Catherine Szerszen photo.jpg

Catherine Szerszen

Committee Member for Connecticut Outreach and Publications 

Event / Telethon Team Committee Member   

Catherine’s grandmother suffered a stroke at 73 years old and she was left with right-sided weakness.  Her speech was not impaired, but she did receive treatment for the residual loss of strength. Her mother, at age 70, also suffered a stroke diagnosed as a TIA (Transient Ischemic Attack).  She was sitting in her car when it happened.  Catherine recalled that she drove home and complained of feeling very dizzy, lightheaded and was disoriented.  She was taken to the Emergency Room and diagnosed with a TIA. She was given medications and never experienced another event after her initial TIA. 

Catherine is a distinguished and well recognized administrator and educator.  Her career in education, before retirement, spanned over twenty-four years with the last sixteen years serving as a Vice-Principal of two very large high schools.  Catherine resides in Connecticut with her husband and if you ask her about the greatest treasures in her life, she will readily share her deep love of her family and need to nurture them. She is blessed with being married to the love of her life, Tony, and has five beautiful children who carry along her desire to reach out and help others. She has been blessed with two beautiful grandsons who have her wrapped around their fingers – exactly where she wants to be.

Born the eldest of three daughters, Catherine’s ailing father became her role model and “silent hero.”  He often told Catherine, “You have the God given ability to make a difference, but you have to go to college to professionally do what you do best – help other people.” So, as unconventional as it was at that time, Catherine embarked upon a college career to become a social worker at age 39; after the birth of her fifth child.  Attending school full-time while raising a large family was quite an endeavor.  It was not unusual for Catherine to attend classes with her youngest daughter seated on her lap while she delved into her studies.  While her classmates carried their books in backpacks, she carried her books in a diaper bag.  She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) with a Bachelors in Social Work. She received her Master’s Degree from Fordham University’s Advanced Standing Master’s Program in Social Work while concurrently completing her graduate internship at Yale and graduating from Fordham with a 4.0 GPA. She earned her 6th Year Degree in Educational Leadership at SCSU and was the recipient of many academic awards and scholarships during her college career.

She credits all of her success in college and her professional career to the unwavering love and support of her family and God’s generosity in blessing her with a talent to touch the lives of others.  Catherine worked with children her entire professional career and before entering into the field of education, she worked with children as a clinical social worker in pediatric units, emergency rooms, private clinical settings, and adults in medical surgical units. She also served as the Principal of a residential school for boys with extreme social and emotional issues. She has volunteered on community Youth Boards and assisted children from other countries to assimilate to our culture.  She mentored and supervised teachers pursuing their administrative degree in educational leadership and supervision, and served as a clinical field supervisor for social work students from prestigious colleges and universities.

Catherine strongly believes that keeping active at any age is key to living a productive and worthwhile life that keeps you young of heart, body, mind, and soul.  An adventuresome woman, at age 66, Catherine entered in the world of Senior Pageants.  She entered into the pageants to breakdown the stereotypical view of women over the age of 60 and to demonstrate that women over 60 are still making valuable contributions to their families, careers, communities and the world in which we live.  She quickly garnered success within the “Senior Pageant World” and gained notoriety as:  Ms. Connecticut Senior America 2015; Ms. Senior USA Connecticut 2016; Ms. New Hampshire Senior America 2017; Ms. Senior USA East, and Ms. Ireland Senior Universe in 2018.  She was inducted into the Senior USA Hall of Fame and received the Pageantry Magazine Spirit Award.  She was also a nominee for the prestigious Global Beauty Awards in 2018. She is a strong advocate for Seniors and met with the Commissioner on Aging to bring the issues, needs and concerns of Seniors to the forefront.  She is a spokesperson for the America Cancer Society for skin cancer, a battle that she continues to fight every day, and an entertainer at Senior Centers and Veteran’s Homes with her Connecticut Senior America Cameo Club. She is also the Connecticut State Administrator for the Ms. Senior America Pageant and the Director of the Ms. Connecticut Senior America Pageant. All of the information about Catherine and her high energy level, volunteerism, successful career in education and social work, and her constant attention to the needs of her family and loved ones is important to understanding who she is, where life has taken her and why speaking out and educating others about strokes is so important.

Catherine’s grandmother suffered a stroke at 73 years old and she was left with right-sided weakness.  Her speech was not impaired, but she did receive treatment for the residual loss of strength. Her mother, at age 70, also suffered a stroke diagnosed as a TIA (Transient Ischemic Attack).  She was sitting in her car when it happened.  Catherine recalled that she drove home and complained of feeling very dizzy, lightheaded and was disoriented.  She was taken to the Emergency Room and diagnosed with a TIA. She was given medications and never experienced another event after her initial TIA. 

