Every May, we recognize National Stroke Month. It’s a time for us to raise awareness about the impact of stroke not just on the individual, but on the family. This month, two people are going to share their stroke story from two very different perspectives: survivor and partner. Each week this month, we’ll hear from Steve, a stroke survivor, and his partner Tracy. They’ll recount their experiences at different stages of the recovery process, and provide a perspective that only someone who has been there before can.
When you’re in rehab, you get into a routine. It doesn’t all happen at once. In the beginning, especially after the trauma of my head surgery, I was disoriented and everything seemed foreign. But as time went on, things started to come together… and in a lot of ways.
In the beginning, it seemed like I was meeting a new person every hour. They would come into my room, explain to me who they were and how we would work together. At first, it was just a matter of trying to remember names and faces. But soon, the people I worked with became very familiar. I started my day with my nurses Cindy or Val. It made me happy to hear Cindy’s voice in the hall because I knew she was coming in, and it was a wonderful way to start the day seeing her. I did physical therapy with Mike and Megan, occupational therapy with Brian and speech therapy with Aimee. Throughout the day, nurses Lorna, Judy, Carly and Stephanie were kind and nurturing to me, even in my worst conditions. We were all a team now.
But they weren’t the only members of my team. What I remember as being one of the most therapeutic aspects of my time in inpatient rehab was the people that came to visit me. It wasn’t just my family, but also my friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in years. I cannot tell you what that meant to me. That they would travel such a distance to see me in that state… it enlightened me to a whole new definition of our friendship. Of course, my most frequent visitors were Tracy and my daughter Karissa – and sometimes they would bring a treat.
Now don’t get me wrong – Magee has great food and fed us very well. But when everything around you has changed, sometimes you can find small comfort in a familiar food. After I was taken off the dysphagia diet, Tracy, Karissa and my business associate Don would steal me away from the patient’s general lunch room and bring me a variety of meals to feast upon. As simple as hometown pizza to more elaborate Mexican and Middle Eastern fare whatever I happened to be craving that week. They would set the table and we would sit together and enjoy these delicious meals together. We all ate together like a family because we are a family. Tracy always offered the staff a plate… and you just might as well forget trying to say no to her! It was a very therapeutic, and I looked forward to it every single week.
But it wasn’t just my emotional state that was improving. For me, one of the first and most obvious signs that I was getting better and was beginning the healing was having the staples removed from my head. It had been weeks since they had put them in and I was starting to get worried that they were never coming out. But this day they would and with a vengeance.
It was shortly after lunch and I was in my room laying in the bed when the doctor came in to remove the staples and the kind nurse Cindy was there to assist. I knew this was going to be a rather lengthy procedure Cindy reassured me that all I had to do was hold her hand and squeeze as hard as I needed to if they hurt when they came out – and, boy, did they ever hurt! I asked, “What’s the over/under on the number of how many staples you are removing?” She said, “68.” Cindy was true to her word. When some of them hurt, I squeezed her hand very, very hard, but she was ever stoic and said, “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. You just hang in there, Steve.”
And while getting those staples out was a monumental day, one of the biggest challenges I still had ahead of me was a doozy: walking. My gait was very, very asymmetrical and unusual. Mike and Megan decided that they were going to get to the bottom of what would help me walk again with a walker. I used to tease and say they would have to bring a team from NASA in to figure this all out.
They were determined to help me walk (without the help of NASA)… and I was determined to do it. Mike created a lift for my right foot and put a grip on the walker, so that my weakened left hand could hold on with some strength. We started walking with each therapy session, and with each attempt, Mike and Megan would try something different. They started putting footprints for my left and my right foot down for me to aim for when I was stepping. This helped enormously because I at least had an idea of what a normal step should be like, and had a target that I could aim for. One week, they put a full-length mirror up for me to look at my gait and my posture. That’s when I realized poor Megan was taking the brunt of the abuse! In the mirror, I saw my hand was pushing her face in some way in order to stabilize my body. She never complained and always laughed saying that it was not a big deal, and it never hurt — somehow I couldn’t believe this but I have to trust that she was honest about it.
Finally, after about what must’ve been the 5th or 6th attempt, things started to really come to fruition. I was starting to feel confident in my stride and my stability. I was given the walker, and started walking up and down, back and forth, which seemed amazing to me. Mike and Megan were very encouraging and supportive – and they made it fun. They would give me a list of items, and I had to do a scavenger hunt for things in the therapy room, walking the whole time. It felt really good to accomplish something.
As I progressed and progressed, I knew that eventually, I would be leaving Magee and going home. That was really exciting… but also daunting.