Many of you already know I am a stroke “survivor.” I retired from my federal job on January 3, 2008 with 37 and 1/2 years of service in a variety of jobs for the Social Security Administration headquarters in Baltimore, MD. I had planned to do a lot more sailing (I had bought a bigger boat a few years earlier with that in mind) and set about readying my boat for an adventure south down the Intracoastal Waterway. Alas, I had a bad stroke on April 13, 2008, so those sailing plans never came to pass. My “retirement” lasted barely 3 months before the next phase of my life began (really our lives–Linda’s was greatly impacted, too).
I had been at the marina one Sunday morning doing some small projects and having finished them, decided to drive home shortly before noon. On the drive home, I had the stroke. I credit my Subaru Forester with staying upright despite my swerving from shoulder to shoulder, with all kinds of stuff hitting the underbelly of the car. Fortunately, there was no other traffic that morning (a Sunday), I finally realized I was in no shape to get home and pulled over to the side of the road. Unbeknownst to me, I was being followed by an off-duty Anne Arundel County policewoman who pulled in behind me because of my erratic driving. Her first question:
“Have you been drinking.?”
“No ma’am. All I have had to drink is the Diet Dr Pepper in the cup holder in the center console.”
Next question, “Are you feeling OK?”
“No ma’am. My left side is weak, and I was talking on my cell phone with a friend (legal back then!) who told me my speech was slurred.”
[That was my good friend Mike Lehmkuhl, who later told me he recalls my saying “I think I’m having a stroke.” I have no recollection of that, but my brain was a bit occupied with other things.]
At that point, the officer told me she had already requested back-up and an ambulance. Sure enough, they showed up shortly. By then I had gotten out of my car, with difficulty since my left side wasn’t working very well. I noticed the driver’s side was all banged up, and the rear-view mirror on that side was gone. It was only a stub sticking out. I later learned about the left-side blindness I temporarily had from the stroke. The brain simply turned that eye off, in so many words. Obviously, I had been hitting things (as well as running over stuff) but never realized it. Sadly, I never got that officer’s name.
The EMTs were amazing. They had an EKG on me in no time. One of them came over and asked me if anyone had ever told me I have AFIB–atrial fibrillation. I told him, no, and he said “Lots of people have it and don’t know it until they have a stroke.” They then started to put me in the ambulance and I tried calling my wife, Linda. She was out running errands, so I left a message for her to call me back. I don’t recall saying anything else–maybe that I had an accident. She called back in a few minutes, and the EMT answered the phone for me, telling her I was going to the hospital, gave her directions to it, and told her my vitals were stable and she did not need to rush. I don’t think he mentioned the stroke to her at that point.
Oh, before the EMTs hauled me off, a Maryland State trooper saw all the activity and stopped for a visit. His first question: “Have you been drinking?” I gave him the same response as before. “No, sir, just the Diet Dr Pepper in the cup holder in the center console.” His gruff response was “We’ll see about that.” And he marched off to his car to fetch a breathalyzer.
By then the EMTs were yelling at him “He’s having a stroke, we need to get him to the hospital!” The trooper ignored them, sticking the tube in my mouth and telling me to blow into it. I did as ordered. He looked at the meter with disgust and left the scene. That is one reason I love Arlo Guthrie’s song “Alice’s Restaurant” so much. The trooper saw his chance of arresting a drunk driver and getting a gold star, disappearing in a cloud of Diet Dr Pepper residue. That breathalyzer was his answer to Officer Obie’s stack of 8×10 glossy photos with descriptions on the back describing the littering–with nothing but blind justice staring him in the face from that breathalyzer. (The judge in that littering case was blind.) Officer Obie was foiled again.
I won’t bore you with the ambulance ride (I have no idea if the siren was blaring or not–a common question) or with all the emergency room stuff, or how long it took them to give me the miracle clot-busting drug. tPA. (Yes, that is how it’s spelled–don’t ask me why and, yes, it seemed to take forever.)
