Stroke survivor reunited with Chicago area doctor who saved her life

Mark Rivera Image
Wednesday, August 16, 2023
Stroke survivor reunited with Chicago area doctor who saved her
Debbie van Kuijk had a stroke while flying from New Zealand to Chicago. Today she met the Advocate Lutheran General neurosurgeon who saved her.

PARK RIDGE, Ill. (WLS) -- A woman who had a stroke on a plane on the way to Chicago was reunited Wednesday with the Advocate Lutheran doctor who saved her life.

Debee van Kuijk said she can remember waking up with about three hours left on her plane ride from Aucland, New Zealand to Chicago. She was unable to speak.

"I couldn't speak at all. It was very frightening because inside your head, you're like trapped inside your head," she said "I'm just in a nightmare because this is really strange, but the look on Martien's face is telling me I wasn't in a nightmare."

Martien van Kuijk, her husband of more than 20 years, alerted the plane staff that something wasn't right.

"She had this really blank stare still on her face and I just didn't have any idea of what was going on," he said.

Debbie had experienced a stroke mid-flight; a doctor's nightmare, as time was of the essence but there were still hours left before landing. As soon as the plane was on the runway, Debbie was rushed directly to Advocate Lutheran General in northwest suburban Park Ridge.

"Getting her from the airport to the hospital is essential, and how fast that was done was really to praise the team and everybody involved," said Dr. Demetrius Lopes, neurosurgeon.

Dr. Lopes conducted a thrombectomy, removing the blood clot from the artery in Debbie's brain. Now, three weeks later, she can speak again.

"There's so much that could have happened that would have made everything so much worse," she said.

Now, for the first time since her hospital stay and after recuperating for weeks with friends and family in the area, Debbie met the man who saved her life. Their reunion was full of joy and the promise of continued recovery

"He saved my life," she said. "He absolutely saved my life, and what can you say to a man that did that? Thank you doesn't work."

Debbie and her husband fly back to New Zealand on Friday. She still has some issues with the feeling in her hand, and her ability to do math, but is working with Martien to get back to as normal a life as possible.