SAVANNAH, Ga. – A rising left arm gently roused Valencia Wynn out of her sleep at nearly 30,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. Traveling on a transcontinental flight destined for Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Wynn peered through heavy eyelids to witness her arm elevate. Her fingers fluttered delicately as if playing on a floating piano, she said.
“I kept repeating ‘stay subconscious, don’t let it know,’” she said. “Brain - don’t tell the arm that you’re looking.”
Eventually, her gaze interrupted the movement returning her arm to its resting place, she said.
Wynn was traveling with an army of medical staff from Germany to the states when the unexplainable experience occurred. Due to her impairment, the moment was both baffling and astounding, she said.
“I think it was the altitude,” she said. “But for someone to tell you that your limbs aren’t going to move anymore – it was astonishing.”
Wynn, a construction control representative in the Los Angeles District, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 2014, four months into her second Afghanistan deployment with the Corps. Wynn’s stroke paralyzed the left side of her body spanning from shoulder-to-foot, leaving her partially immobilized and dependent on walking assistance.
With family rooted in Columbus, Georgia, Wynn’s support and recovery geographically fell under the jurisdiction of the Savannah District’s family readiness coordinator, Paula Hanna, who spent nearly a year tracking her recovery and providing support to Wynn’s closest family members.
On March 6, the pair had their first face-to-face meeting, mutually describing the encounter like “meeting a superstar.”
“It felt good to put a face on the person that you’ve been assisting and communicating with on the phone for so long,” said Hanna.
“She is my ‘she-ro,’” Wynn interjected.
From the moment Hanna received a call briefing Wynn’s condition in May 2014, she understood that it was serious case that required delicate handling.
“Due to the severity of the situation I made myself available to her and the family,” Hanna said. “Being a Family Readiness coordinator is not always about providing care packages. I also have to be knowledgeable about the organizations and resources available to our personnel so that I can better help the family.”
One of Hanna’s most vocal advocates is Wynn’s daughter, who regularly communicated with Hanna during Wynn’s lengthy transport from Afghanistan to Georgia.
“There were numerous conversations that lasted three hours or more,” said Hanna. “At the time she needed support, an open ear and someone to de-stress the situation at the beginning. I was someone that she could refer to easily because I made myself available and tended to any questions or concerns she had.”
Hanna served as an intermediary between Wynn and her family and the South Pacific Division commander providing updates on her condition and recovery. Her sponsorship ensured Wynn’s needs were met while absent from her duty location.
“Paula stepped out of her lane and assisted my family,” said Wynn. “She took care of my daughter which is very important to me because it’s all about family.”
Wynn’s affliction leveled the self-described overachiever, preventing her from sustaining her physically active lifestyle. Though incapacitated by the effects of her condition, Wynn’s doctors said her prognosis was promising considering her healthy state before the stroke, she said.
Since her arrival in Georgia, Wynn has rehabilitated through alternative healing methods such as acupuncture and therapeutic deep tissue massages. She maintains a strong belief in self-propelled healing and believes time has been the strongest aid to her physical recovery.
“I have to reconnect with my body again,” she said. “I go to sleep telling myself that my arm and fingers are going to move again; I’m going to get my stride back. I repeat that to myself constantly because I need to have my conscious communicate with my subconscious. If I can get those two back on the same level then I’ll be good.”
In 2012, Wynn decided to optimize her career with the Corps by volunteering for an Afghanistan deployment as a project engineer. Her desire for deployed experience and enhanced training paired well with her adventurous desire to travel the world, she said.
“I wanted to advance my career with the Corps and expand my skill set,” she said. “It was my first time deploying overseas. It was a great experience because I was able to travel and build in a foreign country that has different soil textures and work environments.”
The transition from the typical 40-hour work week to a more rigorous work schedule didn’t deter Wynn from completing a second tour in 2013 until she was struck unexpectedly by the stroke. Her debilitation prevented her from fulfilling the often physically stringent work required as a project engineer, she said.
“I don’t have the maneuverability needed to conduct inspections, assessments, or heavy lifting,” she said.
Wynn’s professional and supportive connection to Hanna has helped her to discover the silver lining of her situation.
“Hanna’s support has been a guiding light for my family and career,” said Wynn. “She’s kept things running smoothly and I appreciate it very much.”
Ultimately, Wynn’s stroke is a testimony to the dangers civilians face while deployed in austere environments.
“This is a civilian who volunteered to work in a war zone,” said Hanna. “Sometimes we forget that we have civilian personnel who deploy and work side-by-side with uniformed service members. They can encounter the same problems that a military person encounters. From the moment I was notified, I stuck with her to ensure she was given the same type of treatment and benefits that a military member receives.”
And with continued therapy and support, Wynn's in-flight experience may be a promising sign of a full recovery.