Kristen Aguirre, by all accounts, did everything right: She wanted to deliver the news, and work as a storyteller, especially for underserved communities -- and after college, she landed TV jobs in Quincy, Illinois; Flint, Michigan; and then Denver, working as a reporter and anchor. It seemed like nothing could stop her. Until she was blindsided by a ischemic stroke that hit the motor strip of her brain.
To this day, doctors still aren’t sure what caused the stroke.
But Aguirre refused to give up. She put in the hard work toward recovery. At one point when she was living in a rehabilitation center, she had to be fitted for a wheelchair, which doctors said she’d need to use at home. Not so fast, she thought -- and Aguirre learned to walk again instead.
She re-entered the workforce, too: Only to be told by her job that she was “no longer up to standards,” and fired. It was a tough blow.
But rather than leaving the industry or going another professional route, Aguirre decided she was more than her stroke and stronger than her circumstances: So she put herself back out there. This is her story.
In September 2017, Aguirre left her news job in Flint, Michigan for a similar position in Denver. It felt like an exciting career move. I remember: I attended a goodbye party for Kristen at a restaurant in downtown Flint, as she was a coworker of my husband’s. I’d only met Kristen a handful of times, but I felt drawn to her warm personality. I couldn’t stay at the party long, but we raised our glasses to Kristen and clinked “cheers” to her next chapter in Colorado.
She was young, moving on up, and it felt cool to be able to witness that.
It was about 18 months later that her world was forever changed. On April 13, 2019, Aguirre suffered her stroke. She never would have suspected it.
“I was going to spin class every morning,” Aguirre, now 34, said. “I was in such good health. The night before, I was anchoring.”
The day of the stroke, she started with a spin class, and then attended a fundraising event for the Latinas First Foundation. By about noon or 1 p.m., Aguirre decided to take a quick nap before her shift. She wasn’t due at work until 2:30 or 3 p.m., so she opted to rest.
The next thing she knew, she was jolted awake to the sound of her then-boyfriend, who was banging on her door, saying she had missed work.
She’d been sleeping for hours.
“I went to pop out of bed to open the door, and we think that’s when the stroke had happened already. I fell and hit my head,” Aguirre said. “My left side was already paralyzed. I was on the floor for a while. I think I passed out.”
The events that followed were a whirlwind.
She remembers telling her boyfriend to stop yelling, because she didn’t want to make a scene in front of the neighbors.
The boyfriend called Aguirre’s sister, confused by what was happening. Aguirre was actually within reaching distance of her phone, and she was able to answer the call.
“I had passed out … but I said I was on the floor, and I tried to sit up, but I couldn’t. There was no way in hell I would have ever thought I was paralyzed. But I couldn’t get up or stand up. I was on my back.”
By this point, Aguirre’s boyfriend knew something was seriously wrong. He called for an ambulance and the paramedics rushed over.
Aguirre remembers funny “little things,” as she called them, from these moments: She recalls eye-rolling at the paramedics’ boots in her home, because she had just washed her floors, and she hated the fact that she’d have to re-scrub them. (Aguirre admitted with a laugh that she’s a “neat freak”).
One of the paramedics’ names was Caitlin, just like Aguirre’s sister.
“For whatever reason, that brought me a little bit of comfort,” Aguirre said.
Caitlin asked Aguirre to squeeze her hand, but she couldn’t do it. Deep down, Aguirre said, she knew: “Something is not right.”
When the team loaded Aguirre into an ambulance, her boyfriend got in, too.
When Aguirre was asked some form of, “Who is this guy?,” Aguirre said she wasn’t sure how to respond. She and her boyfriend had just started seeing each other at the time, and she wasn’t sure if they were putting a label on their relationship just yet.
“If that’s not dating in your 30s, I don’t know what is,” Aguirre joked. “You’re on your deathbed and you’re still scared to say what he is. I said, ‘I think he’s my boyfriend,’ and turned to him, like, ‘Is that OK?’”
It was a brief moment of comic relief, but when the group arrived at the hospital, things felt tense. No one knew exactly what had happened, but Aguirre started showing signs of facial drooping, which is kind of what it sounds like -- drooping in your facial features.
Even at the hospital, there was some reluctance to believe Aguirre had suffered a stroke.
Aguirre said this happens sometimes with young stroke survivors: Even doctors aren’t sure, at first.
Aguirre didn’t have high blood pressure or high cholesterol -- or any high numbers; she was healthy and relatively young, and the hospital staff thought this might be some type of migraine. The ER didn’t call for an MRI or CT-scan right away.
But eventually, doctors kept ruling things out, and Aguirre was given tests that revealed she did in fact have a stroke. She remembers nurses moving her to the intensive-care unit, and being surrounded by supportive coworkers.