I hasten to add before continuing this saga, that whenever one member of a family has a stroke, the whole family is affected. My wife, Linda, suddenly had to assume the role of caregiver, and she was still working then. Her life has never been the same either. She has been my supporter all along the way, cheering me on, or kicking my butt, being my advocate as needed. I could not have made it this far without her. Sweetheart, I know how much you have given up because of me. You have no idea how much I love you for all that you have done for me.
Our sweet cat Henry was also affected. I was not home for 8 weeks or so, and he missed his dad. Linda would come home from work to a very needy cat she had to take care of and then see me at the rehab hospital where I spent several weeks. Even when I came home, Henry had to get used to a hospital bed in his family room. They installed it the day before I came home. He either threw up or peed under it that first night. I can’t recall which–I wasn’t there until the next day.
When I did come home Henry made his displeasure known. When I was first home, he avoided me since I was in the hated bed. Linda put him in my lap on the bed one time hoping he’d settle in for some petting. He briefly sniffed my affected left side and immediately jumped down. He knew my left side wasn’t right. He only started cozying up to me when I no longer needed the bed.
But that is jumping ahead a bit. After 9 days in the hospital, the Baltimore-Washington Medical Center (many in the ICU), they discharged me to the Kernan Rehabilitation Hospital in the western part of the city, not far from SSA headquarters. Somewhat convenient for Linda who was still working, and for visits by former workmates.
Kernan is locally known as the rehab place for the former Baltimore Colts back when. Johnny Unitas’ framed jersey still hangs in the lobby. It’s also where he died after a workout on a treadmill years later.
I was at Kernan for about 8 weeks of intensive physical, occupational, and speech therapy. The therapy was excellent, the food and medical care much less so.
After my discharge from Kernan, I came home to a very needy Henry who was not pleased with his Dad as stated above.
We stayed less than a year in our 2 story house before deciding to sell it and move to an age-restricted condo complex to a unit with everything on one floor. Henry went with us and loved the cozier accommodations–no steps, and less room for him to cover to find us. He was older by then (he was an estimated 6 years old when we adopted him) and also had some health issues as he aged. He is no longer with us, unfortunately.
After Kernan, I also joined the local Y for its water fitness class and fitness center to continue my never-ending rehab. I also connected with a number of stroke rehab studies conducted by the University of Maryland Medical School in Baltimore in conjunction with the Baltimore VA hospital located next to the U. of MD. hospital. I also have volunteered for a number of stroke rehab studies those 2 organizations have done. I’ve lost count of how many studies I have participated in. But they all have contributed to my progress, and hopefully have produced results to help others. The studies have ranged from treadmill work, balance challenges, to trying out ankle robots to assist walking. It’s great to know that lots of intelligent, dedicated people working to make life better for a lot of people.
As I write this, the world is locked down with this coronavirus thing, or COVFEFE 45 as I call it. Looks like we may have several months to maybe 2 years of a “new normal” until we have a vaccine for it. My mobility has suffered as a result of the quarantine and I have just started a new round of physical therapy for my mobility. Life goes on.
BTW, Spellcheck keeps trying to put a period after the Dr in Dr Pepper. There is NO period there. Trust me.
Lastly some words about strokes. Strokes are one of the leading causes of death, and of disability if you happen to survive one. And no two strokes are alike. Some are mild and only cause physical issues for a very short time (usually called TIA’s–transitory ischemic accidents), or they can kill you outright. The treatment of strokes has improved greatly since I had mine in 2008. Now if the stroke is caused by a blood clot (like mine) doctors now can go in through a blood vessel to capture and remove the clot in your brain. Sort of a reverse stent procedure done for the heart. Some strokes result from a hemorrhage in the brain (broken blood vessel.) Those are harder to diagnose and have to be treated differently from ischemic strokes. And the part of the brain denied blood during the stroke itself, thus killing brain cells, can differ.
Bottom line: strokes suck. It’s been a dozen years for me and I still consider myself in recovery mode.