As a survivor of an ischemic stroke, Patricia Pitcher found a passion for writing, a purpose in sharing her experience of “stroking” and new meaning in a life restored to mental, physical and spiritual health.
An aneurysm blocked her vertebral artery and caused an ischemic event - an interruption of blood supply to her brain. Fortunately, the aneurysm did not completely rupture and, against steep odds, Pat survived. Her body, however, was badly damaged.
After leaving intensive care, Pat still suffered limited mobility, extreme pain in her neck and a body that refused to connect with her brain’s signals to make even the simplest movements. Her book, Beyond Stroke: A Journey of Hope, not only chronicles the events around her stroke and recovery, it was, remarkably, the very instrument that focused her efforts to heal her brain and body.
Writing is a singular activity that requires not only time and concentration, but also courage. Penning a book is difficult for even the most experienced writer. In Pat’s case, she was only home for a week from the hospital, learning all over again how to speak, walk and think, when her well-intentioned, determined mentor told her to write a book.
“I have my very own Dr. Phil,” she smiles, “Dr. Phil Winkelmans. He provided the challenge that restored me to health.”
Dr. Winkelmans’ challenge surprised Pat: “Everything that happened to you up until today is about the first chapter of your life. And now that chapter is over, finished, kaput. From this day forth, and for the next 20 or 30 years, your life is about your next chapter. How do you want it to read?”
“From the beginning,” she says, “Dr. Phil never called it anything but ‘a book.’ It wasn’t a ‘journal’ or a ‘diary’, but simply ‘a book.’ At the time, I thought he must be crazy. I could barely hold a pencil. I signed my name with an X and still had blurred vision. Even after intensive rehabilitation, the stroke left me with extreme fatigue, a heavy feeling in half my body, no lid reflex in my right eye, and no hearing in my right ear. Dr. Phil just announced on his first visit that he wanted me to write a chapter outline by the following week, and that he’d follow up every week with a visit to push the assignment forward. I was astonished, doubtful - and then determined to do it.”
Dr. Winkelmans (author of The Art of Purposeful Being: Your Destiny Project) was aware of developments in neural sciences regarding brain damage. He believed new neural pathways could be created in Pat’s injured brain. The book would require focus, and refocusing; it would involve a repetitive constellation of activities that would build new neural pathways in Pat’s brain and promote her healing.
What better way, he reasoned, for this seasoned RN, who had the educational background, training and experience of taking care of stroke survivors - and who had herself recently suffered and survived a massive stroke - to offer both educational and experiential perspective to others.
Pat rose to the challenge. She knew through retraining her brain, she could make physical and mental advances. She also realized, contrary to her previous training, not all stroke survivors suffered depression, and her attitude remained optimistic about her chances for recovery.
With generous help from others on her personal health “team,” she kept positive as she sought to regain the necessary mobility and strength to restore many of the abilities and skills that had been stricken from her life in one catastrophic moment.
Trying to focus a tired and foggy brain to work with a damaged and easily fatigued physical body required hard work and repetitive exercises. Through a certain amount of pushing herself and being pushed by her many caregivers, Pat made progress.
“The book was a burden and I really didn’t want to do it at first,” she says. “It seemed impossible. I needed lined paper to write, like a school kid, and a board that would sit on my lap as I reclined in a chair. At first, it was a minute-to-minute slog, not an hour-to-hour or even day-to-day effort. My body felt so heavy all the time and I was always tired. I threw away a ton of paper. But, something, I’m not sure what, propelled me on. I kept practising moving a pencil, putting together letters, then words, forming longer sentences - pushing my brain to operate even though I felt like I was thinking in a thick fog. My lucid pathways were short at first, but they got longer. I wanted to push the envelope. Dr. Phil continued to guide me and urge me forward every time I thought I’d reached my limits. Every week, he zeroed in on my feelings. The book work became mental, emotional and physical therapy.”
Eventually, with dogged determination and a tough-minded approach, Pat kept writing, and kept improving as she continued her fight for personal mountaintops. And they came. Some came with perseverance: rehabilitation at the gym for physical and occupational therapy, establishing new nutritional habits, learning again to read and write, to use a computer, even to drive a car. Some came with medical interventions: surgeries to correct her eyelid droop and hearing loss, new vitamin and mineral supplement regimes, and chelation therapy to remove heavy metals from her body. She is quick to acknowledge that most mountaintops were achieved through the help and assistance of many understanding friends.
More than any single factor, Pat’s recovery journey has been characterized by an attitude of acceptance.
“After the stroke, my mind, body and spirit changed,” she says. “I knew that who I was before the stroke I would never be again. So, I got on with life. I knew if I pushed aside the stroke or ignored it, I wasn’t going to win. I knew I had to fight to regain an independent life, but more importantly, I knew I had to be at peace and accept that what had happened to me was now a part of me.”
Acceptance, too, came from her caregivers. “They never once referred to my deficits; they treated me like a person and looked after me with a positive attitude. They accepted me wherever I was from week to week.”
Her caregivers brought encouragement to attempt what, at times, seemed impossible, celebration for each achievement, and a willingness to push when necessary. They stood alongside her as she strove to overcome the next roadblock.
Pat accepted her own new limits. “I learned to stay in the present, accept that stress is something to be avoided, and not to invite irritants into my life. When a nursing colleague admonished me to get plenty of sleep and rest, she gave me permission not to feel guilty about taking care of myself.”
In her book, Pat offers hope from a deep reservoir of experience. Rather than being a “victim” of stroke - a phrase she rejects - she offers stroke survivors, and their caregivers, insights into recovery.
To avoid the risk for stroke, she maintains that people should keep stress, blood pressure and cholesterol levels down, refrain from smoking, keep fit, exercise regularly, attend to good nutrition and have a relationship with someone they trust. And she credits her advocate with her own recovery.
Now, as she moves forward in the next season of her life, she finds new meanings. She addresses audiences about stroke and recovery, shares her experiences with other survivors and helps doctors, nurses, therapists, families, spouses and other caregivers learn more about what it means to survive a stroke and how they can help.
Today, Pat lives one-day-at-a-time, enjoying an active physical, spiritual and intellectual life to the fullest as she finds joy in sharing her story, appreciating her family and friends, and living life to the fullest.
Beyond Stroke: A Journey of Hope is available from Mulberry Books in Qualicum and Parksville, at some health food stores, Nanaimo Hospital Gift Shop and from the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
OCTOBER 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND
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