Lily's Story

Surgery after stroke saves Negaunee teen 

Sixteen-year-old Lily Bengry insists on driving when going shopping with her mom, worries about what to wear to the Negaunee High School prom and is getting serious, maybe, about shopping for colleges.  You could say that Lily is a typical Upper Peninsula teenager. 

But she is not.

On September 2, Lily suffered a catastrophic stroke. The odds of her survival, let alone a functional recovery, appeared bleak.

“I thought I had the flu,” Lily recalled of the first symptoms of the stroke.

It was just after Labor Day 2014 and Lily was about to attend her first day of classes as a junior at Negaunee High School.

“She got sick, vomiting a lot the day before,” said Lily’s mom, Stephanie Penhale of Negaunee. “We’d had a family picnic on Sunday and it seemed like most of the people were getting over the flu.”

When Stephanie woke Lily up early Tuesday for the first day of school, she saw her daughter’s condition was more serious.  Lily had trouble sitting up and had to be helped to the bathroom.

Stephanie got Lily to their car and brought her straight to the UP Health System Emergency Department.  Stephanie said that they arrived at about 8 a.m. and once at the Emergency Department, “Lily went downhill fast.”

Stephanie said, “Dr. (Ned) Oswald saw that something more than the flu was taking place. He said, ‘There’s something very serious happening with your daughter.’ He said we had to prepare for the worst.”

A CT scan was ordered, which confirmed that a basilar artery clot was blocking the blood supply to Lilly’s brainstem.

The Emergency Department alerted UPHS Neurosurgeon Dr. Craig Coccia, who in turn contacted Marquette Interventional Radiologist Christopher Mehall.  Rushed to the Interventional Radiology procedural suite, Lily underwent two hours of surgery.  Dr. Coccia and Dr. Mehall fought to save her life by using the clot dissolving medicine TPA, administered via a catheter inserted from the groin to the brain.

“We were told Lily would die without the procedure and that she may not survive the procedure itself,” Stephanie said.

Dr. Coccia and Dr. Mehall successfully restored blood flow to Lily’s brain, but there was still grave doubt about recovery.  After surgery she was taken to the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit, where she remained unconscious for days. And then, Stephanie explained, “Dr. Coccia said, ‘It’s time to wake up.’”

Lily’s memory of her time at the ICU is scattered, but there were moments of clarity.

“I remember Dr. Coccia’s voice. He kept shouting, ‘Lily! Wake up! Lily, you’re going to be okay.’”

Stephanie said that the possibility of Lily regaining consciousness was such that she began discussing long-term “coma care center” options with Dr. Coccia. Lily, however, began to become conscious, and still has glimpses of memory about what was happening around her.

“I remember a nurse (RN Kim Grutt) talking to me and braiding my hair, even though she didn’t know I could hear her or see her,” Lily said. “All the nurses talked to me as if I could hear them.”

Stephanie said, “The staff really did the best for Lily. It’s nice to hear she remembers those extra efforts.”

When Lily did awaken, however, she was only able to open her eyes and move the toes on her right foot. Otherwise, she was paralyzed.  She was in what clinicians described as a “trapped in” state.  She was able to respond to questions only by blinking or by wiggling her toes.

“It felt like I didn’t want to say just yes or no,” she said.

But Dr. Coccia was far from giving up on Lily. He began making arrangements for her to be transferred to an intensive inpatient rehabilitation center in Milwaukee.

Stephanie said, “Dr. Coccia spent a lot of time making sure Lily was okay as his patient.  He guided us, made the decisions and made sure the arrangements were made. And I don’t know if we could have done it without him.”

Lily suffered the stroke on September 2 and was taken to Milwaukee by air ambulance 11 days later, still “trapped in” but conscious.

In Milwaukee, Lily began five weeks of intensive physical, occupational and speech therapy, four-to five hours a day. Stephanie said that Lily took her first steps, using a walker and therapists holding her in place, just a few days later.  Steady progress continued, but it wasn’t until early October that Lily began to speak. 

All the while, the people of Lily’s hometown of Negaunee were displaying an outpouring of compassion and support. Two of her Negaunee High School teachers visited her in Milwaukee, and her classmates bought her a class ring. Cards and drawings came in by the bushel.

Five weeks later Lily was back in the UP, continuing a rigorous five-days-a week therapy regimen at UP Health System’s M Therapies. She initially went back to school part-time, but was back full-time in January.  She completed therapy in early March.

Lily’s level of recovery is amazing. She’s still working on minor balance issues and, Stephanie said, her speech is altered somewhat from that of pre-stroke.  But she is living an active life and made the honor roll last semester at Negaunee High.

“She’s 100 percent a teenage girl,” Stephanie said. “She doesn’t have anything to hold her back. Dr. Coccia and Dr. Mehall did something unconventional and it worked. If they didn’t do what they did, Lily would be dead.”

After visiting with Dr. Coccia and Physician Assistant Jeff Fierstine at UPHS – Marquette recently, Lily and her mom took a stroll through the hospital to visit with some of the nursing staff who cared for her. The reunion, as are most, was bittersweet, with the nurses not initially recognizing the girl who left their care in such a fragile condition back in September.

There were joyous moments of recognition, happy tears, and chatter about the coming high school prom.

For information about UP Health System - Marquette's Brain & Spine services, click here, or call (906) 225-4840.