Urmi Basu was all set to walk across the stage to earn her doctorate from the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
But five days before the big event, surgeons were performing a craniotomy on Basu.
The then-30-year-old had suffered a major stroke. Basu was paralyzed on her right side and struggled to speak.
After three years of intense rehabilitation, Basu, 33, returned to Omaha earlier this month for graduation. She was named a graduate student of distinction, the university’s highest honor for grad students , three years to the day of her stroke.
“It was a very humbling experience to be able to walk across that stage,” said Basu, whose doctorate degree is in physiology.
Before her stroke in 2015, Basu wrapped up some Christmas shopping and met her husband at his office before dinner. The last thing she remembers was experiencing a strange feeling in her arm. Basu collapsed and was unconscious.
Her husband, Soumitra Bhuyan, took her to the emergency room. Doctors discovered bleeding in her brain and told her it was caused by some blood vessels that weren’t properly formed.
“It was actually kind of a time bomb,” her husband said.
Doctors removed part of her skull to relieve swelling, and Basu spent several days in the intensive care unit.
When she woke up, she couldn’t move her right leg or hand. She tried grabbing anyone who came close to her bed but couldn’t.
She was also struggling to speak. She was later diagnosed with aphasia, a communication disorder that impairs the ability to speak, understand language, read and write.
Basu is a great speaker, her husband said. Before the stroke, she often gave speeches and presentations at conferences. Seeing her struggle with language was difficult.
Basu was transferred to the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, formerly known as the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, for further treatment.
About one in three stroke patients experience aphasia, said Leora Cherney, a researcher and clinician at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab.
Basu spent about six months at the Chicago facility undergoing physical, occupational, speech and language therapies.
When she first arrived, she could repeat simple, single syllable words, Cherney said. She could follow simple commands. But she couldn’t read very much and couldn’t write at all.
“Aphasia is not a problem of intelligence,” Cherney said. “It really is a language issue.”
She spent early days learning to communicate through gestures and facial expressions. Eventually, she worked on tackling phrases, sentences and more complex language skills.
It was rewarding, Cherney said, to see things click for Basu.
“Recovery and rehabilitation is a very slow process,” Cherney said. “Right now it’s been many years. She’s going to continue to make improvements.”
Basu continues to go to therapy at home in Memphis, Tennessee. She’s able to walk with a brace.
The stroke put a dent in her plan, but returning to work as a scientist feels within reach, Basu said.
“She’s extremely dedicated and strong-minded,” Bhuyan said. “She’s doing fine.”
Being back at UNMC for graduation was an honor, the couple said.
It’s where they met. It’s also where they said they would name future children Emile (pronounced Em-il-ee), after the street running through campus, or Michael and Sorrell, after the Michael F. Sorrell Center for Health Science Education. And during Basu’s treatment, they sought second opinions from med center staff.
“Three years down the lane, I am happy and feel extremely grateful and humble and fortunate to overcome all of this,” Basu said.