Lessons go on for teacher felled by stroke

She should have been there on the first day of school.

She should have been in her classroom full of odd props, crocheted body part models and books, excitedly greeting her new students at ASK Academy in Rio Rancho, eager to fill their minds with biology, anatomy, physiology, dreams and the drive to make those dreams a reality.

She would have kept her classes enthralled as she always did, making the study of life come to life.

She would have learned from her students, too – about their lives, the way they absorbed knowledge, what interested them. She would figure out how she could make school matter to them and prepare them for what mattered after they left her classroom.

They called her Ms. Plom, rhymes with “plum,” short for Plomaritas. Or they called her Ms. P.

Those who know Danielle Giese-Plomaritas say she was a brilliant teacher, an exceptional wife and mother, a devoted daughter and a good person.

Danielle Giese-Plomaritas, 35, uses a brace to stabilize the joints in her right leg. A stroke in October 2018 left her with paralysis on the right side of her body and neurological deficits. (Courtesy of Karla And Ron Giese)

She’s still all those things, but not in the same way she was before her beautiful mind filled with blood, a massive hemorrhage deep in her brain.

The October 2018 stroke was like a flood, unmooring memory and muscle control, displacing knowledge earned from the doctorate she was working toward, her two master’s degrees, years of teaching and daily life.

She was given a 10% to 20% chance of survival. She survived. But the life she had known was gone.

“Danielle was taken out of the classroom in the few seconds it took for a blood vessel to rupture in her brain,” her father, Ron Giese, wrote in a book he is creating to honor his daughter. “In those same few seconds she passed from being an active Ph.D. student to inactive. And in those same few seconds she lost a dozen other opportunities, joys and privileges that the rest of us take for granted.”

I hear Giese-Plomaritas, 35, in the background as I speak with her mother, Karla Giese, and she sounds articulate and bright, able to answer most questions her mother asks her on my behalf.

But her mother sees the damage.

“Teaching is done,” Giese said. “She can’t always explain things. Her words get twisted up. She understands but can’t articulate.”

Mom Karla Giese, right, reads to daughter Danielle Giese-Plomaritas as she recovers at Craig Hospital in Denver from a devastating stroke in 2018. Giese-Plomaritas has two master’s degrees and was working on her doctorate but had to relearn nearly everything because of the stroke.

Giese-Plomaritas is visiting her parents in Albuquerque this month with her sons, ages 6 and 4. Her youngest son, Leo, who turns 3 in October, remained home with his daddy, her husband, in Michigan, where he moved the family to be closer to his while Giese-Plomaritas recovered.

She is still recovering. Paralysis on her right side has stilled her right arm, but she continues to work on walking, which she does haltingly with a cane and by swinging her paralyzed right leg from the hip, a brace holding her foot, ankle and knee straight.

She is also still learning, perhaps not Ph.D.-level stuff, but learning just the same. Last year, she began a virtual program to help improve comprehension and speech skills.

She is still improving since that night when her husband, Josh, called the Gieses and urgently told them “Come now.”

It was five days after Giese-Plomaritas had given birth to Leo, the delivery going well.

“Mom, isn’t Leo cute?” she had cooed to Karla Giese, dropping off barbecue sandwiches for the family that evening at their Rio Rancho home. She had a headache but was in good spirits. Four hours later, Josh found her in bed, blue in the face.

She was hospitalized for the next 1½ years at four medical facilities in three states, including the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, Craig Hospital in Denver and Hope Network Neuro Rehabilitation in East Lansing, Michigan.

“When a life-changing event like paralysis changes how we live out our identity, how do we handle that?” Ron Giese asks in the book about his daughter. “How we respond to them often forms who we are, and who we become, even more than our foundational identity.”

Before a stroke in 2018, Danielle Giese-Plomaritas was a beloved teacher at ASK Academy in Rio Rancho. Students called her Ms. Plom and say she not only inspired them but cared about them. COURTESY OF KARLA  AND RON GIESE

For the answer, he spoke with those who knew his daughter as a teacher at ASK Academy, a STEM charter school, from 2014 until the day Leo was born.

“She didn’t think within the lines. She had all the proper knowledge and training, but she would always look for a way to break the shell that everyone else operated in. The kids were so engaged,” Dan Busse, ASK middle school director, told him. “With Danielle, every student had a chance. With Danielle, every student was worth the investment of a relationship.”

One of those students was Jacob Sandusky, a well-spoken young man interested in the cardiovascular system because it’s the “one way to touch a person’s heart and their life at the same time,” as he put it in a 2018 TEDx Talk he gave in Albuquerque at age 13.

Giese-Plomaritas urged him to give that talk.

In his talk, he discussed a 3D-printed model of a vascular graft he devised to grow blood vessels. He also spoke about his two mentors, one of them Giese-Plomaritas.

She had provided college textbooks, her wisdom and her time, often staying after school with him to help him in his research.

The other is Dr. Mark Langsfeld, a vascular surgeon from UNMH who Giese-Plomaritas arranged for him to meet.

On Tuesday, Jacob visited Giese-Plomaritas to thank her again for inspiring him on his path, which now takes him to New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology.

The many seeds she planted in young minds continue to grow like that, then passed on to others. In that way, Giese-Plomaritas is very much still a teacher.

She also still teaches other lessons – how human biology does not always work the way one learns in a textbook, how to keep fighting against the odds, how to advocate for yourself, how to handle your new identity with grace and strength when a life-changing event like paralysis changes how you live out that identity.

Hard lessons, certainly, but Giese-Plomaritas seems the right teacher for them.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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