Maddi Niebanck ’13: A Stroke of Luck

Woman speaking

Maddi Niebanck ’13 shares her incredible journey after suffering a near-fatal stroke at the age of 22.

It was the summer after her graduation from Georgetown University. She was all set to enjoy a few months off and then start her professional career at a new job in Boston. She finally had some time to schedule corrective surgery for a Brain AVM that had been plaguing her with terrible migraines since the age of seven. An AVM or arteriovenous malformation is a tangle of blood vessels that connects arteries and veins in the brain. She most likely was born with it. 

What she hoped would be corrected in a short hospital stay turned into years of recovery. She suffered a massive stroke during a preliminary procedure and after 12 hours on the operating table exited the OR alive but in a medically induced coma. The neurosurgeon had stopped the bleeding and successfully removed the AVM. But when Maddi Niebanck, Oak Knoll alumna from the Class of 2013 awoke from her coma, she was completely paralyzed on the left side of her body and had drastically reduced vision.

“If I was not in the hospital at the time that this happened, I probably wouldn’t be standing here talking to you today,” she told a rapt audience at an Oak Knoll Assembly last year. Her talk, entitled “My Story,” was a perfect parallel to the Upper School’s year-long theme encouraging students to share their own stories. And what an amazingly inspiring story she shared.

“I couldn’t move my leg, I couldn’t move my arm. The left side of my face was paralyzed. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t swallow, I couldn’t smile. I lost everything. I also lost a lot of vision, so I couldn’t see out of the left side. So many changes happened in my life literally overnight,” she explained.

Ms. Niebanck went on to share the years of physical therapy she underwent, the mental and physical challenges, the support she both got and gave to other stroke survivors, and ultimately the attitude she chose to adopt, that turned this life-changing event into new opportunities for her as a she embraced change and found the strength to focus on the positives.

“I realized my goals had to change. I wasn’t going to be able to move to Boston in a couple of months and start my first full-time job. I had bigger things to worry about. I had to learn how to walk. I had to learn how to use my arm and speak. So my goals had changed. I realized I needed to get back on my feet, literally.” she said. 

While she was dedicating herself to recover as much mobility as possible, she was given a life-changing piece of advice from a former professor. “He suggested I invest in myself during this recovery time and learn what it is that I really want to do and where I want to have an impact. I settled on fashion. So I began networking. I started talking to anyone and everyone in the industry — editors, models, business owners, fashion executives — just to get a sense of the industry and hear their stories. I ended up putting all of the insights and takeaways that I got from these interviews into my first book, which was published in 2018, and called ‘Fashion Forward’,” she related.

Since then, she has written a second book, garnered a strong following on her “Stroke of Luck” instagram account, had a global impact on the mental health of stroke survivors, and taken a job with the fashion giant Hermes.

“The interesting thing is, we’re always constantly reinventing and inventing ourselves and who we are is evolving and we have a choice for what kind of story that we wish to present about ourselves and to other people,” she explained. “I was worried that my stroke would come to define me. Like no matter what our challenges are, whatever obstacles we have, there is not one thing that defines us. There are so many parts to our identity. I thoroughly believe that any obstacle that we have is a unique opportunity for ourselves, and every situation presents us with a unique set of circumstances and choices that we can make. And it is our duty to embrace them. We get to decide how we live our life.”

Read more about Maddi’s story in the Winter 2019 edition of Review Magazine.

Hear excerpts from the assembly here.

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