During delivery of a healthy daughter on July 10, 2010, Jessica Turka suffered an amniotic embolism as amniotic fluid leaked into her bloodstream, causing cardiac arrest and stroke.
The traumatic brain injury resulting from the rare and unpredictable obstetric emergency kept her in the hospital for four months, most of that time in a coma.
When she returned home to her husband and three young daughters in Bethel Park, the physician's assistant faced a long recovery. She was barely able to speak or walk and could not perform simple tasks such as using a telephone or turning on a light switch.
"She has been learning just like the baby, through trial and error," her husband, Jason Turka, 34, said.
Today, with a nurse nearby for safety, Mrs. Turka, 33, is able to grocery shop with a cart and pay the cashier, do some cooking, and write and hold a travel mug of coffee with her right hand -- the latter especially noteworthy because her right side was severely impaired by the stroke.
She also walks the quarter-mile community track twice a week.
To recognize how far she has progressed, about 175 family, friends and neighbors gathered Saturday at the family's home for an outdoor celebration.
A lawn sign, roughly six feet by three feet, read "Congratulations Jessica'' and greeted well-wishers, who were invited to sign it and write a message.
In addition to the love and support, which she acknowledged in a speech to the gathering, Mrs. Turka's biggest thrill was walking outside without a cane as she greeted her guests.
"Jason held my hand,'' she said.
A daily joy is the bonding with her daughter, Charlotte, 2, who was cared for during infancy by family members.
"She now calls me Mom," Mrs. Turka said.
Typically, a nurse arrives about 8 a.m. to help Mrs. Turka get dressed for the day.
The nurse also drives her to her therapy: Mrs. Turka undergoes physical, occupational and speech therapy two to three times a week. Her goal, she said, is to prove wrong medical literature that contends she will always walk with a cane.
"I'm determined to be able to run," she said.
She attributes her improvement to therapy and to family.
"My husband is amazing -- there every day with the baby," she said of her long hospitalization after the delivery.
Mr. Turka, who grew up in Penn Hills and coached swimming at a local pool there, is a math teacher at Independence Middle School in Bethel Park. He cares for daughters Elise, 9, Abigail, 7, and Charlotte during the summer and schedules outside help when needed.
In August, he will drive the family to Virginia, Delaware and Philadelphia to visit relatives for their first vacation since Mrs. Turka's life-changing injury.
He also maintains a website in which he shares information on his wife's progress and the lessons he said they have learned from the experience: hope is something worth holding onto, you may be capable of far more than you ever thought possible, and each day of life is a valuable day.
He said he posts frequently because his wife has a great story to tell and it is helpful to them to believe their daily actions are being appreciated by others. He said he is able to communicate complex medical jargon in everyday language that others in similar situations might find helpful.
"It's also much easier to do the hard things in life when you know there are so many people who want us to succeed," he said.
To follow Mrs. Turka's recovery, visit www.inspiredrecovery.net.neigh_east - neigh_south
Margaret Smykla, freelance writer: email@example.com.