Even though her time in Denver ended in a less-than-ideal way, Aguirre loved her colleagues, and recalls being surrounded by their well-wishes. “They were there every step of the way,” she said.
Aguirre felt scared at times, and uncertain of what was to come, but said she leaned on her faith.
“My faith said it was going to be fine. I kept thinking, like, ‘It might (be really hard), but it will be OK.’”
From there, pieces started moving all around Aguirre, but there wasn’t a lot she could do. Her parents flew in from the Chicago area, which she remembered as special -- getting to see them and then feeling reassurance that they would get through this.
She learned she’d be transferring to Craig Hospital, which is known for excellence when it came to spinal cord rehabilitation and recovering from brain injuries. Aguirre made the move April 18, and stayed about three months.
“Any time I can talk about (everyone at Craig), I will,” Aguirre said. “Those were the worst days of my life. And I was leaning on these nurses or techs I’d never met, who were helping me shower. And they made it the least amount of ‘awkward’ possible. At one point, I was showering in a wheelchair, my mom was in there with me, along with someone I’d never met. ... You take for granted something like showering by yourself or washing your hair, but I needed help.”
She was never defensive about her shortcomings or any deficits, physically or mentally, she said. Some people tend to fight the idea that there’s something wrong. But not Aguirre.
At one of her first appointments, doctors confirmed the severity of her stroke. Because it had hit the motor strip in her brain, her left side was paralyzed. Doctors told her she might need a wheelchair long-term.
Growing up, Aguirre’s father has always told her, “You don’t need a man. You only need yourself.” And now, Aguirre said, it was especially true -- she only had herself to lean on.
Aguirre said her dad asked her later, “What do you want? What do you believe?” So they got to work.
On the weekends at Craig, Aguirre and her dad worked on exercises.
“Other people in the hospital at the time were inspiring me, too,” Aguirre said. “There was an officer rehabbing from a brain injury, who was there with his wife. I just thought, ‘If he’s pushing, I can push, too.’”
When she was presented with options at physical therapy, she’d choose the harder of the exercises. She also learned to rest. There were days she’d suffer from massive headaches, and she had to listen to her body and take it easy.
“I just thought, ‘Who am I?’” Aguirre said. “Before the stroke, I’d never give up on anything.”
And she certainly wasn’t giving up now.
On May 4, Aguirre experienced her first foot movement. It was a toe wiggle, and it progressed from there. On May 22, her arm moved. It wasn’t until June or so that she could use her arm functionally, but all of it counted. Re-learning how to use your body was a strange process, but Aguirre persisted.
She also went through several different types of canes until she was walking again. As mentioned, staffers had started fitting her for a wheelchair to use at home, and then decided that wouldn’t be necessary. It was a major victory. All the work was paying off.
Even today, she tries to keep in mind what she learned at Craig, where she just kept telling herself, “You’re gonna get back there. But it won’t be tomorrow.”
“When I run now, I do my best,” Aguirre said. “My right side is like, ‘You can do it!’ and my left says, ‘Hold on!’”
Clearly, she’s doing something right. These days, Aguirre is attending Orangetheory classes, which are highly demanding, full-body workouts. Still, she never imagined this would be her life, or her past few years. In her career as a journalist, she had reported on young stroke survivors, but never imagined she’d be one herself.
“And then I went to sleep and woke up to an entirely different life.”
When Aguirre was able to leave Craig and start working again, she returned part-time on long-term disability in mid-November 2018. Aguirre and her station even shared her story on TV for World Stroke Day. But things never truly went back to “normal,” and in March 2020, she was let go.
Aguirre addressed the situation on social media, saying in a video clip, “Does it hurt me? Yes — so much.” But she had to move on. She had no choice.
“I’ve had to mourn my life in Denver,” Aguirre said. “And I loved my life in Denver. I’m never going to have that life again. It’s over and done. It wasn’t even on my terms. I didn’t get to say goodbye. I was let go and it stinks. But there’s a reason for everything.”
We spoke about how in Flint, there was that congratulatory gathering at the restaurant. Aguirre didn’t get that chance in Denver, which hurt. But she’s come a long way. These days, she’s at peace with it.
The whole ordeal got Aguirre thinking long and hard about identity, and who she is deep down.
“Before, I identified as a good news anchor on TV,” Aguirre said.
And she still does, but there are other meaningful qualities, too.
“My identity now is being a kind, woman of faith,” Aguirre said. “And a storyteller and a stroke survivor, but those are secondary. It’s like, ‘Am I nice? Do I make people feel good? Is God always center in my life?’ Those are the things that fulfill me.”
