This Is What It Feels Like to Suffer—and Recover From—a Stroke

What it feels like to endure—and recover from—a condition that kills 14,000 Canadians every year.

Daughter holding the hand of an elderly fatherPhoto: Shutterstock

I am a stroke survivor

I stood in the bathroom doorway of our Vancouver Island home in November 2012, watching my wife, Pat, prepare to go out to lunch with friends. As I was admiring the woman I have loved for close to half a century, I started to feel a bit odd. Not nauseated or faint, simply odd. Perhaps a bit weak. Nothing that a brief lie-down wouldn’t cure.

After Pat left, I drifted to sleep. When I awoke two hours later, I made my way to my study, sat down at my computer, and noticed my right hand was sluggish. This was definitely strange. I had developed the habit of searching online for the peculiar things happening to my body as I got older, so I typed “stroke” into Google. I can’t say why I typed that and not “flu” or “Lyme disease” or “heart attack.”

I found the common symptoms: sudden numbness or confusion, trouble with vision or walking, dizziness or severe headache. I also found several tests: Can you raise your arms? Can you smile?

I lifted my arms above my head. I smiled. So I told myself, You’re not having a stroke. Still feeling tired, I went back to bed. I had the flu. That was it.

At about 4 p.m., Pat came home. “You’re still in bed!” she remarked.

Another hour passed, and I continued to feel off. Finally, Pat insisted we head for the hospital. By the time we were shown to an exam room, I was anxious to put an end to all of this nonsense. While I was retired from academia, I still edited manuscripts and wrote books. I had other, pressing things to do than worry about this mystery feeling.

The doctor asked for a detailed account of what had been happening. Then he performed a series of tests. He asked me to touch my nose and then follow his finger with my eyes. He told me to count backward by sevens. He had me squeeze his two fingers with each hand. He tested my reflexes. I passed every test, so I thought what I’d been experiencing was just a temporary malfunction of the wiring in my brain.

“I’d like to keep you in for observation,” the doctor said. My jaw dropped. “Didn’t I just pass your tests?”

“You might be having what we call a stuttering stroke,” he explained. “It happens over several hours, perhaps even several days. You’ve likely had a number of mini-strokes since this morning. If that’s the case, the likelihood of a larger stroke is very high.”

He told us someone would be along as soon as there was a free bed. Pat sat beside me working on a crossword puzzle while I squirmed in my seat. I remember trying to find a comfortable way to sit, something I suddenly found extremely hard to do.

Then the light started to disappear. Soon there would be none—a total absence. Of everything. “I’m dying,” I said. I was terrified.

Diagnosis confirmed

I could hear Pat calling for help as I slid to the floor. Then I was hoisted onto a stretcher and whisked into a treatment room, where staff inserted an IV and attached me to monitors. I could hear beeps and people assuring me I was in good hands.

“What is happening to me?” I asked. My voice sounded like an old phonograph record spinning too slowly. The words seemed heavy and thick.

The next thing I knew, my clothes were being removed. It was dawning on me that my movements were no longer voluntary. The lights dimmed. Pat kissed me on the forehead and departed. I was alone.

I remember nothing else about that night except being shunted back and forth through a fluorescent glare, never conscious of where I was going.

When Pat returned in the morning, she told me the doctors had confirmed that I had suffered a stroke. How severe it had been, no one knew yet. It would be another 36 hours before I was told that I might be paralyzed on one side of my body. Soon I would realize that not only could I not move, but when I attempted to form words, my vocal cords felt twisted.

In the afternoon of the second day, a woman came into my room and said I had been assigned to a bed on the acute-care ward. Pat packed up my belongings, and the porter rolled me past people shuffling along in nightgowns and patients in wheelchairs.

I was transferred from the stretcher to the bed, and a nurse told me, “If you need assistance, just press the buzzer on the pillow. Someone will come running.”

I don’t know what kind of magician she figured I was. I couldn’t reach the button, and even if I could, I lacked the strength to press it. I yearned to close my eyes. I could see that Pat was anxious to get home, but I think she feared she would be abandoning me. Finally, I said, “Go. Please. I need to sleep.”

When she returned mid-morning the next day, I woke up torn between panic and relief. Panic because the reality of what was happening was finally sinking in, and relief because my most reliable connection to the outside world was seated at my elbow.

Later, I saw a face peek around the curtain. Our daughter, Nicole. I wanted to embrace her, but all I could do was lie there. It’s unsettling to have your children see you vulnerable, and for a moment I felt desperate. She leaned over and kissed me. “Oh, Dad,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

“Me, too,” I said, sounding like I was chewing on rubber bands.

