Hot off her critically acclaimed performance as the Bearded Lady in the Hugh Jackman-starring musical “The Greatest Showman”, Keala Settle took to the stage at the 2018 Academy Awards to deliver a rousing rendition of her showstopping number “This Is Me”, earning rapturous applause from the star-studded crowd at the Dolby Theatre.
It was only a week earlier, however, the 43-year-old actress-singer had suffered a mini-stroke that caused her to lose motor function on one side of her body.
For the first time, Settle is opening up about her story, telling People that the stroke led doctors to diagnose her with Moyamoya disease, a rare cerebrovascular disorder that required 10 hours of double-bypass brain surgery to correct.
“It’s shifted me in ways I’m still understanding,” she tells the magazine. “The way that I look at the world is so completely different. I’m more at peace than I’ve ever been; I can find the joy in things I never could. This truly gave me another lease on life.”
As Settle recalls, the weeks leading up to the Oscars were a complete whirlwind, and she was teetering on the brink of exhaustion. “I was completely run-down,” she says. “I had gotten food poisoning in Tokyo, I was fighting a cold. I barely had anything left to give.”
While rehearsing the song she would perform at the Oscars, she recalls being under so much stress that she had a breakdown in the midst of a rehearsal, bursting into tears — and then experiencing a shooting pain in her skull and feeling the right side of her body suddenly go numb.
“It was like someone cracked an egg on the top of my head and then drew a line on my body, turning one half off. My body started drooping immediately. I tried to put my hands up to my face, but I could only move my left arm. I couldn’t talk because part of my tongue was immobile. I tried to stand, but there was nothing,” she says.
“I was panicked,” she continues. “I let out this wail because I was so scared and the room went silent. All I could figure out how to say was ‘Help.'”
Her panic lessened when feeling returned to her body within 20 minutes but brain scans taken in the following days indicated the problem was serious, with blood flow and oxygen being blocked to half her brain — a condition she had unknowingly lived with for years — due to collated carotid arteries. Her brain reacted by creating vessels at the base of her skull to supply blood, but those vessels had dried up.
“It could have happened at any time,” Settle explains of her stroke. “It just so happened to happen a week before the biggest performance of my life.”
While she was able to deliver arguably the most triumphant performance of her career, the recovery process has not been easy.
“I have a new brain and that’s meant starting over,” she says. “I needed a blood transfusion to help move, and then I spent the entire first month doing a lot of cognitive and physical therapy to relearn how to walk, talk, write, and live life again. I’ve been growing my memory, too. It’s all a process and I’m still working on it daily.”
Ultimately, Settle is thankful that things played out the way they did. “The universe had its chance to take me and I’m still here. I’m just so grateful to be alive and I’m not giving that up.”