Del Mar stroke victim becomes patient advocate

By Kristina Houck

After suffering a massive brain stem stroke in 2012, Aimeeleigh Coulter was paralyzed for weeks and unable to speak. She could only communicate by blinking.

Now, the Del Mar resident is on the other side of the hospital bed, volunteering as a patient advocate at Tri-City Medical Center in Oceanside.

“I’m very blessed to be able to have gone through what I did and still be able to communicate effectively,” said 33-year-old Coulter. “I want to help out my community. Tri-City welcomed me with open arms so I could communicate my experience and do what I could do to help improve patient care.”

As one of nearly 20 members of Tri-City’s Volunteer Patient Advocate Program, Coulter greets new patients within the first 24 hours. From listening to patient concerns to offering a warm blanket and magazines, volunteers show patients that they care.

“Aimeeleigh’s service is invaluable,” said Tereen O’Neal Elmore, Tri-City’s patient relations specialist and founder of the program, which launched in April and is an extension of Tri-City’s volunteer auxiliary. “No one knows better than someone who has laid in a hospital bed for hours and hours at a time. She’s been very inspirational to the rest of the advocates and has spoken with them in regard to her own personal experience and what it means to a patient to sit down, hold their hand and spend time with them.”

Then a 32-year-old Carlsbad bartender and college graduate, Coulter suffered a stroke on Jan. 15, 2012. Doctors discovered that a blood clot caused by an injury to the left vertebral artery in her neck broke free when she woke up that morning and lodged in the basilar artery of her brain stem, which caused a stroke.

Coulter recalled several doctors said she would most likely remain bedridden permanently. Machines had to help her breathe and eat. A priest even read her last rites.

Still, after months in hospital rooms, a nursing home and a rehabilitation center, Coulter began to recover and regained her strength. She now works as a contracted marketing assistant for Tri-City, volunteer patient advocate and occasional bartender.

“I know that the little creature comforts can make a big difference to a patient in the hospital bed,” Coulter said. “It was hard to be so vulnerable. It’s nice to now be able to ask patients what they’re experiencing, what’s their satisfaction level and how I can help.”

In addition to volunteering as a patient advocate at Tri-City, Coulter has shared her story at other local institutions, including the Oceanside Rotary Club, MiraCosta College nursing program and the city of Carlsbad’s Emergency Medical Services. She will also be a featured speaker Nov. 2 at Tri-City Hospital Foundation’s annual Diamond Ball, which aims to raise funds to purchase new equipment for Tri-City.

“I just really want to give a patient perspective for caregivers, nurses, doctors and therapists that emphasizes bringing the humanity into health care again,” Coulter said. “There are so many people — and it’s such a difficult job to be a nurse or a doctor — that I think sometimes a little humanity is lost. Patients are people. I think it’s really important that the whole person is addressed.”