Lucky to be Alive

I figured it is about time I told the story of the strokes I have survived. I have suffered 4 strokes that I know about. Some have left me permanently altered, some have not.

Stroke 1- December 2012.

I call this a stroke because it remains with me to this day, but in the grand scheme of things it really does not present as much inconvenience. I lost sensation in the ball of my left foot somewhere around December 15, 2012, by December 19 I was in hospital having an MRI. The doctors said it was probably a TIA and that it would rectify itself in a week. 4 years later I still have that symptom. They identified quite a few damaged spots and recommended that I take blood pressure medication. I tried several medications at that juncture, but I found the mental slowness that all of them induced to be intolerable. A bill for $60,000 of which we had to pay $8,000 deterred me from going back to hospital to be told nothing very much again.

In time, I had more or less forgotten about that incident, though I was on a bunch of natural supplements which brought blood pressure down a little, but nowhere near enough.

I had always said that I did not want us to be in the USA for the 2016 US Presidential election. So we began plan in earnest to emigrate sometime in 2015, maybe early 2016.

Stroke 2- November 2013

This is where things get serious! I went to bed one afternoon with a very bad flu. When I woke up, next day my entire left side was paralysed. “How do I get to the loo?” was my first thought. I figured that if I jammed my left leg and locked the knee, my bones would hold me upright, so that’s what I did. It was nearly a week before I ventured downstairs, by which time I was getting good enough at jamming my leg to drive our (manual transmission) car. Rather than letting it go, I insisted on using my left hand wherever possible, and slowly some utility returned. It took at least 3 months before I could take our stairs in succession, but at that point I did so very gingerly. To this day, my left side is less capable than it was, but it is slowly improving. I did not see the point in going to hospital to be told what I already knew. I would, and did, work this out by myself. I did not need another $60,000 bill to deal with.

Stroke 3- May 2014

As if things were not serious enough at this point, they just got a whole lot worse! I went to the movies with my wife and son to celebrate his 11th birthday. When I walked into the theatre, I could talk just fine, when I came out, I was unable to talk at all! (And no, the movie was not that good!) My son, who had been in my at-home care from the time he was 6 weeks old, knew what I was thinking, even if I could not say it. He acted as translator while I figured out how to talk again! It was like somebody had put a 2 inch section into my tongue while I wasn’t paying attention. I knew what I wanted to say, but I could not say it. Again I was not going back to the hospital to be told what I already knew.

I began looking for speech therapists to no avail at all. It was during this time that I decided to head home to Australia where health care is less of a crap-shoot and they ‘understand the question’. I had started to discuss this with my wife, but we still had a family trip to take and I was going to do it! (She suggested I stay home, but I refused.)

At this stage I could not walk 200 yards without stopping to rest.

Stroke 4 – July 2014

We went to a family gathering in upstate New York from our home in Michigan. This was to be our last family reunion before we emigrated. On the way, we called in on a dear friend who has since passed on. I think we took the last photograph of her alive!

We were due to travel back home to Michigan on my birthday, so we celebrated early. It was during that trip that I told my wife she would have to take the wheel, because I was having trouble driving on the “wrong side of the road and the wrong side of the car” (I am from Australia, but I had been driving without trouble in America for 13 years!!)

I call that ‘stroke number 4’ and my Australian neurologist seems to think that it was. I had one last professional commitment to fulfil, which I did the following Saturday night. I drove to a gig an hour away, and home, then I hung up my keys for good. I had to concentrate way too much to drive that night. I am glad I got away with it.

So here I was, unable to speak in more than a whisper (I had worked out pronunciation, but still had not learned projection) and unable to drive without second-guessing myself. It was time to call my family for help. Within a day, I had a place to stay at home in Australia and someone to stay with me at all times.

Within 5 days, we had figured out how to pay my air fare home and I was ready to fly out in September of 2014. My wife and son would tie up the loose ends of our life in America and join me later.

I have never travelled well, being unable to sleep in a moving vehicle makes a difficult 30 hour trip into a gruelling feat of endurance. I was a basket case by the time I reached the other end.

Within a week of arriving, I had seen a medical doctor and had appointments with many specialists. We were going to see what damage had been done and what we could do about recovery! An MRI showed the 4 strokes , 2 clots and 2 bleeds. At least here the medical establishment were not going to be putting their hands out at every turn for money. I believe I had to pay one bill for $200, everything else was covered by medicare. The speech pathologist was brilliant. She had me ready to deliver a 2 hour online lecture in November 2014. I still speak with a bit of a slur, specially when I am tired, but I can make myself understood.

There was a period between Stroke #3 and early October 2014 where I could not understand a paragraph of written text. I could read every word, but I could net tell what they meant. That particular debility rectified itself as quickly as it had disappeared. One minute I could understand nothing, the next minute it was as clear as a bell. Just because I could understand it did not mean I could remember writing it. It was quite novel to read something I had written many years before and not recognise it as my own work until I read the by line.

Anti-hypertensive drugs slow my mind down, there is no arguing about that. I take them now because I do not want the strokes to continue. I have noticed, though, that my mind is pretty much as agile as it ever was, it is just translating what I know into language or movement has become arduous. Whether it is writing or speaking, it is all difficult but it continues to get easier as time passes. Anti-hypertensives also mess with my body’s thermostat. I get extremely cold when most folks are a bit cool, I also get extremely hot when most folks are just warm.

Singing has helped me no end. I was a choral singer before stroke #3, and I wanted to get that ability back. I can sing without slur or accent! It uses a different part of the brain than does speech. Working with ‘Stroke a Note’ choir has helped me to find my confidence again.

If I have a pet peeve, it is being “infantilised” by well meaning folks who figure that I am disabled, therefore they have to do everything, including think, for me. I am less physically agile than I once was, and we need to make some allowance for that, granted. I am as mentally agile as I ever was, just expressing my thoughts is more difficult than it used to be.

I consider myself lucky to be alive, being that my brother, my father, and my grandfather all died before their 56th birthday, and I had stroke number 4 around the day I turned 55.

I have always believed that we make our future, that nothing is fated. Had things worked out differently, I might have died in the midst of all this, but I believe I made a decision many years before which meant that this would be a difficult time rather than a deadly one.
So here I am, two and a half years past my last stroke. I walk with a cane, but hey, I can walk and 3 km is not out of reach these days! I speak with a strange accent, but hey, I can speak! My reflexes aren’t what they used to be, but I still have them! Life is good. Occasionally I have to remind my legs that they are walking and would they please continue. Moving from sitting to standing and from standing to sitting are still challenging. Talking and walking are very deliberate processes these days. Nothing is impossible, but it is truly just not worth the effort sometimes.

I occasionally come across folks who like to whine about this or that. I must confess to feeling a little smug when I think “hey, we woke up this morning, let’s not waste our life wondering what might have been.”