Catherine lived with a sense of apprehension as she reached 70 years old and worried about having a stroke, but with life being so busy that was placed in the recesses of her mind, until a morning in May, 2019.  She awoke in the morning feeling very tired and had some difficulty swallowing.  When she started her morning routine of putting on her make-up, she noticed that no matter how carefully she tried to apply her eyeliner, she could not make her hand coordinate with applying it to her eye.  She noticed a right sided weakness and could barely call for her husband who was in the next room.  When he arrived in the bedroom, he immediately knew she was having a stroke.  He witnessed the right side of her face drooping, an inability to communicate what she was feeling, a sense of giddiness, and an inability to coordinate body movements. They had previous discussions about what the signs of a stoke would look like so, if either one of them displayed these signs the other one would immediately call 911; and that is what he did.  Catherine was immediately transported by ambulance to Yale New Haven Hospital where she stayed for three days and she was diagnosed with a TIA.  The cause of her TIA was plaque in one of the vessels on the left side of her brain.  She was prescribed Lipitor, Norvasc and was told to take a baby aspirin each day.  She was lucky, no residual effects from the TIA and so she proceeded through life and continued to work as usual.  She had just been selected as the new Principal of a Catholic School and it was like a dream come true for her.  She loved her job, her staff and especially her students.  But, as luck would have it on the second day of school and exactly 90 days to the minute of her first TIA, while in her office she suffered a second TIA.  Again, she was taken by ambulance to Yale New Haven Hospital and immediately greeted by their amazing team of neurologists.  It was determined that she had suffered another TIA.  Somehow the second TIA did not seem quite as severe as the first, although all of the indicators were there: drooping face, inability to communicate, body weakness, and inability to coordinate body movements.  She remained in the hospital for three days and all the necessary tests were performed.  It appeared that the site of the first stroke was responsible for the second event.  So, a change in medication was prescribed and she returned to her job a week later.  Somehow in retrospect, a return to work considering her medical circumstances might seem imprudent to others, but she was a woman with a mission and that mission certainly did not include giving up on her dream job.  In October of that year she began to feel very tired and her blood pressure readings at home were higher than what her doctors had hoped for.  So, with great sadness she resigned her position as Principal and decided to concentrate on making the lifestyle changes needed to avoid a recurrence of another TIA.  Those changes included avoiding stress as much as possible, dietary changes, increase in exercise, taking all prescribed medications, and slowing down the pace a bit in regard to commitments. It appeared that the medical protocol and lifestyle changes helped, however new feelings of vulnerability and anxiety set in.  She recalled what patients shared with her when she was a medical social worker and worked with stroke victims.  The overarching concerns her patients shared were feelings of vulnerability and fear of losing their place within the family as the matriarch or patriarch of the family.  Many felt embarrassed and a sense of loss of control over their lives.  She recalled going through all of those feelings. She asked herself, Will it happen again?  Where will I be if it does happen? Will I be alone and unable to get help?  She has been blessed with a very supportive husband and children; and an APRN from the Yale Neurology Group, Nicole, who has been her “rock” during all of these events and follow-up visits. Through her support and the fine medical-care she provides, those feelings of vulnerability and anxiety subsided over time. 

After working through the feelings of vulnerability and the anxiety that accompanies the uncertainty of suffering another stroke, Catherine renewed her commitment to “living life” and to continuing to breakdown the stereotypes surrounding aging women.  When she turned 60 years old, she said, “My age will not define me, I will define myself” and now her mantra continues with one slight change – “My stroke will not define me, I will define myself.”  So, at 72 years old, she has cast away self-limitations, found a resurgence of her inner strength and energy and signed a modeling and acting contract with a very well-known national agency. She is now auditioning for roles in commercials and hopefully TV shows or movies in the near future.

Her new goal is to live to 100 and never repeat the same day twice. She is well on her way to reaching that goal and to her continued effort to help others by sharing the transparency of her life experiences.  She has always lived by the words of Mother Teresa, “We are not all destined to do great things, but we can all do small things with great love.”  Sharing her story is her way of doing something small with great love. She hopes it will save lives by educating others about recognizing the warning signs of stroke and also give hope to others that “there is life after stroke.” She has been faced with many challenges and adversities in life and with age and wisdom she learned that every adversity is an opportunity to become stronger and every challenge presents an opportunity to grow into who you are really meant to be.

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