For National Women’s Health Week, we’re highlighting one of the strongest women in our community. This is Melissa Edwards’ story.
It was 3:00 in the afternoon when Melissa Edwards finally decided she couldn’t stand her migraine anymore. It was weird: the 26-year-old never got sick, let alone headaches. But sitting there at her desk, it was like every sensation had become too much. She couldn’t stand the feeling of anything.
“I think I’m dying,” she joked to her boss, who let her off early. It was June of 2012 and she pulled back the roof of her convertible in the New Jersey heat. It wasn’t until she was halfway down the parkway that she realized she couldn’t feel the wind on her face. She couldn’t feel her arm.
Her first instinct was to find Brad, her husband and a personal trainer at Jersey Strong. But when she tried to tell him what was happening, he couldn’t understand anything she was saying. He brought her to the hospital and it all went black. Melissa didn’t wake up until a day-and-a-half later.
At 26 years old, Melissa Edwards, an active, on-the-go working mom, a woman training to be in the police academy, a woman working in private security and protective services, woke up in the hospital with no feeling in her right side. When she tried to speak to her visitors, they couldn’t understand her.
She’d had a stroke. And just over six months after that, in February of 2013, she would have another one.
“Within the stroke community, there’s this idea that after six months or so, that’s the best you’re going to get,” says Melissa. “And [Brad and I] kind of looked at ourselves and were like, no.”
In the meantime, though, her life would need to change. She couldn’t drive, work, or walk. She’d get dropped off at physical therapy in the morning and picked up in the afternoon, spending days working on picking up and moving blocks or regaining her reflexes.
But each day, she saw small progress. A lot of that progress happened at Jersey Strong. Brad, with his personal training background, was able to help – when Melissa wanted to start lifting, he tethered a small five-pound weight to her hand and she would attempt to raise her arm, even slightly.
“It became a vital part of recovery to have people there that, you know, cheer you on when they see you on the recumbent bike and aren’t going to judge you,” says Melissa. “You know, I laugh because Planet Fitness says they’re a judgement-free zone. No, I walk in there and you judge me automatically. I walk into Jersey Strong and that’s my family.”
The second stroke would set her recovery back six months, but with the support of Brad and her Jersey Strong family, she kept pushing. She set small goals. Raise the five-pound weight: check. Learn to repronounce words: check. Try to get back to work: check – the owner of the Jersey Strong Juice Bar, Carol, let her take a couple shifts to help her get back into the swing of things. Release her frustration when she failed: check, then try again.
Her first big win was moving from the walker to the cane. Then from the cane to just her legs. In the midst of recovery, she took classes to get her master’s certificate in Human Resources from Cornell.
And then, having relearned to walk and talk, Melissa realized something: she needed to pick up a hobby.
So, she picked up Strongman training. And again, she set small goals. Win 1st place in states: check. Place top three in nationals: check. Get invited to the Arnold Classic, the world-wide Strongman Competition: check. Place top ten there: check – she came in at 6th overall.
Melissa now holds the national record in US Strongman for heaviest deadlift lifted in her weight class: 450 lbs. She holds state records in stones, max axel and max log, and another national record in log, at 195 lbs.
Her stroke still lingers. She can’t take caffeine like other competitors and has to carefully maintain her energy levels. She keeps a healthy sleep and meal schedule. When she’s preparing to pull trucks or deadlift huge weights, she feels every movement out carefully, just as she did when she was first learning to move her fingers again. When other competitors are carbing up, she’s at the medical tent getting her blood pressure checked. When she tried to set the deadlift record for 465 lbs, echoes of her stroke came out and her muscle spasmed, causing her to collapse.
“Next time,” she says.
And next time is soon: this summer she will be competing in Nationals in White Plains, NY and East Coast’s Most Powerful in Baltimore. Her small goal for this summer: to win them both. UPDATE: Melissa placed first in her weight class and first overall — making her the United States Strongman National Champion!
“Get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Melissa says when considering advice for women looking to empower themselves through a healthy lifestyle. “The last six years of my life have been the most uncomfortable, painful situations possible. Like I said, I started out lifting a five-pound weight tethered to my hand with a strap. You can do anything – and when you feel like you can't, that's the time that you surround yourself with the people who think you can.”