Prior to the stroke, Aguirre was spreading herself thin: Emceeing events, taking meetings over coffee before work, and the like.
“Now, I prioritize rest for my body. … You can feel invincible, but it’s not good for you,” she said.
On the day of our phone interview, Aguirre didn’t have much else on her plate: Her plans involved a few other calls, and hanging out with her dog. This is the way she likes it. Life is a bit slower these days, but that’s no accident. It’s by design. And it feels good.
Regaining her physical health was one thing, but Aguirre learned how much work she would have to put in mentally. She had never experienced anxiety or depression before.
Aguirre leaned on therapy sessions, and loves her current therapist, which makes a world of difference. After Denver, she moved back in with her parents in the Chicago suburbs, and although she was immensely grateful to have that opportunity, she battled that anxiety a bit, being an adult back at home, not sure of her next career move. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to get back on TV, or perhaps explore a life outside of news.
In the meantime, she started connecting with other young stroke survivors on Instagram, and sharing her story openly. When Aguirre was in the hospital following her own stroke, she was desperate to find someone her own age who had overcome all the same challenges.
“So, now I want to be that person for someone else,” Aguirre said.
It’s most of the reason she agreed to be featured in this piece: If even one person reads her story and feels hopeful, then it was all worth it, she said.
Sitting at her parents’ house, watching mid-2020 unfold on the other side of the TV, as a viewer, it made Aguirre realize just how much she yearned to be back.
“It wasn’t until COVID and George Floyd and everything that started happening, that made me realize, ‘I miss this so much,’” Aguirre said.
She thought about her role in TV news coverage, and how COVID-19 was affecting the Latino community. At her previous news job in Flint, she reported on how the water crisis touched that demographic.
“It’s those underserved communities that can be overlooked,” Aguirre said. “Any community I’m living in, every time I move somewhere, that’s the first thing I look up -- (Latino groups). We’re all family.”
So after some soul searching, time away from the business and self-reflection, Aguirre considered all the progress she had made. She picked up a few anchor scripts to read aloud.
At first, Aguirre thought about some of her doubters, and the voices in her head saying, “You don’t sound the same,” or “maybe you can’t do this anymore.” But by now, she knew how to turn those voices off.
“The real Kristen had built herself back,” Aguirre said. “And (I read those scripts and) I was like, you got this.”
She proceeded to contact her agent, who has proven to be “an incredible person to lean on,” Aguirre said. After reminding Aguirre of the realities of the job and doing a gut-check with her -- to make sure this was absolutely what she wanted -- they were off and running.
Aguirre appreciated her parents’ unwavering support. But at some point, she said, she was ready to move back out. Plus, she needed a paycheck and health insurance.
“When I started getting interviews lined up, I decided I had to do it,” Aguirre said. “It was time to go forward, and explore that other side of my passion of telling Latino stories.”
She interviewed at a few shops she liked, but clicked immediately with the news director at WLOS-TV in Asheville, North Carolina.
“It was an instant fit,” Aguirre said.
She moved to a new state, prepared for day one on the new job, and then -- an incredible coincidence, in the form of a familiar face: Sarah White, a photojournalist and former colleague who Aguirre had worked with in Flint, was paired with Aguirre on her first day back. What were the odds?
“I like to call it a God wink,” Aguirre said with a laugh. “I was really nervous. But I felt so comfortable with Sarah. What a blessing. It wasn’t even supposed to be her day working.”
White served as an encouraging force, reminding Aguirre how many times she’d done this: written a story, gone on TV, presented her work. It felt so comforting, in this new space, to have a former colleague by her side.
“I’m so grateful for this job, and for this team that I have,” Aguirre said.
Now, she works from the anchor desk on the weekends, and reports three days a week. Aguirre is passionate about long-form pieces and storytelling -- so this is perfect.
There was a time when she couldn’t sleep, and struggled with regular bouts of anxiety.
“Now, I sleep like a baby next to my dog,” Aguirre said.
I asked about what was next. Does she feel like her old self again? Is she healed 100%? Are there any other challenges that remain?
“I feel like that old person (in some ways),” Aguirre said. “I’m sharp and witty, and mentally and physically strong.”
But when it comes to surviving a stroke, she said, the healing is never fully complete.
“With traumatic brain injuries, I’ll be recovering till the day I die,” Aguirre said. “And that’s totally fine.
“I had this idea that I’d wake up one day and be back to old Kristen. But I’m never going to be that person again. She didn’t go through what I went through these last two years. She’s still funny, and has some of the same characteristics. I’m still bubbly, I talk a lot and I’m good at my job. But the idea that I’m going to be that woman ... no. She’s never going to be here. Now I’m working to build a stronger, different version.”