A Survivor’s Insights on Her Journey Back
I was swimming laps at the Y, just a few days before Christmas, when I suffered a stroke.
I’ve always loved to swim, and I had a musical solution for keeping track of my laps. For each lap, I mentally sang music that told me where I was in the count. Beethoven’s Seventh, for example, meant I was on lap seven. Each time I made it to the 10th lap or a lap that was a multiple of 10, I’d run through an operatic grand finale. Because I knew how many laps I had completed, I knew how long my swim had been.
This time was different. When I finished and glanced at the lap clock on the wall, I saw I had taken 12 minutes longer than my count suggested. I was surprised, but I didn’t dwell on it too much since I occasionally lost count when I was enjoying my mental music so much that I forgot to change the tune when I started another lap.
I got out of the pool and headed to the locker room. On the way, I passed a lifeguard. Something about him seemed wrong, but I didn’t stop to figure it out. By the time I found my gym bag, my routine was spinning out of control. I called my doctor, but her office was closed for the holiday. I continued to feel more and more confused, and I couldn’t come up with a plan. It never occurred to me to call 911. Instead, I called my friend Sarah. I tried to explain what was happening to me, but all I could say was that I was having trouble.
When she arrived, she helped me find my car. But by then I was having trouble seeing and couldn’t drive. Sarah called her eye doctor, whom she knew well enough to ask for help. She took me to his office, but by then I couldn’t even answer his questions. He must have recognized my stroke symptoms and told Sarah to get me to a hospital immediately. The last thing I remember is arriving at the emergency room.
Survivor Barbara Silverstein at home in Bryn Mawr
After that, I recall doctors, nurses and food trays coming and going. One of my first recollections was a simple vision test: How many fingers was I holding up? I couldn’t tell. If the doctor tried to explain what was happening, I probably couldn’t understand what he meant. But luckily a couple days later I woke up to discover that my vision was mostly restored. And I was gradually able to have a conversation. That was just the beginning, though.
After eight days in the hospital, I was discharged, laden with prescriptions, doctor appointments, and scheduled visits with home health therapists. Two therapists visited me once or twice a week, while the third, a physical therapist, visited me only once, having determined I was able to get around my house safely. The two who continued gave me advice, tested me and assigned homework. Within six or eight weeks of their initial visits, I was headed for outpatient therapy.
One therapist concentrated on my vision using a sophisticated set of instruments that could project various puzzles on a screen for me to react to. I remember my elation when she said she was confident I would be cleared to drive again by my ophthalmologist. The other therapist focused on my cognitive skills, which were more compromised than I had realized. She provided a variety of exercises to sharpen them. She also introduced me to a mobile app called Constant Therapy. The app featured personalized tasks designed to improve everything from reading comprehension to math skills, and it also included verbal, visual and auditory memory-building exercises. Constant Therapy clearly helped me. Best of all, when I completed my outpatient therapy I was able to subscribe to the program and continue using it at home.
As I got better, I was eager to get back to my piano. But my first attempt was a disaster. My fingers fumbled over the keys, unable to coordinate with each other. I stopped, stared at the keyboard and wondered how I could function without playing music. The next day I thought about the challenges I had already faced and how far I had come, thanks to hard work with my therapists and my Constant Therapy workouts. My eyesight was back, and my memory was growing sharper. I reminded myself what every therapist had said to me: We all make mistakes. Forgive yourself and move on! With patience and time, my piano skills returned, which led the way to success with other things I love, like reading.
I still falter occasionally. One morning I poured coffee into my dogs’ morning meal. Not long ago, I would have cursed myself out. Now I can laugh at myself. Which brings me to my first insight for stroke survivors: Keep your sense of humor! You’ll need it. The second insight: If family and friends want to help, welcome them. You’ll need the help at first, and they sincerely want to help you get better. The third insight: Expect to be worried at the outset. As time passes, the worry will subside. We need nine months to enter this world as newborns; elephants take nearly two years. Think of this journey as the birth of an elephant on its way to a life of power, intelligence and majesty.
By Barbara Silverstein | Survivor
Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
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