Family and Faith.
Those are the two ingredients that helped Rose Tenuta cook up one of the most courageous and inspirational comeback stories one could ever imagine.
“It was a tragedy-turned-triumph, a victim-turned-victorious,” said Tenuta, 51, who was born in Kenosha and has lived her whole life here after her parents, Fedele and Rita, immigrated to the city from the Calabria region in Italy.
But in order to better understand and appreciate her remarkable journey nearly seven full years in the making, one must first revisit the happenings of Dec. 4, 2013 – the most mind-and-body altering day of Tenuta’s life, when she suffered a stroke that paralyzed the entire left side of her body, from head to toe.
“It was a Wednesday. I won’t forget it,” said Tenuta, a 1987 Bradford High School graduate. “Six to seven months prior to the stroke, I was running to the doctors because I had some swollen legs and they kept saying they couldn’t find anything. Seven months later, I dropped in my room and my children found me that morning.
“If it would have been a day later, I would have been dead because there would have been no way to get off the ground without their help or them calling 9-1-1. They pretty much saved my life.”
Tenuta said doctors later told her a “perfect storm” caused the stroke.
“I had three things going on. I had some situation going on with the blood, a minor situation there. I had the birth control pill and I had a hole in my heart that no one knew about that never closed at birth. That clot rose through my body up to my heart, festered in my lungs. I ignored tightness in my chest. I thought it was like the anxiety of the holiday,” she recalled.
“I woke up that morning and I said hello to both of my children (sons Jake and Max, then ages 15 and 12) and went into the bathroom and finished up in the bathroom and then went into my room and collapsed.
“I don’t know how long I was actually out. I was calling out my children’s names, which I thought was loud, and they told me later that it was very muzzled and they could not hear me. My son Max tells the story of how that day just did not look right. He just described how he woke up and the day just did not seem right at all.”
As could be expected, initially Tenuta couldn’t grasp the severity of what had just happened to her.
“My son Max was the first one that found me and I was screaming out his name and then he tried picking me up,” Tenuta said. “I said, ‘Just pick me up off the floor, I’m fine, don’t-worry-kind-of thing.’ Then my son Jake walked into the room, and his eyeballs popped out of his head. If I could take away that look that he had, I would take that look away – the sheer torture and pain that he knew something was severely wrong. He dialed 9-1-1 that day and then proceeded to call and say my mom wasn’t going to come into work. I mean, honestly.
“The Kenosha ambulance picked me up and they tried to Flight for Life me but that was a hazy day and they could not Flight for Life me. So they rushed me by ambulance to St. Luke’s Aurora (in Milwaukee), where they proceeded to save my life.
“All my family had already been there and they told them, ‘We don’t know if we can save your mom.’ And I guess my sons tell the story of how when the doctor came in and told them that they saved me, my brother jumped up as if he had won a football game. … And then the fight of my life began, to try to recover to where I am today. And I’m still recovering.”
Tenuta spent 50-plus days at St. Luke’s, the first 10 in the intensive care unit, before she was allowed to return home to Kenosha. In addition to in-home rehab, in February 2014 she began a grueling, three-month daily commute program to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (now called the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab).
“They had these apparatuses like a belt that came from the wall that would actually help the people stand up and recover how to walk and how to lift the leg up,” Tenuta said. “They put me on treadmills with another hanging apparatus and something so easy as walking on a treadmill, I couldn’t do any of that. I could not get up and walk.”
Eventually, though, Tenuta thankfully learned to walk again. But she experienced many dark days along the way. She recounted often having 10-minute “pity parties” where she would cry her eyes out. On multiple occasions, she contemplated committing suicide.
“My brain was functioning and everything was functioning except for the left side of my body,” which is what caused her to be so frustrated, Tenuta said. “Every morning (during in-home rehab), I would grit my teeth with this nurse coming into my room. She would be so happy and I’m miserable because I’m so shut down that I wanted to kill people and I wanted to kill myself. I really wanted to end my life.
“There was a pen on my tray table, and I salivated with the look of that pen and proceeded to throw it into my jugular. But my only saving grace – and it makes me laugh just thinking about it – the only reason that it saved my life was (I thought) that I’m going to do it wrong and then I can’t speak on top of everything else.”
As if the physical pain weren’t enough, Tenuta had even more obstacles put in her path within a year of her stroke when she was let go from her job of 20 years, had to win a custody dispute for her two boys and endured emotional abuse from another man she had been in a relationship with.
Though she said she had a strong Christian faith since childhood, one day in 2014 Tenuta reached a boiling point. After dropping off one of her son’s at football practice, she decided to get a coffee and go pray for an hour at the lake.
“I had the biggest lashing at God that day. I made him show himself to me,” Tenuta said. “I said, ‘Either you love me or you hate me, which is it? I need you right now because I’m at the point of checking out.’ I literally wanted to kill myself. I had a lashing with God and said, ‘Either you love me or you hate me or you need to tell me to continue this fight because I have no more strength and I’m tired and sad and I just don’t know how to do it.
“I was screaming at him and cursing at him and telling him how you need to show yourself to me. I’m not taking no for an answer. I wiped my tears and I drove back to the school and what proceeds to happen next was everything that I needed to see, and I believe it was (from) God.”
