DOWN THE ROAD A PIECE
By Jane D. Brown
My husband, Jim, had a stroke in early May—actually, a series of small strokes over the course of a week.
We think he had the first one when working out in a gym and felt dizzy and thought he might fall over. A couple of days later, he was playing pickleball but his left leg didn’t move when he wanted it to. His friends thought he was dehydrated, so he drank a lot of water and played a game and then drove home.
He probably should have driven to the ER right then, but he had none of the classic signs of stroke in the FAST acronym — Facial drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulties, and so it didn’t seem like the T for Time mattered.
A few days later, still feeling dizzy, he saw his primary care doctor who said it was probably vertigo and it should get better. The next day a friend came by and said he looked terrible and should call an ambulance. The EMTs said it could be a panic attack or a stroke but they couldn’t tell without an MRI. They wanted to take him to the ER and for observation overnight.
Jim had done the ER drill a couple of years before for a panic attack and decided not to do that again. But this time he was feeling worse and finally a week after the initial episode, got his son to take him to the ER. Much later that day he learned he had three “acute” strokes on the right side of his brain.
I was in Ireland for a wedding this whole time. I offered to come home early but Jim said that wasn’t necessary. I wish I had. Maybe I would have done something differently. But maybe not. I’m prone to listening to medical professionals and the ones he was seeing didn’t seem very concerned. And, I have a happy gene so tend to think everything will be OK.
We’ve learned a lot in the last three months as we deal with getting Jim back to full function. First, we’re lucky these were relatively mild strokes, so he can walk, talk and think almost normally. He’s still a whiz at our daily Wordle. He does sound like the gruff Coach Roy on the “Ted Lasso” show but has no trouble saying more than the F word. The main issues are with coordination of his left leg and arm and dizziness.
Second, almost everyone who suffers strokes gets depressed. No matter how “mild” the loss of body function, it is a loss, and it is going to take time to recover. Our doctor said they measure success at three months, six months and a year. In the meantime, Jim’s task is “rehab, rehab, rehab; patience, patience, patience.”
Jim is not a patient nor optimistic person by nature, so this isn’t easy. The ER doctor prescribed an anti-depressant immediately. The first one made Jim feel worse; the second finally seems to be lightening Jim’s mood. I can tell by how he treats our dog. Zeke is allowed to cuddle on the bed in the early morning more often these days.
Our chickens help with Jim’s well-being, too. We call it chicken therapy – our two Dominique hens, Chick and Chuck, like to sit on Jim’s lap. Sometimes they fall asleep as he strokes them.
Third, physical therapy is crucial. That’s the “rehab” part. We’re lucky again to have found a great team that is helping Jim get back his overall balance and strength. The occupational therapist taught us exercises to help Jim, a writer, get dexterity back in his left hand so he could type. He’s glad that he’s increased from 22 words per minute to 38 in three months, not as fast as he used to, but in the right direction.
My friends ask me how I’m doing. I hear this question as an expression of love. A younger friend whose husband had open-heart surgery this year says she counts on her “love circle” for support. As the caregiver I’m learning how important that is. I’m lucky to have a wonderful circle who invite me for walks, talks and meals.
I’m lucky, too, that Jim is a grateful patient, that he’s fine with my driving him to his appointments, reminding him to drink water and do his at-home exercises. He likes my cooking.
I’m learning how much Jim did around our house. My friends used to tease me that I was already in “assisted living” because Jim did a lot of the housework and all of the maintenance. He even told the PT that one of his goals was do the housework again. Yes!
So, as these things go, we’re lucky. We joke that we’re working hard to keep this old car (Jim) on the road. We hope we have lots more miles to go together.
Jane D. Brown taught in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media for 35 years and has lived in Chapel Hill since 1977.