A Real Stroke of Insight
By A. Robert Smith
(This is the full version of the article, published in the August issue of The Echo World: The Alternative Magazine in Central Virginia.)
I woke up early that morning in June 2011 and realized something was terribly wrong with me physically, but I didn't know what. I didn't think to press my Freedom Alert button and stumbled into the kitchen confused about what to do. My housemate Ruth O'Lill emerged from her room and greeted me joyfully, but I couldn't answer. In fact, I couldn't respond to any of her questions – I was tongue-tied. She called 911 and the Virginia Beach Rescue Squad rescued me in a flash.
En route to the hospital, questioned by a medic, I flunked all three questions: my age, street address, birthday.
“I think you had a stroke,” he said.
I was distracted thinking that I should be going to my dentist for a root canal.
“Who will tell her I’m having stroke instead?” I wondered.
Someone obviously told her, for Dr. Deborah Blanchard visited me that evening with sweet-smelling flowers in hand.
At the hospital I tried to read the Virginian-Pilot, but couldn’t make sense of the words. What does this mean? Is this the way my life ends? I spent 50 years writing for newspapers and magazines, but now I can’t even read a simple news story!
I was diagnosed with a hemorrhagic stroke. The left side on my brain was flooded with blood from a ruptured blood vessel, wiping out circuits needed for diction, speech and memory. That resulted in aphasia, the inability to produce spoken language, and agraphia, the inability to retrieve words. I could visualize answers to questions, but the words wouldn’t form in my mouth. I sometimes uttered different words than I was thinking. It felt like my brain and mouth were on different wavelengths.
I told the Virginia Beach General hospital staff that as a writer, I needed a cure for my aphasia. The docs didn’t promise anything but said that the right side of my brain might pick up some of the lost facilities from my left brain if I worked hard enough. I was determined to succeed and asked my daughter to find a first-rate speech therapist. She brought Janet Gilbert, MS, CCC-SLP, to my hospital room, where we both vowed together to do everything we could do to restore my speech and writing skills.
With 30 years of experience treating stroke victims, Ms. Gilbert gave me daily assignments for four months, starting with saying aloud the letters of the alphabet until I could write sentences and paragraphs. The fun was when we got to limericks; clean limericks, you understand. Or the short talks that I read aloud to my dog, a Yorkie who is now the smartest hound in Bay Colony.
In addition to speech therapy I also received NeurOptimal brain training from my daughter Dana, who moved here from Seattle to care for me. I had never heard of brain training before, so I just watched while she hooked me up to a special computer that reads what my brain is doing and feeds that information to my central nervous system. Then the brain recognizes its own patterns and adjusts itself toward optimal functioning. I received this non-invasive thirty-three minute procedure several times a week for several months.
Dana said many clients participating of this kind of brain training report improved sleep, better focus and clarity in this kind of brain training report, and relief from symptoms related to traumatic brain injury, anxiety, depression and migraines. I’m still getting brain training whenever I feel I need it. Thankfully, I feel sharper and more intuitive.
My goal was to finish a memoir on my life as a newspaperman. I was encouraged by a book Ms. Gilbert loaned me, My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D., who recovered from a massive stroke and now gives lectures on how she did it. After reading that book, I thought, “I can do that, too!”
My therapist also recommended I find a proofreader to sort out my misspellings and sentences that needed rethinking. Susan Lendvay, editor of Venture Inward magazine, volunteered and kept my prose safe and sound. My book, God Gave Me a Mulligan, was completed (and got a favorable review from the Pilot’s book columnist William Ruehlmann).
Four years after my stroke, I felt I was going downhill again in the speech department and needed more therapy. My doctor, Louis Croteau, and my speech therapist Janet Gilbert agree to send me to a new therapist, Mary Daddio. She worked with me about two months, showing me how to remember numbers. I couldn’t even remember my own phone number, much less anyone’s. The solution is to reduce each digit to a word, so the number 4 becomes a four. Mrs. Daddio had me translate my main numbers, passwords and other health trivia, into words. She also loaned me another marvelous book, One Hundred Names for Love, by Diane Ackerman, whose author-husband, Paul West, had a major stroke, and recovered to write a book about it. Ackerman writes her account of caring for a loved one with brain problems.
After my speech therapy was completed, I noticed that Dr. Croteau seemed a wee bit nervous whenever I brought up the subject of driving. All my rides since my stroke have been as a passenger – and I soon discovered that my children wanted to keep me out of the driver’s seat.. “I’m a very careful driver,” I protested. I even drew a map showing where I intended to drive, including Dr. Croteaus’ office, the post office, Farm Fresh and the Quaker Meeting, all within a 10 to 15 mile radius of home. But my map pleased no one. They said I should walk the dog as long as I had the strength to keep up with Westy, but driving was not a good idea.
Then a strange thing happened, my daughter (who once drove a taxi), was in a traffic accident that totaled my Prius. I was safe at home when it happened, and thankfully, Dana had only minor injuries. But that crash unnerved me about going anywhere, no matter who was the driver. I gave up my campaign to drive again, and surrendered to being chauffeured about.
Another question we had to settle was whether I needed to be a teetotaler. I like a beer or glass of wine at the end of the day, but my first speech therapist suggested that this might not be best for me. I could certainly abstain, but an article in Neurology Now (March 2016) settled the question, quoted studies from five different medical sources and concluding: “A glass of wine or bottle of beer (two glasses for men) may protect against stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and cognitive decline.” Since reading that article, I’ve sipped my evening glass of port, just as though my doc had prescribed it.
These days, as I celebrate five years without a second stroke, I have no complaints. How much the right side of my brain helped to make up for the left side’s disaster, I can only guess. My memory is only half-speed sometimes, and I remember faces more than names. I still can’t spell many words, so I rely on my Oxford Dictionary or substitute a word that I can spell. Also, my hearing is in decline, so I gave up movies in which lovers whisper to each other. Hearing all the opinions in my weekly book group is still a problem, although friends don’t mind my asking them to repeat their opinions, especially on politics.
My goal is to mimic Dr. Howard Jones, Jr., the co-founder of the Eastern Virginia Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine, who kept writing books until he died at 104. I just had my 91st birthday, and I have a new book, Robert’s 101 Rules of Order for a Good Life, that has just been published.
These are some of the tricks I pull to navigate through life with a brain that’s operating at less than full speed.
Bio: A. Robert Smith was the founding editor of Venture Inward magazine, author of ten books, including The Lost Memoirs of Edward Cayce and a former Washington correspondent and columnist whose work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Post, Portland Oregonian, Virginian-Pilot and other publications. He lives in Virginia Beach, and can be reached at email@example.com. "A Real Stroke of Insight," was first published in The Virginian-Pilot.