Bowdoin student, finalist in nationwide science competition, suffers stroke

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LEWISTON — Two years ago, Samantha Garvey made headlines when she became a finalist in an elite nationwide high school science competition while she and her family were living in a New York homeless shelter.

She appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” got a $50,000 college scholarship from AT&T and met President Barack Obama at the White House Science Fair. He later referenced her in a speech at the Democratic National Convention.

The attention led to her family finding subsidized housing on Long Island.

Garvey started at Bowdoin College and happily fell into a normal, quiet life.

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Last weekend, the healthy, petite 20-year-old had a stroke.

She spent finals week at Central Maine Medical Center, starting physical therapy and willing herself to get better, back to her friends, her science and her normal life.

“Things could have been way worse, which makes me feel optimistic,” Garvey said. “My speech wasn’t impaired. I didn’t die. It is what it is. I’m just trying to get a grasp of it and trying to get better at this point.”

Garvey said she’d had a persistent headache for several weeks but had written it off to normal stress. On Friday night, Dec. 5, she hung out with a friend and worked on homework, nothing out of the ordinary. The next morning, she woke up in her dorm room with a terrible pain in her head.

When Garvey reached out for her garbage can to be sick, she fell out of bed.

“My whole right side was numb; I couldn’t feel it,” she said. “I was really weak. I basically crawled around. I immediately thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m having a stroke.'”

She remembered the symptoms from a wilderness first responders’ course she’d taken at school a year before. Doctors, she said, were initially resistant, figuring it was meningitis. She’s so young, and it’s so relatively rare — two-thirds of people hospitalized after a stroke are age 65 or older, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s definitely really hard to process,” Garvey said. “One of the thoughts that they have is I might have hurt the artery in my neck, I might have torn it somehow — that’s still a bit of a mystery to me — but that clotted, and that clot, in turn, was what led to a stroke.”

She doesn’t remember hurting her neck.

After spending days in a hospital bed, she took several steps Thursday without a walker. Garvey, who is right-handed, said she has a pins-and-needles sensation over the right side of her body and a lack of sensation to pressure or pain on her left side. 

“A couple days ago, I was able to walk, move around, go to the bathroom, eat, do every little thing that we take for granted perfectly,” she said. “And today in (occupational therapy), they had this peg board, and I had to put these little pegs into these little holes. I couldn’t do it. Something I could have done perfectly with both hands beforehand was one of the hardest thing I’ve done in all my life.”

Garvey, a junior at Bowdoin, hopes to return to school in time to start the next semester in January. She’s an earth and oceanographic sciences and environmental studies major who just added a minor in biology.

She’s been involved in a professor’s research project studying how sea stars, or starfish, move, watching and filming them for hours.

“Understanding eco-processes and how things work, and the place that we live on, even other places as well, I love it,” Garvey said. “I love research. I love science. I love my classes.”

It was that love of science and her research that had Garvey in the running for the Intel Science Talent Search and led to her meeting the president. Just thinking back to that experience, she said, leaves her speechless.

“That whole time in my life was just mind-boggling,” she said. “It was such good news after good news, all these incredible opportunities and all this great support. It was just such an amazing time and then on top of that, getting to meet the president of the United States.”

She was content, though, she said, to start a new chapter and leave the spotlight.

Her family still lives in that same Long Island home. Her father, Leo, is a taxi cab driver and dispatcher. He’s been going back and forth to be home with her younger brother and sister. Her mother, Olga, works as a CNA at a New York hospital.

Garvey’s insurance coverage is through her mother, and they do worry about it being canceled if her mother needs to take a medical leave to be home with her to recuperate.

Garvey, who works as a student manager in a college dining hall, was visited this week by a stream co-workers and friends. Last Saturday, in the ambulance on her way to CMMC, in the middle of her stroke, she remembers asking paramedics to hand her her phone.

“I was supposed to work that night and I was like, ‘Oh, man, I didn’t call out of work,'” Garvey said. “They’re like, ‘Are you sure? I think they’ll understand why you’re not there.'”

She hopes to be discharged in another week and be home in time for Christmas.

During physical therapy one day last week, the therapist stepped into the hallway and told her they could try heading left, which was shorter, or they could try heading right.

“I was like, ‘I’m going to go right,'” Garvey said. “I want to get better. I want to be able to go back to the way things were before this happened.”

kskelton@sunjournal.com

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