My Stroke Recovery

It’s been a couple of years since I wrote about the stroke I had on September 19, 2017, so I thought it was time to share an update on how my recovery is going.

At the time of my post (Jan. 2018), we had recently learned I had some “residual AVM” (arteriovenous malformation, or tangled vessels, that I was apparently born with). A few weeks later, I underwent the Gamma Knife radiosurgery at UPMC Presbyterian in Pittsburgh; Dr. Lunsford is the authority on the procedure. The treatment can take up to three years in order to be effective. We did an MRI six months afterward, which revealed that it was indeed working. And, the last one (June 2019) showed no remaining signs of the AVM. However, Dr. Lunsford wants to give it the full three years, so we will check again in about a year, or so. I hope to be cleared, at that point!

In terms of therapy, I was discharged from Physical Therapy in the spring of 2018, and I was fully discharged from Occupational Therapy about a year later. I continue to go to Drayer Physical Therapy Institute a couple of times per week to do those exercises I can’t easily do at home.

At this point, I am focusing on fine-tuning (my walk, and the use of my right arm and hand) and building strength. In some ways, this may always be a core focus.

It’s worth noting that one of my favorite new pieces of exercise equipment is the Bodyblade, which I have been using for a year and a half. It’s a popular piece of exercise equipment, but it was originally developed by a physical therapist. I started using it at Drayer, then bought one to use at home. It’s great for building strength and also for improving balance, which has always been an interest of mine. In fact, to increase the level of difficulty, I stand on a two-inch foam pad.

One of the biggest developments has been in the area of driving. I wasn’t in a particular hurry to start driving again, but I slowly got behind the while in the fall of 2018, about a year after the stroke. I have continued to improve and become more comfortable. In fact, on our recent trip to visit family in Tennessee, I drove nearly 18 hours, out of 23 hours total. That was a big deal!

The other development I’m excited and hopeful about is the MusicGlove from Flint Rehab, a device that could me regain the use of my hand. I have been using it for a few months, and while it’s the hardest thing I have done, I am hopeful that it will be effective. I know it will take some time!

At this stage in my recovery, I know that growth and development will be slow-going. But, I also believe I can continue to see improvements with God’s help, and as long as I’m willing to stick with it!

During my recovery, I have also been committed to returning to living out God’s call on my life in ministry. I’m grateful for the support of the Centre Grove United Methodist Church, who has been on this unexpected journey with me. In hindsight, I’m grateful I was able to do as much as I did as early as I did.

Of course, I must say how grateful I am for everyone else who has supported me on this journey. I’m grateful for my wife, Joleen, and for my kids, Ethan and Sarah. And, I’m grateful to God for my life, and I am convinced that apart from him, I can do nothing! (cf. John 15.5). Thanks be to God!

I’m an Advocate for Exercise!

Exercise may not be the most important thing. In fact, I love what the Apostle Paul says …

While physical training has some value, training in holy living is useful for everything. It has promise for this life now and the life to come.

— 1 Timothy 4.8 (CEB)

Physical training is good, but it’s not nearly as important as spiritual training, which has value beyond this life. 

With that in mind, exercise has played an important role in my life. I’ve always been active. I ran a lot as a kid. I started working out with weights as a youth. Over the years, I’ve tried to be consistent (not always). Thankfully, though, I was pretty consistent in the years before my stroke in 2017.

My exercise routines have changed over time as I’ve discovered new and better ways to exercise. My primary equipment during the years before the stroke were simple pieces of equipment, which ironically, were designed by physical therapists.

I started using a stability ball after reading an article that appeared in the short-lived NFL Magazine. A stability ball is sometimes called an exercise ball or a Swiss ball. I settled on calling it a stability ball because my focus was on improving stability. I thought I was using the ball to help prepare for later years in life. I had no idea how quickly it would pay off.

A short time later, I switched my strength training workouts from free weights to resistance bands after reading an article before one of Tom Brady’s Super Bowl trips a few years ago. The article shared a little about Brady’s exercise strategy, which may be why he’s still able to play at a high level into his 40s.

Exercise prepared me and also helped me experience a stronger recovery.

Since the stroke, my exercise routine, or therapy, has been planned mostly by physical and occupational therapists. But as I improve and get further away from formal therapy, it’ll be up to me to take what I’ve learned and incorporate it into my exercise routine, which will always be a work in progress.

During therapy, I’ve added some tools to the tool belt. My favorite addition is the Bodyblade, which was also developed by a physical therapist.

So, I encourage you to start where you are (with your doctor’s approval, of course). Think long term. Begin with the end in mind. And, do your best. I believe it’s important. That’s why I’m an advocate for exercise.

Footnote: I give thanks to God, who is giving me this opportunity to make a comeback. I acknowledge God’s help before and after the stroke.

My Stroke

I suffered a stroke on September 19 around 10:00 p.m.

It happened very quickly. I was pretty calm, but I didn’t know what was going to happen. At the time, I was frustrated I wasn’t able to tell my family, including my kids who had gotten out of bed, that I loved them, possibly for the last time. In fact, I delayed the ambulance trying to get the words out but couldn’t. I was very disappointed!

Thankfully, Joleen was able to call 911 and get help. Moments later, I remember waiting in the ambulance in front of the house but don’t remember anything after that. I was life-flighted to Altoona and then onto Pittsburgh where I spent the next 15 days at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital.

I don’t remember the first few days at the hospital, but I gradually became more aware. It was a pretty surreal experience. The nights seemed especially long; I described them being three times as long as the days. I sometimes wondered where Joleen was because I didn’t see her for so long, or so it seemed.

Doctors suspected a brain bleed, but it wasn’t until a second angiogram revealed the cause of the brain bleed, an AVM (arteriovenous malformation). I underwent surgery on September 29, a craniotomy, which went well. The surgeon described the brain bleed as “severe”; he later said it was the size of a lemon.

A few days later, I was transferred to HealthSouth (Altoona) for therapy and spent 25 days in occupational, physical, and speech therapy. I would have stayed longer to make the most of my inpatient therapy, but that was as long as our insurance would allow. I appreciated my time at HealthSouth. I enjoyed visiting there six weeks after I was discharged for a routine appointment with the rehab doctor. I got to see my three therapists. It was especially rewarding to walk in without a wheelchair or a cane!

From early on, I discovered I was “fiercely independent” (a phrase used by a speech therapist at HealthSouth). I quickly learned to dress myself, including socks and shoes, and open my own food, all with one hand.

With the stroke I lost the use of my right side and my communication. Thankfully, my communication has come back pretty well (I was recently discharged from speech therapy), and my right side continues to get stronger. I continue to go to Drayer Physical Therapy for occupational therapy and physical therapy three days a week.

The toughest part is the daily battle. There’s no time to settle. There are always new accomplishments to achieve. This is how it’s going to be for a while!

I’m so grateful to God and the many people who have helped with my recovery, including surgeons, doctors, nurses, and therapists at Presbyterian Hospital (Pittsburgh), HealthSouth (Altoona), as well as the physical and occupational therapists at Drayer (Clearfield) and a speech therapist Penn Highlands (Clearfield). I’m especially grateful for my family, friends, and the prayers of God’s people!

Well, we wish that was the end of the story. However, a routine follow-up angiogram revealed some “residual AVM.” Hopefully, this will be addressed in the next few weeks with different procedures.

If you’d like to follow the journey, visit my Facebook timeline. We continue to put our trust in God’s hands!