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A Stroke of Genius

How my traumatic medical journey inspired a whimsical fashion collection with a unique mindset

By Shelby RiderPublished 2 years ago 9 min read
Clipping threads from a jacket I am in the process of making

It was a normal Saturday morning. August 8th, 2020. I had no real plans except to lie in bed and watch television after a very long work week.

What happened next was a shock that will live with me for the rest of my life.

I work in fashion design-a blissfully exhausting industry! I design clothing for "Vince Camuto" and "Slim Factor" by day, then return home to work on my own “Shelby Rider” fashion designs on the side. Working between 70 and 100 hours a week between all of my passion projects, I often use Saturday morning to recuperate before leaning into my next design project.

On this particular Saturday morning, I laid in bed reading my friends’ status updates on my phone. I scrolled lazily through, before getting momentarily distracted by a pigeon landing on my Manhattan fire escape. As someone who has dabbled in photography, I thought it might be nice to snap a picture of it perched there. I leaned forward, drew back my curtains, steadied my phone for the shot… and it flew away. Oh well.

A picture I took months later during an unsettling bout of déjà vu!

I fell back into my pillows again, ready to return to my reading. As I scrolled to the next post on my phone, I became very confused. I couldn’t understand what I was reading! I was sounding out the words in my mind, but nothing was making sense to me. I remember wondering which of my friends was posting such long and difficult language that I couldn’t even comprehend it.

I scrolled down to the next post-but I couldn’t read that one either! I started getting anxious as I realized I was experiencing some extreme form of dyslexia.

As a casual reader of medical journals and an avid Grey’s Anatomy fan, I tried to think critically about what was happening. I knew I could see, but I couldn’t read. I knew I could think, but could I talk?

I looked around the room, trying to come up with something to say. My pillow was closest to me, so I said it out loud, “Pluhhh. Pluh-Buhhh. Pluh-Buh-Buhhh…”

Panic set in.

I looked to the lamp on my side table. “Luh-la-la. Luh-la-la.” What else could I try? I glanced around me trying to focus on something, when I saw the big black box across from my bed. I knew it had an abbreviated name, but I couldn’t think of which two letters it used. After a pause, I remembered the longer version was called a television. “Tuh-Luh. Tuh-Luhhh.”

I tried to remain calm as I stood up, making sure I could still walk. My motor functions were in tact, but there was a tingling feeling in my right hand. I’m not a medical expert, but the one-sided numbness I was experiencing coupled with the slurred speech made me realize I was likely having a stroke.

Being the independent New Yorker that I’ve become, I packed myself a bag for the hospital. And being the creative work-a-holic that I am, I tossed a pile of tech packs in my purse in case I got admitted and needed to get some work done.

My speech came back to me around ten minutes after I lost it, so I was feeling relieved, yet anxious as I reached the ER.

Shortly after being admitted to the ER

With no signs of slurring whatsoever, I told the lady working the front desk, “I believe I’m having a stroke.” She looked at me like I was crazy. In her defense, I’ve come to realize that it is not normal to calmly pack your things, walk down four flights of stairs, and three blocks up the street when having a medical emergency. Apparently, normal people call an ambulance to come pick them up-but they don’t show that part on Grey’s Anatomy!

After speaking with several doctors, I was told that I had experienced a Transient Ischemic Attack, and was then admitted to neurology for observation. A TIA is a minor stroke. The only difference between a major and minor stroke is the amount of time they last. A TIA is transient. Meaning that I did have a blood clot blocking one of the vessels in my brain, but it was able to wiggle free before it could do any permanent damage.

Even though I was able to talk again, I was still unable to read for the rest of the day. So I did end up enjoying my usual Saturday plans: a day full of television in bed. It just wasn’t my bed.

Beautiful flowers brought to me by my close friend/co-worker (and they matched my mask!)

We were still in the height of Covid-19, so I remember feeling frightened and alone for the three days that I was hospitalized. But there was also a very small part of me that was enjoying getting to observe the work being done there. I’ve always had a deep interest in medicine, and often say that if I weren’t a designer, I’d be a surgeon. We both know how to sew, after all! I didn’t love being the patient, but I did love getting to chat with the neurologists about my condition.

I’ve always found the brain fascinating and I love the intricacies of the nervous system. So being in the neuro department was weirdly inspiring. I asked every question that I could think of, and several of the doctors even thought I worked in medicine. I informed them that I was a designer, which was quickly proven by my seemingly odd creative side-that made an appearance shortly after my MRI testing.

The scans confirmed that I had not developed any permanent brain damage, so they agreed to clear me from the hospital. I asked if I could get a copy of my scans, and the doctor looked slightly offended that I didn’t trust his judgement. He told me I was free to get a second opinion, but I quickly reassured him, “I actually just want them to make art with. I’d love to hang an image of my brain on the wall!”

