For Krista Harakal and her family, Good Shepherd has been a place of healing
on many levels.
As her 14-year-old daughter lay in Hershey Medical Center recovering from a stroke,
Valerie Harakal prayed as only a mother could. In a book outside the intensive
care unit, a literary gathering place where others shared their hopes, their
fears, their pleas, Valerie opened her heart and wrote. “I prayed that
Krista would be okay,” she recalls, tears welling in her eyes, “because
she’s my best friend and I wouldn’t know what to do without her.”
It was one of many prayers Valerie and the rest of her family, husband Jeff
and son Josh, would make in the weeks and months to follow as Krista, diagnosed
with a rare brain disorder, continued her brave recovery with help from her family
and team of therapists at Good Shepherd.
It’s rare for children to have strokes – they occur in about 3 out
every 100,000 children per year, according to the National Stroke Association,
but Krista was one of those cases. It affected her speech, making it difficult
to articulate clearly the torrent of ideas that come spilling out of this adorable
now 15-year-old who loves shopping and her best pal, her dog Roxie.
Krista was in 7th grade when she began having fainting spells. It later turned
out these were transient ischemic attacks, or what the American Heart Association
describes as “warning strokes” producing stroke-like symptoms but
no lasting damage. At the time, though, a diagnosis was elusive. Valerie and Jeff
eventually took Krista to Hershey Medical Center, where on Christmas Eve 2005,
a pediatric neurologist diagnosed Krista with Moyamoya, a progressive cerebrovascular
disorder caused by blocked arteries at the base of the brain. The name means “puff
of smoke” in Japanese because it describes the look of the tangle of tiny
vessels formed in the brain to compensate for the blockage, according to the
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The disease was first
described in Japan in the 1960s and primarily affects children. Its first symptom
is often a stroke or mini-strokes.
Although neither Valerie nor Jeff had ever heard of the disease, they were relieved
to get a diagnosis and learn that brain surgery to restore the flow of blood
could help Krista live a normal life. The family went home, planning to return
at a later date for the first of two brain surgeries. But a week later, Krista
had her stroke and was rushed back to Hershey.
Krista eventually underwent two four-and-a-half hour surgeries. She came
through with flying colors but will be monitored periodically for the rest of
her life to ensure her brain remains healthy.
What was harder to accept was the stroke. “I don’t think I saw my
husband cry as hard as he cried that day,” Valerie says.
Adds Jeff, “Fear set in more than anything, not knowing how she’d
recover. That caught us all off-guard.”
For a family of high achievers who had been living a charmed life, Krista’s
stroke would challenge them in ways never before imagined, causing them to draw
upon inner resources of strength and love.
Life had been good to the Harakals.
Along with their lively mixed-breed pooch Roxie (who visited Krista while she
was at Hershey and helped pull her through), the family lived comfortably in
a cozy home tucked into a quiet cul-de-sac in Northampton. Krista, an honors
student, and her older brother Josh were bright, popular, and accomplished in
sports. Krista performed in school plays and had served on Student Council since
But suddenly, the fabric of daily life unraveled. Valerie spent nearly a month
with Krista at Hershey, leaving Jeff and Josh to carry on as best they could.
Jeff’s job as an engineering manager at Agere was demanding with long hours.
Josh, then a senior at Northampton Area High School, was trying to decide which
college to attend.
“It was hard getting used to no one being there,” Josh says. “My aunt,
Lynn Billings, helped a lot. She came over and cooked dinner.”
Josh also felt the sting of lost friendships, as did the rest of the family,
something that still hurts to this day and leaves them at a loss to explain.
“We were shocked by some friends who turned their backs on us,” Jeff says. “Family
is the only one who will be there for you.”
An Extended Family
But the Harakals discovered they weren’t alone. Once Krista began her therapy
at Good Shepherd, her family instantly expanded to include a circle of caregivers – physical,
occupational and speech therapists, all who embraced them with kindness and compassion.
“We were here one time and I knew we’d made the right decision,” Valerie
says. The family already knew of Good Shepherd’s excellent reputation,
but after leaving the supportive environment of Hershey Medical Center, Valerie
was worried whether anyplace else could measure up.
At Good Shepherd, she realized her fears were unfounded. Not only did Krista’s
team of therapists bring clinical expertise to the table, their hearts helped
build relationships that pulled Krista and the entire family through the tangle
of emotions common to stroke survivors and their loved ones.
“I really feel like people care about me here,” Krista says.
“It’s not just a job for them,” Valerie adds. “It’s genuine.
You can’t fake that. I told her first speech therapist, Jeanie Metzger,
you didn’t just help Krista, you healed our whole family.”
Guiding Krista through her weekly therapy sessions now is speech-language pathologist
Denise Moyer. “She’s a teenager, so her life is to talk to her friends,” Denise
says. “I want her to form those relationships and not lose them early on
because she can’t communicate well.”
One tool in her arsenal is the Visi-Pitch IV, a computer program that records
and analyzes speech patterns and plays them back. Not only can Krista hear herself,
but she can see on the monitor where her words begin and end, and where she needs
“I think the computer will be huge for her,” Denise says.
Despite everything that’s happened, Valerie Harakal still believes her
family is living a charmed life. “You’re truly charmed when adversity
enters your life and you get through it,” she says.
Josh, 19, and now a freshman at Lehigh University, is closer than ever with his
little sister, whom he and his girlfriend helped recover by playing board games
together. “I learned that my sister is a pretty strong person,” he
says. “I don’t think I would have handled it as well.”
Jeff has re-assessed his workaholic ways and makes a point of spending more time
with Krista and helping take her to therapy. Valerie has also taken stock of
things and started classes at Lehigh-Carbon Community College where she is studying
to become a certified occupational therapy assistant.
Krista, too, who last year was nominated for Pennsylvania’s Stroke Survivor
of the Year Award, has changed. She’d always been interested in becoming
a lawyer but now is also considering occupational therapy as a career. She’s
back at Northampton Area High School full time taking 9th grade honors classes
in English and History, still serves on Student Council (which last year raised
$200 for Good Shepherd), plans on running for class president, and talks about
volunteering at Good Shepherd with her mother.
Early on when Krista’s medical odyssey was beginning, she said something
profoundly moving. She doesn’t remember it, but her mother does, and she
repeats it as an affirmation of life and hope. “Krista said, ‘Mom,
I don’t know what’s wrong, but I think this is my wake-up call from
God. I’m not mad at God, but I think there’s a bigger plan for me
and this is to help me realize what’s important in life.’”