said. "I've seen a lot of stroke patients in the rehabilitation that I'm at and I think I've surpassed them a hundred times over. There's some still in wheelchairs that can't walk." 

Doctors think there are several things that could have contributed to Priest’s fast progress.

“We see a lot of patients with these types strokes who are a lot older than Sydney who have a lot of other medical comorbidities which makes the recovery somewhat more challenging,” said Kelsey Wilkinson, an occupational therapist at University Hospital.  “They might not make as extreme of a recovery so her being so young and active before this happened definitely helps. And she’s so motivated and such great family support. Those play into her recovery as well. “

The event was also emotional for Priest’s parents who were also at the event. Her father was amazed at the impact Sydney has had on people.  

“I had to withdraw her [from school]," he said. "That day was really hard, [and] probably one of the hardest days for me, because I didn’t realize how much she had already impacted students, the dean, [and] the president. They were all very emotional. I couldn’t hold it together. I was very proud of her that day, because she had touched them and it touched me.”

Priest was born with a congenital heart blockage and wears a pacemaker, a factor doctors think may have contributed to her stroke. Priest is continuing her recovery in Kansas City closer to home. She plans to return to medical school in the fall and pursue a career in rehabilitation.

“I really liked my rehab doctor at KU," she said. "I just saw what she did and how she helped me and I think I could inspire people to do the same."