Stroke

Many years ago a great aunt of mine had known a successful career as a speech therapist. She was a stickler for precise speech and often corrected us children when we visited her. Her own son was quite a bit older than we, had earned a PhD and was a university professor. She was immensely proud of his accomplishments and held him up as a standard which we should emulate. To us kids, he was boring. He talked a lot about subjects that didn’t particularly interest us. Now, as an adult, I can look back and see that I was unfairly judgmental about him. He really was a fascinating man who lived a fascinating life. Our aunt, however, came across to us as stern and strict and precise and judgmental of us and our behavior. I remember one night in 1976 when she showed her sense of humor and had us all laughing as she sang a silly song and got into a bit of family silliness. It was my single glimpse at the other side of this woman and it taught me a lesson about my tendency to judge others - judgment often comes too quickly, before the whole story is known.

Unfortunately, this aunt suffered a stroke and the stroke affected her speech center. She lived her life from the time of the stroke to the end of her life with very limited ability to speak. Her words were slurred when they came out and she frequently couldn’t find the word she wanted to say at all. She was, however, a speech therapist. She understood the dynamics of teaching one to improve her or his speech. And there was nothing wrong with her thinking. Her problems had to do with a few physical limitations and her ability to speak. This was immensely frustrating for her. Another aunt, who provided care and regular visits for her during this part of her life, reported this frustration to the rest of us with a great deal of sadness. Even to those of us who had been judgmental of her it seemed a bit cruel that she should suffer this particular affliction.

In the way of the world the aunt who had cared for her and who was a beloved aunt to all of us also suffered a stroke some years later and she never regained her ability to speak clearly after her stroke. Her attitude, however, was different. She didn’t show that same level of frustration and anger with her condition. She developed a calmness that allowed her a sense of peace and made her much easier to visit.

In the years since, I have had a lot of contact with people who have suffered strokes. One thing about stroke is that there are a lot of different variations. Strokes occur in different areas of the brain in different people. They are of varying sizes. And our brains are all a bit different from other people’s brains. Stroke isn’t the kind of sentence to a slow lingering death that I once thought it was. Stroke occurs in young people as well as elders. It can occur to infants during the birth process with varying effects. I have a friend and colleague who is near to my age who suffered a stroke in his 30’s at the height of a career that up to that point had been brilliant. He was a author and editor and widely recognized for his thinking and speaking and writing. He was in active recovery from his stroke for at least 20 years. His recovery has been amazing. He went from being unable to take care of the simplest of everyday functions to being able to live independently. He has returned to writing and has written eloquently. Many of the functions he lost in the stroke have been recovered. The image that his physicians use is that his brain “rewired” itself. I know that is just an analogy and that it doesn’t involve copper wire, but it is a helpful way of thinking about his recovery.

Another friend, who experienced a stroke in his early eighties, was hospitalized for an extended time. He had been a big fan of newspapers before his stroke and his wife consistently and faithfully read the newspaper to him every day, often reading multiple newspapers for up to four hours each day. We’ll never know for sure, but it certainly seemed as if her reading was a huge factor in his recovery. He began to discuss the news with her and although his vision never recovered fully, he did regain the ability to read parts of the newspaper.

I have learned to think of stroke differently through the experiences of others. I also have learned the warning signs of stroke. The mnemonic FAST (Face, Arms, Speech, Time) is a quick screening technique. Is part of the face drooping or hard to move? Is their arm weakness or inability to raise both arms evenly? Are there speech difficulties or a change in speech? If any of these symptoms exist, time is of essence. Take or administer an aspirin and get to the emergency room as quickly as possible. In one conversation my doctor emphasized calling 911 first and only then taking the aspirin. Don’t even evaluate whether or not you have a ride or can drive, just get help.

There are other warning signs of strokes that are easy to obtain.

Of course all of this is on my mind because I visited another stroke victim yesterday. His speech is definitely affected, but I had no trouble understanding every word that he said. His thinking was clear even though he could barely force his eyes to open and his arms weren’t working the way he wanted them to. Treatment in the hospital was first rate and signs of recovery are very positive at the moment.

It brings back a flood of memories to me, however. We humans are a fragile species. We are prone to illness and the failure of some of our body parts. We need to learn self care and to accept our mortality. None of us will go on forever in this life. And while we make this short journey together, learning to listen is essential. We never know when it will help us truly hear the wisdom of another.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!