Tenuta was shocked at what she then saw in the school parking lot.
“Out of the school comes this guy and he’s just whistling and it’s a gloomy, hazy day and it’s not very cold out. He’s got a windbreaker over his shoulder, and he’s just swaying and whistling and he proceeds to walk before me and I couldn’t see anything. He gets to his car, which is a van (parked) in the handicap section, and opens up the car door with his feet. He has no arms at all. I balled my eyes out because I just got what I needed to get,” said Tenuta, who learned that the man was a teacher at her son’s school.
“(God) showed himself to me because I needed to see that to potentially carry on, and I did every bit of that. I carried on and I’ve never looked back. I promised him a long time ago that I would never leave any stone left unturned,” Tenuta continued.
“That gave me the will and the fight to keep going. I was so angry that day. I was ready just to be done. I needed to see that hey, if this guy is walking around whistling and he’s got music in his ears … that hey, I can do this, too. I asked to see that that day, and I was slapped in the face. So I tell that story over and over again.”
From that memorable day forward, things gradually began getting better for Tenuta – physically, emotionally and spiritually. In March 2015, she was hired by Comprehensive Orthopaedics to do marketing development and event planning – a job she said she loves – and recently she accepted a similar position with Kenosha.com.
Tenuta has ventured all across the country, from Cleveland to Phoenix, to have seven surgeries and undergo stem cell treatment. She vows to have as many surgeries as necessary to recover completely.
“I’m probably 75 percent (physically recovered),” Tenuta said. “I have use of my (left) arm, but I’m trying to restore my (left) hand, and I know once I get my hand back that I will take this to the next level. I promise you this, I will.
“I’m involved in all kinds of stroke trials and studies through the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and even Froedtert Hospital. I’m part of their database to give back and to help other stroke victims. I’ve put myself through crazy studies and almost tormenting things so I can give back and, in the process, obviously find some sort of way to recover even further myself.”
Encouraged by friends and family, Tenuta recently competed in a national contest put on by Ms. Health and Fitness in which she showcased her body.
“That whole photoshoot challenge that I did, I did that for the sake of, ‘Look what I have done, look how far a body can get,’” Tenuta said. “Any singular body can get to that point, but a stroke patient body – that’s a high level of achievement. And even some of the doctor friends I have on Facebook cannot believe that I got that goal. They’re like, ‘You have a high level of achievement. It’s unheard of.’ I have half a body. My body still does not work (completely) like the rest of the bodies. I had all these surgeries, yes, but you can say pretty much my foot doesn’t work like a normal foot, my hand or arm doesn’t work like that, and I actually achieved a high level of competitiveness, a high level of fitness.”
Spurred on by the tremendous love from her sons and boyfriend, Greg, and her faith, Tenuta said she is now experiencing the happiest time of her life.
“You want to hear something so chilling and exciting? I have been placed in the best place in my life and I didn’t even know it, which makes me cry,” Tenuta said. “I can’t even believe that I have found my purpose, I have found my passion. I’m in the best place of my life. I was working 90 hours a week and running two kids. I have been stopped.
“I have been able to smell the roses, as they say, and just really enjoy myself. … My spirit is in such an unexpected place right now that I am so grateful that a) I’m alive and b) the journey that I’ve been placed on. I wake up every morning and I thank (God) every day to be in this situation that I am in.
“It sounds bizarre, but I’m in the best situation ever. As I say, it was a tragedy-turned-triumph, a victim-turned-victorious – all of that. It was every bit of that. Now I have this wonderful man (Greg) in my life, who was brought to me.”
But Tenuta said none of her recovery would have been possible without her sons.
“The most credit are those two boys, and it’s bittersweet because I know this thing has changed them so much. But I don’t think I could have taught the lessons that they have learned because this happened to me,” she said. “And they both have come up to me at different times and have said that I’m their hero, which makes me just so proud to know that. And really, they’re my heroes because they have saved my life.
“As a mom, you just want to give your children everything, and they have saved my life, but yet they say I’m their hero and really they’re mine. My son (Max) says it best. He says, ‘I don’t take things for granted anymore, Mom.’”
Tenuta said she often thinks about the prayer she made to God while she was riding in the ambulance to St. Luke’s on that winter day in 2013.
“I remember in and out of consciousness asking ‘Am I going to die in this ambulance alone?’ and I begged (God) if he saved my life to please bring people to me,” she said. “He’s done every bit of that, and I believe my recovery has been because of my restored faith. It really has. It’s painful to go through it, but that’s OK. If I can help one person through all this, I’d be so honored.”
Given all that she has overcome to reach this point, don’t expect for a minute that Tenuta will ever become complacent. As far as she’s concerned, she’s barely even started.
“The final goal is to have everything. I want to be better than I was. I want to be better than I ever was. I want to make a stroke look fabulous,” Tenuta said. “I want people to know that you can recover if you don’t give up and (if you) hang in there. There are all these hashtags. One of them is ‘#NeverGiveInNeverGiveUp.’ Ever.
“How many doctors have told people that they can’t walk again and then they walk, right? You can have anything you want. I’m 51 years old, and I’m still going to have everything I want. … The stars are still all out there. You’ve just got to reach them.”