Lauren Ziegler smiled wide as she stood amid a gathering of Spectrum Health care providers, all waiting their turn for a hug and a chance to revel in her many successes.

It was Dec. 6, 2019, precisely one year after a serious stroke turned Lauren’s world upside down.

In that momentous year, Lauren went from victim to survivor to champion.

A senior at Grand Valley State University, the 21-year-old couldn’t stand or speak coherently when she woke that morning in 2018.

She crawled to her phone and called her sister, Audrie, for help. An ambulance soon rushed her to the Comprehensive Stroke Center at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, where doctors determined she had experienced a massive stroke.

The stroke severely affected her left side. She survived on a ventilator and her brain was swollen, recalled Justin Singer, MD, Spectrum Health director of vascular neurosurgery. Dr. Singer led a team that performed an emergency procedure to remove a blood clot in Lauren’s head.

“I remember holding mom’s hand for a long time,” recalled Joseph Zachariah, DO. “Lauren was one of my youngest patients with one of the worst strokes.”

Young stroke survivors often have strong recoveries because their brains are better at developing new neural connections.

“But I didn’t expect her to get so well so fast,” Dr. Zachariah said. “She was my December miracle.”

Lauren, Audrie, and their parents, who live in Southeast Michigan, stopped by the Neuro Critical Care Unit at Spectrum Health to mark the one-year anniversary of her stroke. They came bearing mini-bundt cakes and lots of gratitude for the care and support—both physical and emotional—the entire family received there.

“It’s weird to come back, to see from an outside point of view how bad it was,” said Lauren, who spent 12 days at Spectrum Health and then nearly six weeks at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital. “I remember that I felt like a little baby deer.”

Since then, Lauren’s progress is something to behold. Three months after her stroke she traveled to Sedona, Arizona, for a hike across Devil’s Bridge Trail. She returned to classes at Grand Valley State University in June and then ran a half-marathon in October, finishing five minutes faster than she had anticipated.

Lauren is a physical fitness enthusiast active in CrossFit training well before her stroke. In fact, she credits her recovery in great part to her peak fitness level.

“If I hadn’t treated myself good before (the stroke), I wouldn’t be where I am now,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to walk or to use my hand the way I can.”

“That’s the take-away for all of us,” added Lauren’s dad, Ted. “Her body was ready to take this on.”

Lauren continues to work on regaining full function and dexterity in her left hand and fingers.

“She might not get to 100%, but she will be very close,” Dr. Singer predicted.

She is also back at college, planning to graduate in April with a bachelor’s degree in allied health sciences. From there, she has set her sights on nursing school with the goal of becoming a nurse practitioner.

“Thank you for coming back,” Spectrum Health physical therapist Heather Diver said. “It means a lot to us.”

“Thanks for telling your story,” Spectrum Health chaplain Cindi Veldheer Deyoung added. “It really does give folks hope.”