Ready for rehab

That afternoon, a rehab doctor appeared at the end of my bed. At first, he told me, they’d thought my stroke was fairly mild. Nothing showed up on the CT scan. But a second scan revealed I’d had an ischemic stroke, an obstruction in a blood vessel, on the left side of my brain, resulting in the paralysis of my right extremities.

“What caused it?” I asked.

“We don’t know. I’d guess hypertension. Your blood pressure was very high. But you have other conditions that could have been contributing factors.”

Risk factors for stroke include high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, sleep apnea and being overweight. I qualified on all fronts.

“The good news,” the doctor said, “is that a bed has become available in rehab. You’ll be put on a six-to-eight-week intensive course, followed by eight weeks as an outpatient. You need to be willing to work hard. What do you think?”

“Yes, I can do it,” I answered, although at the moment my body suggested otherwise. “Count me in.”

The next morning, Pat and Nicole were both there when three physiotherapists arrived to take me for a walk. With one swift movement, they had me perched on the side of the bed. “We’ll walk as far as Nicole, okay?”

I shuffled, my left foot lifting, my right foot dragging behind. I walked a distance of only 20 feet, but Nicole seemed excited and applauded. “Oh, Dad,” she said. “You did it. I’m so proud of you!”

“Congratulations,” the therapists chimed in. “You’re ready for therapy.”

Relearn and recover

My first night in the rehab ward was terrifying. I knew I was in an area of the hospital where recovery is considered a matter of luck or chance. The gravity of my condition became fully apparent. Through the night, I wept.

Thankfully, neither Pat nor the staff would let me feel sorry for myself—even when I was frustrated and ready to give up. My first day of rehab, I had an appointment in the gym. “Do you know the way?” one of the nurses asked. I realized they expected me to wheel myself there. Good luck, I thought. I couldn’t move in a straight line. My right arm hung lifeless in my lap, and when I pulled with my left hand, I did doughnuts, spinning in circles.

“Drag your left foot along the ground as you push,” a nurse advised. When I tried, I made it a few yards before I veered right and smashed into the wall. “Perseverance,” she called to me.

To my surprise, after a few more collisions, I bolted in a straight line toward the gym.

To regain movement on my damaged side, I practised “mirror therapy.” The goal is to fool the brain. A mirror was placed on a table by my right shoulder, my right arm extended behind the mirror. Then with my good hand, I performed several simple exercises, staring in the mirror as hard as I could.

I drummed my fingers, formed a fist, flexed the fingers of my left hand. I did this slowly so my brain could take in the movement, pausing and then repeating, for about a half hour.

What I saw, of course, was the reverse image. I thought I was looking at my right hand doing the movements. My brain was being fooled, and I was happy to embrace this deception.

One day, after a few weeks, Nicole was sitting opposite me as I did this exercise, and she jumped to her feet. She shouted that my damaged hand had mimicked the movement of my good hand. At first, I didn’t believe her, but then I lifted my paralyzed arm and, much to my amazement, flung it in a circle, hitting the mirror. I let out a whoop. I had movement in my arm for the first time since the day of the stroke!

Going home

The week before Christmas, five weeks after my stroke, the rehab doctor came to see me. By then, I was able to stand on my own. I had started to climb the stairs in the gym, hanging on to the railing. I could pedal the stationary bike for 15 minutes. Sure, I sometimes became morose, but I had taken a vow: to remain positive, to recover.

The doctor asked me if I wanted to go home for Christmas, then return in the New Year as an outpatient for three months. I was both elated and scared.

I spent most of Christmas Day sleeping. Nicole arrived the next day with her partner, Iain, and their daughter, Flora. As soon as my three-year-old granddaughter saw me, she frowned—what happened to Poppa? But she was intrigued by my wheelchair.

As they were leaving the following morning, Flora said, “Poppa, please get better.”

A year would pass before she felt confident enough to approach me and wrap her arms around my legs. By then I was walking with a cane.

My weeks of outpatient therapy were monotonous, but the benefits were immeasurable. I pedalled a stationary bike, climbed steps, and did leg lifts, squats and arm pulls. I was finally able to pronounce a word without confusing the vowels and consonants.

Throughout, my emotional control was fragile. I would weep when I saw scenes of poverty on TV. The silliest jokes could cause unstoppable giggles.

I’ve learned that stroke recovery is unpredictable. The old notion that there is a finite window in which to achieve rehabilitation is simply false. It’s unlikely I’ll return to being the person I once was, physically or mentally. But I’m confident I can continue to repair and rebuild, and find a place for myself in my reconfigured world where I feel both valuable and valued.

There is nothing smooth about stroke recovery, but there’s also no limit.

From the book The Defiant Mind by Ron Smith. Copyright © 2016 by Ron Smith, ronsdalepress.com.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada