Life is full of unexpected surprises. Some surprises are good and some are bad, with both sides of the coin ranging from a one (mild, whichever kind of surprise) to a ten (either a wonderful or woeful surprise). On December 23, 2016, I was treated to a category ten surprise qualifying as a near disaster. As I sat on the couch in our living room getting ready to drive to town for a haircut and lunch with a friend, I suffered a stroke. At first I thought I had the onset of flu and decided to ride things out after cancelling my appointments (the haircut would eventually wait three months). But when I realized that morning that I could no longer stand unaided, I called for Helen who was still in bed. When she found me, she called 911 over my protests.
I seem to learn the hard way at times.
There are often surprises within surprises, a fact I was to discover anew that morning. Since I had felt no pain whatsoever during the stroke, I was astonished when the EMTs advised I’d likely had one. I had always assumed a stroke would be a painful experience, but, while the aftermath can certainly be painful, the event itself is usually painless because the brain feels no pain on its own (or so several of my doctors assure me).
One of the lesser surprises I suffered that morning was going straight from the couch to the local emergency room courtesy of Medic One.
I am a firm believer in learning something from any category of bad surprise simply because there is nothing in them to enjoy. Because of their singular lack of joy enhancing qualities, the only way a bad surprise can be of benefit is by teaching you something – something about yourself, your spouse, your friends, or something useful about life in general. And the lessons can be about anything, including future avoidance behavior, some form of self-realization, or the fact that the brain doesn’t feel pain when left to its own devices. What and how much you learn is up to your own sense of curiosity and your powers of introspection.
So what have I learned from this category ten near-disaster?
No two strokes are the same. Their consequences vary greatly depending upon what part of the brain is affected. Many of my visitors seemed surprised and relieved to find me as coherent as usual and able to speak clearly. Their stereotype of a stroke victim demanded a wizened wreck of a man, not a guy appearing as he used to – but for a bad haircut and the absence of a sense of balance. My stroke hit my cerebellum and subtracted the concept of vertical from my life. My goal for 2017 is to add it back.
My first lesson was that friends and family matter a great deal, especially when they have the unerring good sense to always arrive when spirits are low in order to salve your wounds with humor and ply your appetite with gifts of sinful food not on the new healthy diet that has caused me to shed so many unneeded pounds.
And I learned that doctors and nurses (especially nurses) work harder on a daily basis than I ever did when employed – and I worked pretty damned hard at my profession. It’s amazing what they do and how often and how well they do it. While I had the misfortune to meet one Nurse Ratched, she was a one-off and disliked by her colleagues. The nurses who regularly attended me during my three separate hospital stays were all courteous, friendly, well trained, and understanding of my needs and shortcomings (stroke-induced or otherwise). I am in awe of their dedication, knowledge, and versatility.
Therapists – both occupational and physical – appear to believe that their patients are victims and that their job is to induce near death experiences in them. They drive you to the limit in each engagement, smiling the while. The great ones are able to make you believe that it was your idea to suffer in the name of rehabilitation and to make you laugh just before – or even during – your inevitable collapse. My newest best friends are all therapists; they have reminded me of the stubborn personal core that has served me well so far and which will power me to renewed good health. Bastards, all of them! Glorious people, but bastards nonetheless.
My primary lesson learned is that spouses are central to recovery. The really good ones, the real keepers, empathize with your ills while urging you onward by any means they can conceive, fair or foul – all following a time when their own sense of security was knocked head over tail in an instant. I know this for a fact. Helen has been my rock, my transport, my best friend. I would not have been in a position to write this piece if it wasn’t for her; I would likely not be alive if she hadn’t ignored my protests and called 911 that long ago December day (or on either of my other two trips to the hospital). She is my strength – even when she has nothing left of herself to give.
Rehabilitation from a stroke is a lonely business even if you have a spouse, no matter how many people are there to help. In the end, you can only move as far forward as you are able to drive yourself. Nurses, therapists, and spouses are never surrogates for willpower. They can only effectively assist those willing to help themselves. And willpower is a finicky gift, especially when the obstacles to its success come fast and furious. But it’s always been a core attribute of mine, even when suffering from near TKOs. I have my grandmother, Bunny, to thank for my stubbornness – she never took anything lying down except her own death, an event that she made wait after suffering a massive heart attack until she had donned her best nightgown and took to her bed to meet it on her terms.
Some days I make more progress than others. I am fortunate to have a lot of help even though I am on my own as the nature of life demands. I am well aware that I will get just as far as I can drive myself just as fast as I can do so; not one centimeter further nor one second sooner. My short-term goal is to use my walker to walk with Helen and my friends Tom and Carrie the two tenths of a mile to our mailbox and back; my long term goal is to once again walk unaided to anywhere I wish.
So, I persist, bastards, near-TKOs, and all.