For Amber Thomas, re-watching old videos of herself reminds her of how far she’s come in the past two years. But, it also reminds the 40 year old Morton mom how much she’s lost.
She was just 38 when she suffered a massive stroke. Her family and neurologist believe it was an arterial dissection, either caused by or worsened by a chiropractic neck adjustment. However, many in the chiropractic community disagree.
“What we see is that people, unfortunately, have preexisting conditions and they are already in the process of tearing that artery or tissue,” shares Belleville-based Chiropractor Brandon Steele, who often speaks on behalf of the American Chiropractic Association, but was not associated with Amber’s case.
Regardless of the cause, there’s no denying the effect the stroke has had on Amber and her family.
She spent 74 days in the hospital. She also ended up having part of her skull removed due to swelling on the brain. But, given the damage that was done, doctors and her husband, John, agree she’s lucky to be alive.
“That’s one of the crazy things. She had a significant amount of damage to the left hemisphere of her brain, so much that they are very surprised that she survived,” John explains.
The good news is these days Amber is making progress. She continues to meet with a physical therapist to work on walking and other motor skills. She also does daily exercises at home, trying to improve her strength and stamina. And, while she struggles to remember certain words, she’s retained some of her memory when it comes to music. She surprised us while we were conducting our interview, breaking into song at one point.
“Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day. Everything‘s coming up roses, everything’s going my way,” she sings to her 3 year old son, Finley.
Amber has also found ways to work around the limited use of the right side of her body, all while retaining her sense of humor. At one point in our conversation, John highlights the household chores she’s now able to tackle, urging Amber to share with us some of her newly regained skills.
“In the dishwasher? he prompts Amber.
“All the stuff,” she replies.
“You do all the stuff. You load it and then you put the clean dishes away, right? And that’s huge!” he exclaims, causing Amber to roll her eyes, making a face while sticking her tongue out, causing them both to laugh.
Beyond these moments of shared humor, there have also been happy tears of triumph. Just this past April Amber was recognized at the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women luncheon in Peoria. That event took place two years to the day she left the hospital. After walking on to the stage without the help of her cane to thunderous applause from the crowd, she exits with the help of John, as they both share tears and smiles, reflecting on how far she’s come.
It was through that event she met Sarah Parker, a Springfield woman who also says she suffered a stroke after a neck adjustment at a Jacksonville chiropractor.
“He turned it one way and it felt okay. And then he turned at the other way and I was instantly on the ground,” she recalls. “I kind of moved a little bit and said, ‘I think I’m going to get sick,’ and kind of under his breath he says, ‘oh crap.'”
After first being taken to a nearby hospital where it was determined she had severed her vertebral artery, Parker says she was next airlifted via LifeFlight to OSF St. Francis Medical Center.
“The neurologist at OSF, he is the one that told my husband and I that it was the direct cause from the manipulation of the neck. Thankfully it healed on its own. I have some residual effects, but really if you didn’t know me before my stroke you really wouldn’t notice,” she shares.
She says the experience prompted her to take a job with the American Heart Association.
That organization finds in the AHA Journals, “Patients should be informed of the statistical association between cervical dissection and cervical manipulations prior to undergoing manipulation of the spine.”
It’s a warning the widow of a Versailles man is echoing.
Mandy Daniels says her husband at the time, Clark Berendes, was only 32 when he passed away at OSF St. Francis, almost two months after he received a neck adjustment and started experiencing strange symptoms.
Daniels says after being treated by Chiropractor in his home area, Berendes started seeing doctors first because his neck pain got worse, then because he was experiencing headaches and vision changes. She claims doctors initially treated it as a severe ear infection. Later, she says he was diagnosed with migraines by a different doctor.
Then, she recalls one morning the symptoms took a strange turn.
“He said he couldn’t hear me…. he said it sounds like there are fans in my ears. That’s also when I noticed the strange speech, it was like his tongue was too fat and he was trying to talk around it,” she recounts.
She shares he was taken to a hospital in Springfield, before then being transferred to OSF St. Francis Medical Center. She says one of the neurologists, there, asked if the recent neck manipulation noted on his charts had been “violent.”
“I said, ‘Clark told me it sounded like a machine gun going off when the doctor cracked his neck.’ Dr. Frasier said we see two to three cases of these each month here. What Dr. Frasier told us is that the neck manipulation caused the arteries to become injured and the swelling caused low blood flow and the clots formed to block those arteries completely.” Daniels recalls.
Sadly, she says surgical efforts to save her husband ultimately failed, and he passed away. The cause on his death certificate? “Dissection of the vertebral arteries,” with the autopsy stating it was the Coroner’s opinon that the injuries were “reportedly temporally related to chiropractic neck manipulation.”
“In general, you can say that this is a low risk problem. however the consequences of having a stroke related to chiropractic care can be quite catastrophic,” shares OSF Neurologist Deepak Nair, MD, who was involved in Amber Thomas’ case.
While chiropractors we spoke to deny manipulations can cause strokes, citing research that does support their position, studies can also be found supporting, if not a cause and effect relationship, at least a correlation.
That’s why the Thomas’ said they wanted to share their story, in their words, not to scare people away from chiropractic care, but instead to simply encourage people to to consult their primary care doctors first.
“I don’t think I could live with myself if anyone else we knew or were close to went through this and we hadn’t told them,” John shares.
The family has filed a lawsuit against the chiropractor Amber saw, although they declined to name him in our interview, again stating they wanted the focus to be on educating people about the possible risks.Meanwhile, they say they’re focused on simply trying to make the best out of their new “normal,” reminding one another, it could always be worse.
“So, everything that you have done, that we’ve done together, that you’ve experienced with Finley, right?” John asks Amber. “Even though it’s hard, at least we have that,” he exclaims, staring into her eyes as they share a smile, before her tears start to fall, prompting him to pull her into his arms, kissing her on the head as she cries into his shoulder. For more on the our previous report on the “Adjustment Argument” that outlined arguments from both chiropractors and neurologists, check out Part One here.