Murrysville teen overcomes impact of stroke to help others
Rachel Rojtas, 15, of Murrysville sat on her zebra-print rug and pulled out years of old casts and ankle braces from a large storage bin.
The colorful plaster and plastic molds represent all the trials she has endured in the aftermath of a stroke she suffered while in her mother’s womb. The stroke took the greatest toll on the left side of her body.
Her mother, Tina Rojtas, said that when Rachel was a baby, her left side drooped slightly, which led to diagnosis of an in-utero stroke.
No cause was ever determined.
“They really never came up with one, which puzzles me and worries me every once in a while because if they didn’t really know why, can it reoccur?” Rojtas said.
She tempers her worries with diligent check-ups for her daughter.
Rachel endured the braces and casts to lengthen her Achilles tendon on her left foot, which is a size smaller than her right. She can only lift about 3 pounds with her left hand, her left hip is off-center and she can’t point her toes.
Prominently featured in Rachel’s bedroom are awards and accolades she has earned for her work with the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association.
“She came out fighting, and she’s just learned to live with her disability,” said Karen Colbert, director of communications for the organization’s Western Pennsylvania chapters. “When children hear her talking about strokes, living healthy … it helps kids identify with her and become more aware.”
Rachel was twice selected for the PARK Award, which stands for Passionate And Responsible Kid.
She has modeled for the heart association’s Go Red For Women fashion show, has spoken in front of classmates and has been featured in videos sharing her story to spread awareness about pediatric strokes.
Rachel started fielding a team for the group’s annual Heart Walk in 2008.
“It was to get out there and be comfortable with my disability,” Rachel said, adding that public speaking doesn’t make her nervous anymore. “It’s pretty easy because I’ve grown up with it.”
She has earned a black belt in tae kwon do, plays soccer, jumps rope, rides her bike and figure-skates. She won the resume portion of National American Miss in 2011.
Rojtas said her daughter is an inspiration to other children who have suffered a stroke and their parents.
She got her family involved with the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association to help them connect with other families.
“You’ve got to give back in life … there’s other kids out there with challenges, too,” Rojtas said. “God gives everybody challenges, and this is your challenge.”
Rachel has been through numerous types of therapy, including baby massages, biofeedback therapy and constraint therapy, during which her right hand was placed in a cast to force her to use her left.
Signs of stroke in newborns can be subtle, such as twitching or showing a hand preference in a baby’s first year, according to information from the American Heart Association. A drooping face, arm weakness and speech difficulty can be other signs.
“The basic thing (to remember) is that a stroke can happen at any age,” Colbert said.
Rachel’s therapies lasted until she was 8. Now, the sophomore at Franklin Regional Senior High School works on strength training, lives a healthy lifestyle and encourages her classmates to do the same.
Some of her peers and teachers are surprised to learn her story when they meet her.
“They’re like shocked because they don’t expect that to be the reason why I’m limping,” Rachel said.
Amy Rayman, who has directed the Heart Walk for seven years, said Rachel brings enthusiasm and passion to her participation with the American Heart Association.
“What struck me with Rachel from the very beginning was that this was her project and something she wanted to do and she wanted to own,” Rayman said.
“She’s been a wonderful voice in raising awareness and breaking down stereotypes of strokes.”
Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or [email protected].