There was silence for a moment as he and his interns looked at me like I was crazy-probably all debating whether or not they should run my brain tests again! But they relinquished my results and I headed home.

My hour long EEG brain study (left) where electrodes were glued to my head to test my brain function. It didn't yield enough results, so they set me up for a 3 day study (right) where I had to carry around a heavy bag that was attached to the wires glued to my head.

The next couple of months saw many more tests for me. If the world-wide pandemic weren’t enough to worry about, we still had to get to the bottom of why I-a healthy 26 year old-had a TIA. I didn’t have any of the classic signs of someone that would have a stroke, so I stumped my doctors.

There's actually a stroke risk assessment to predict your chances of having one, and I had no way of knowing I was at risk before my TIA. Even now, the only thing putting me in the risk category is the fact that I had this minor stroke! My tests kept coming back to show that I was perfectly healthy, so I jokingly referred to myself as a medical marvel.

Making my EEG cap look more "fashion" since I had to wear it to work in NYC's garment district for days.

As the weeks went by, my love for neurology and learning about medicine grew. I learned so much about my own body, but ultimately discovered that I was born with a large hole in my heart. It’s called a Patent Foramen Ovale. We all have one in the womb, but it is supposed to close up after birth. Mine did not follow directions.

A small PFO is not usually life threatening, but due to the very large size of mine, it can allow for blood clots to travel through the hole and into my brain. It was certainly an unsettling diagnosis to hear. Followed by more tests to determine how we wanted to treat my condition.

One of the many brain scans I came home with, mirrored face to face

And as the tests stacked up, so did my scans. I had brain scans and heart scans and chest x-rays and 3D renderings of the blood vessels in my neck. The crazy artist in me was itching to do something with them. And that’s when I had it:

A stroke of genius!

Not a real stroke. Or even a TIA. But the idea to turn my insides outward and create an entire fashion collection inspired by my brain and my heart! The two things that not only caused my Transient Ischemic Attack, but are also the generators for all of the artistic things that I create.

It’s interesting to think about the special connection between your heart and your mind in both art and medicine. I feel like people usually pit them against each other when it comes to decision making, but to me, they work in tandem. I have a passion for learning, and that learning inspires me.

So with a purse full of aspirin and a medical CD in my hand, I set out to make a collection utilizing the best tools in my repertoire: my holy heart, my creative brain, and a really sharp pair of scissors!

Cutting out the pieces to create a jacket in the shape of a brain with my Fiskars scissors!

I’ve been in a constant state of creating for as long as I can remember. I love any kind of art, having worked in fine art, graphic design, photography, and mainly fashion design. Creating has always come second nature to me-I might even argue first nature!

I generally take inspiration from everything in the world around me, so it has been an interesting journey to-quite literally-find the inspiration within me.

I’ve always designed on the wild side, preferring to create things that are unconventional, whimsical, and full of bright colors. For this collection, I decided to employ multiple shades of pink mixed with silver and grey matter (that’s a brain joke!).

The prints I designed using all of my medical scans (These pieces are all still in the draping process)

I spent weeks developing an array of prints using the various scans of my internal structures. I twisted and warped my blood vessels into a web of pink interconnecting shapes. I created a checkered plaid from the various views of my skull. I also made a bouquet of brains interpreted as a floral print. You can see elements of my brain and body mixed throughout the entire collection, where art meets science.

With both brain waves and fabric flowing, I've been working on this collection piece by piece in my free time. Cutting fabric, stitching seams, embellishing garments. I have found that I move a little slower than I did before my TIA, but I'm hoping my full energy returns to me soon.

Working in the arts often means utilizing your whole body, and that's definitely the case in fashion design. The way I hunch over a pattern making table. The way I'm on my feet for hours cutting out fabric. And even the way I constantly prick my fingers as I work. There are only two things that can make the creative process truly successful: a flawless set of tools, and a passion for what you do.

A jacket I cut and quilted to look like a brain (See more work @Shelby_Rider)

It has been almost a year now since my TIA occurred, and it was a traumatizing event that will haunt me forever. But it's not something I am willing to dwell over. I do believe in creating your own happiness, and that's what I'm trying to accomplish with this collection.

I've chosen to take the most frightening day of my life and use it as art. I am reminded of this awful experience every day as I work on these garments, but I am also reminded: I survived. And that is the happiness that I can draw from my circumstance.

My back hurts from bending over my sewing machine-but I survived. My hand cramps from cutting yardage-but I survived. My head hurts from the sleep I've missed staying up to make new garments-but I continue living a life full of creation.

I survived. And I get to keep creating. I get to keep doing the thing that is most important to my life. I can show the world my artistic mind, both figuratively and literally, to hopefully share that happiness with others as well. And for that, I could not be more grateful.


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