Finding New Talents
Gerhard and Gillian Endress participate fully in life. Pre-stroke, post-stroke, they are go-getters — not out of ambition but out of passion. They love life and each other, and the rest of this story flows from that.
Gerhard, 78, emigrated from Germany to the United States when he was 18. He was a watchmaker for 60 years. Gillian, 73, emigrated from England when she was 20 and has been a fitness instructor and personal trainer for 30 years. They met in Memphis and have been married for 20 years.
They retired to Florida in 2010. They moved to Tierra Verde, a small island community near St. Petersburg. Gerhard was still doing some watches on the side, and Gillian was doing some personal training. “But retirement didn’t mean sitting around, we were both very active,” Gillian said. “We were runners and tennis players and bikers. We love the outdoor life.”
Gerhard loved tennis and played twice a week with a group of men who were half his age. And this was not recreational tennis, but several hours of competition. He loved tennis, but there was a problem: “He was not good about hydrating. The year before his stroke in 2014, he was in the hospital twice for dehydration,” Gillian said. “The day of his stroke, it was like 96 degrees. He played two or three hours of tennis and then took a tennis clinic right afterwards, running back and forth, just obviously overdoing it.”
Gillian was gone to an all-day workshop, and Gerhard invited one of the tennis players over to watch the World Cup soccer tournament. “That was not like him at all,” Gillian said. “He had never done that before.” After taking a shower he turned on the game and had a stroke. When Gerhard didn’t answer the door or his phone, his friend went around to the back and saw Gerhard on the floor. The sliding door was open, so the friend entered and called 911.
By the time Gerhard got to the hospital, it was too late for tPA. He was in ICU for two weeks and stayed in the hospital for two months. His left side was affected as well as his swallowing. “After three more months of inpatient rehab he could shuffle short distances with a cane, and he could lift his left arm if you asked him to, but he couldn’t use it for anything,” Gillian said. “Luckily, he was right handed.” In speech therapy, he did regain the ability to swallow.
In the four years since his stroke, Gerhard has been very active. Each year he has taken advantage of 18 sessions of outpatient PT and OT through Medicare. When finished with that regime, he works out with a personal trainer once a week. He also rides his recumbent bike several times a week. “The shoe is attached to the pedal, and once his foot is secure, he’s good to go,” Gillian said. “His balance is good, and his legs are strong. I love riding with him.”
A year after his stroke, a friend who had had a traumatic brain injury asked if he would be willing to help plant gardens at Abil House, a local organization that helps people with brain injuries gain independence. “Before all this happened, Gerhard was an avid gardener,” Gillian said. “We had a beautiful garden here.” While he was designing and installing the garden at Abil House, he took a painting class and found he was good at it. An art teacher friend invited him to her class, which he still does once week.
Before long he was watching painting shows on TV and painting at home. “He started turning out really beautiful pieces of art,” Gillian said. “One thing led to another. A local restaurant put his artwork on their walls for a month. Then our church had a talent show, and they asked us to be a part of that. We got up and told our story in front of the congregation.”
Then they decided to make greeting cards of his artwork. “We found a printer, and now we have box sets of 10 greeting cards. We started a business called G’s Art Plus. We don’t have a website, we sell the cards and paintings on Etsy.com,” she said. They also have a Facebook page, G’s Art Plus.
Gerhard was as surprised as anybody by his talent at painting, but he found that he really enjoys it. He paints what he sees in his imagination as opposed to painting a still life or something like that. “It’s a meditation for me,” he said. “It’s really relaxing, and I like coming up with ideas of how to do certain things. I never know what I’m going to paint until I sit down and start painting. It’s fun to see what I come up with.”
Marketing has become another outlet for participating in life. They have done local media as well as visited churches and assisted living facilities. “We go there, tell our story, and sell the cards and his other art, and they’re selling well,” she said. “It’s pretty amazing to watch him go from being so depressed right after the stroke because he could no longer use his hands, to painting these wonderful pictures. We believe it was a God thing, how his friend found him on the floor, and another person who wanted a garden but that led him to painting, which led to the greeting cards. It’s given him a whole new lease on life. He’s cut down on many of his medications because he hasn’t needed as much. Sure, he would love to have the use of his left side again, but now that he has another purpose that’s not such a big deal, we just feel like we’ve been so blessed. Certainly, it’s been a big challenge, but we’ve been able to turn it around for good. We don’t know where it’s going, but we’re excited to keep going out there and giving hope and inspiration to people. The American Heart Association here is using his cards for thank you notes with their volunteers.”
Gillian hastens to add that it was not all smooth sailing, especially at first, because they were both so independent. “Being a caregiver definitely changed my life, because he had always taken care of all the finances and fixing things around the house. I was active in my own life, but I didn’t do a lot of that. People came around a lot at first, but after a while, they go back to their lives, and I had to learn how to do everything and it was scary. Caregiving was 24/7 for a while, but I knew from personal training that caregivers have to take care of themselves. I kept taking exercise classes, and I still go to my yoga class.”
The most difficult thing for Gillian was knowing how much to do and what not to do. Her criterion came down to making sure Gerhard was safe. “He is still bad about not taking in enough fluids, and sometimes he feels like I’m nagging him, but we both know what can happen if he doesn’t,” she said. “He’s on seizure medication after having a seizure a year post-stroke. And last April, he was in the hospital for five days with a severe bladder and kidney infection and a kidney stone because of not drinking fluids like he should. Hopefully, he’s learned his lesson on that, but he’s a hardheaded German. He has a strong will to live, but sometimes he doesn’t take the best care of himself, and I have to step in and that can cause some problems. But I think now we’re doing well, it just takes some time to adjust to the changes.”
As with many survivors, Gerhard was impatient with the pace of recovery. “I used to do everything, but now I get tired more quickly and it’s frustrating that I can’t do those things anymore,” he said. “Recovery has been really hard work, but I’m happy with the progress I’ve made.”
“I admit, there were times that threatened our marriage. Sometimes he took his anger out on me, and it hurt,” she said. “I know he resented having lost so much and having to depend on me. But we have worked through all that. Role reversal was hard at first, but he’s pretty independent now.”
“The stroke taught me that I can be a lot more patient and that I do have the willpower to keep going. I never gave up anytime, whether it was in the hospital or at home. I always kept going and try to do something else every day.”
His advice to other survivors? “Never give up hope, just keep going and eventually, God will show you which way to go and what you can do make a normal life. And definitely do your exercises.”
The stroke has enhanced the spiritual dimension of their lives. “I meditate every morning now and really enjoy it,” Gerhard said. “It’s kind of a religious experience for me. The stroke definitely opened my mind to a spiritual aspect. It helped me realize that I couldn’t do everything by myself, that I had to call on God once in a while to help me overcome some difficulties. When I meditate, I kind of talk with God and have a conversation with him.”
The couple has started attending a non-denominational church, a new experience that they really enjoy. “We pray together every night, which we never did before,” Gillian said. “If we feel sorry for ourselves for two seconds, we just remember that this is a miracle that has happened. We don’t know where that’s going to take us, but it’s a blessing. We’re on a new journey and we’re grateful for our lives today.”
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