A famous photographer learned to shoot with one hand after a stroke

The way freelance photographer Donna Dymally sees it, taking pictures teaches important life lessons.

“Focus on what’s important, and if you don’t like the picture, take another,” she said. “We develop from the negative, just like a photo.”

This attitude helped Dymally recover from a stroke at age 58.

She woke up that morning feeling lethargic and with a mild headache. She had a flight to catch, so she took pain medication and went to the airport for a business trip.

When the plane took off, she felt a strange sensation on the left side of her body. Not knowing what to do, she prayed for guidance and fell into a deep sleep. She woke up when the plane landed at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, where she had a connecting flight to Birmingham, Alabama.

As Dymally walked through the airport, she was increasingly sure that something was wrong. Her sight was blurry, her whole body ached, and she could only walk slowly.

“I felt like an explosion had gone off in my head,” she said.

She told a colleague who was on her flight what was happening and promised to go to the emergency room when she arrived in Birmingham. A doctor overheard their conversation. Not only did he recommend she skip her next flight, but he insisted on calling 911.

“He said if I had suffered a stroke, I might not survive the flight,” she said.

An MRI showed a clot blocking one of the vessels supplying blood to his brain. It is an ischemic stroke. The doctors told her it was a miracle that she had experienced the flight.

Dymally said an uncle also survived a stroke and his grandmother died after having one. In addition, she had a history of high blood pressure.

As she rested in a dark hospital room, Dymally winced in pain at the slightest sound or ray of light, her hand curled into a ball. Determined to correct her slurred speech, she quietly repeated the vowel sounds over and over. Despite how she felt, she started walking as soon as she could.

“I knew exercise would help me heal,” she said.

A week later, she flew to Los Angeles. Dymally said a lack of health insurance prevented her from joining a rehab program.

To this day, she is treating the aftermath of her stroke, including left-sided pain and tenderness, a condition called complex regional pain syndrome.

“It’s kind of like pins and needles when you hit your funny bone,” she said, noting that even picking up a towel is painful.

Dymally worked as a freelancer. She said she worked in a variety of industries, from helping high school students prepare for college to shooting real estate photos. After the stroke, she struggled to find work. She said it cost her almost everything she had, including her longtime home.

“I learned that material things are not important,” she said. “Stroke made me look at everything with a new perspective.”

Indeed, a chance encounter with a magazine editor led to some red carpet event photography gigs.

Dymally realized that the only way to learn how to photograph better with one hand was to take more photos with one hand. So she started taking pictures in comedy clubs. She believes the experience has helped her emotionally as well as professionally.

“Laughter heals,” she said. “My photos weren’t always the best, but I never gave up.”

As his work improved, so did his outlook. She began snapping red carpet events for other organizations. Over the years, she’s photographed a who’s who of celebrities, including Eric Roberts, Jamie Foxx and Smokey Robinson.

Meanwhile, Dymally was struggling to control her blood pressure. After her 2012 stroke, she started taking two medications. When physician assistant Donna Garnier started treating Dymally in 2016, she was prescribed a third drug. Eventually, her blood pressure stabilized at a normal level.

“Donna’s risk of having another stroke is higher than someone who hasn’t had one, so it’s important to keep her blood pressure low so her heart and blood vessels don’t have to work so hard,” Garnier said.

Garnier also advised Dymally to get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, and watch his salt intake.

“She understands how important it is to her to keep her blood pressure low and to take better care of herself,” Garnier said. “She is doing fantastically.”

Eager to pay it forward, Dymally now volunteers with an online support group. And in 2019, she self-published an autobiography that she hopes will raise awareness of the warning signs of a stroke: When you see a droopy face, arm weakness, or speech difficulties, it’s time to call 911.

“I’m an educated woman and I didn’t know anything about strokes,” she said.

Perhaps rightly so, Dymally reframed his experience, turning what could have been a negative into a positive that will hopefully inspire and educate others.

“Everything happens for a reason,” she said. “I want to give hope to other stroke survivors and hopefully inspire them to know that they too can get through this.”

Stories from the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

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