Tag Archives: stroke

Stroke Happens: Chapter 1

30 Nov

Presenting Chapter 1 of Stroke Happens, available through Amazon.

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Chapter 1: Stroke Happens

“How bad is it?” I asked the doctor. “It was a major event,” he replied as he pinned a film of my husband’s brain onto a light board. The right side was grayish and crisscrossed with a network of crooked lines, like an aerial photo of creeks and streams converging into a river. In contrast, the left side was white, like vast, snow-covered tundra.

“He’s going to live, right?” I stammered.

“The next 72 hours are critical,” replied the doctor before walking away. I stood, stunned and uncomprehending, in the bright white hallway, staring at the whiteout of Chuck’s left hemisphere.

He had suffered a stroke—a cerebral vascular accident—in the middle of the night. My insomnia had driven me into the guestroom, where I was sleeping when Chuck’s symptoms started. I’ll never know what they were. Did he have pain restricted to one side of the head? Weakness, numbness or paralysis on one side of the body? Problems walking? Loss of sight or other vision problems in one or both eyes? Confusion? Sudden inability to speak or to understand speech? What I do know is that the next morning, when I got up and walked back to the still-dark bedroom, he was unable to respond when I asked him if he was getting up. I turned on the light, and life changed forever.

His left pupil flared open in response to the sudden illumination; the right one remained pinprick small. Dried vomit crusted the pillow, and his breathing was raspy and effortful. He was unable to respond when I asked him what was wrong, although I had guessed. He just looked at me. I rushed to the phone to call 911, and the EMTs were there within five minutes, strapping him onto a gurney and wheeling him away. The ambulance, flashing and wailing, sped away as I called a friend to come and take me to the hospital.

When I arrived at the hospital, Chuck had been installed in a chilly cubicle in an emergency room bristling with nurses. He recognized me, but was disoriented and unable to respond. His t-shirt had been scissored off and tossed in the garbage, the logo for New Orleans band Washboard Chaz draped over the lid. Technicians whisked him away for x-rays. An octopus of anxiety wrapped its tentacles around my stomach and squeezed; I knew I was waiting for bad news. Time seemed to stretch until finally, the neurologist appeared with the results of Chuck’s X-ray. The left distal carotid artery—the river that transports oxygenated blood to the brain—was completed blocked.

In an instant, a clot had interrupted the flow of blood to Chuck’s brain, depriving it of oxygen for hours and defining the rest of our lives.

Chuck was transferred to the Neuro Intensive Care Unit (ICU). He remained conscious. Intravenous lines snaked from bottles hung around the bed and into his arms, transporting medicine and food. Therapists came and went, performing tests that would help determine the extent of the damage. I hovered helplessly. Chuck flashed me a thumb’s-up sign and smiled crookedly. The right side drooped as if it had nothing to do with the rest of his face. All I could do was wait. My sisters Mary Lou (from Hillsborough, North Carolina; five hours away) and Betsy, with her husband, Rob (from Charleston; four hours away) arrived and we sat around until night started to fall. We had been there for about ten hours. Chuck’s condition was stable, so my sisters persuaded me to go home and get some rest. When I got there, I wrote the first of what would be hundreds of emails to a list of family, friends, and colleagues.

Friday, August 31, 2007
Hi,
I am writing to let you know that Chuck had a stroke this morning. He’s now at the hospital, in the Neuro IC. The neurologist, after reviewing the x-rays, called it “a major event” and said that the first 72 hours are critical. The clot completely blocked the major cerebral artery, which is bad news. He is thus far paralyzed on his right side and cannot talk, although he responds to commands and recognizes people. We hope that he will not hemorrhage in the brain, which could endanger his life. If he makes it through the weekend, it will be a long road to any sort of recovery.
Please keep us in your prayers. Thank you.
Love, Laura

My update about Chuck’s condition became a medical-progress report, a forum for my emotions, a request line, and the story of his struggle to recover. “People who tell a cohesive, full narrative of what’s going on with them stay so much more connected and attached to those who are most important to them, and that provides stability and consistency in times of change,” according to my friend Hamilton, who’s a psychiatrist. I was building a network of people, a community that would support me in the aftermath of Chuck’s stroke.

Everyone was shocked. Chuck had no risk factors. He worked out regularly, was tall and lean, ate the right foods, and drank two glasses of red wine daily. Bespectacled and boyish with mop of brown hair, he looked younger than his age, 56. He suffered from occasional stress, but he was a college professor, not an air traffic controller. For 17 years, Chuck had been teaching elementary education students at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina. He loved teaching, as well as conducting research, writing journal articles, collaborating with colleagues, serving on the faculty senate, and writing grants. He had tenure and was highly regarded by his peers and students, evidenced by graffiti reading, “Dr. Linnell rocks!” in the elevator of his building. We had been married for 11 years. I taught in the English Department.

The previous week, we had started the fall semester, a busy and stressful time. That night, a Thursday, we were tired but were relaxing in front of the television, sipping wine and digesting supper. About 8 o’clock, Chuck mentioned he had a headache and was going to bed, not especially unusual at the beginning of a semester. He didn’t say he was in undue pain and, he didn’t describe any of the troubling symptoms that often presage a stroke. I decided to sleep in the guestroom to avoid disturbing him with my start-of-the-semester insomnia. For a long time I beat myself up about this. I’ve asked myself, over and over, if the outcome would have been different had I slept with Chuck that night. I’ll never know. What I do know is that at some point, stroke happened, and life changed forever.

Best, Laura Ann Garren

 

 

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

25 Nov

When a spouse suffers a stroke, that person is changed, sometimes drastically and often forever. Some people can’t handle losing their loved one in this way; in fact, the rate of divorce increases more than 13% when a spouse is disabled.

I can see why some spouses leave their stroke survivors. Full-time caretaking is grinding, grueling work. I have stayed (12 years at the time of this writing) because I felt it was my only option. While I have been stressed and miserable much of the time during the post-stroke years, I know I wouldn’t be any happier if I had Chuck institutionalized. Also, I would have wanted him to stay with me, had the situation been reversed.

However, I did have to change my expectations in order to make the mental adjustment. Our relationship has changed, and I had to accept that. I had to redefine our marriage and to let go of my vision of future we were supposed to have. Not everyone can do so.

Before Chuck’s stroke, I used to be very judgmental of people who left spouses who got sick or disabled. I thought, “I would never do that.” Even though I was right, being put in that position made me more understanding of people who choose to leave. Ultimately, they have to live with themselves over their decision, and I can imagine how painful it would be.

When I “decided” to stay, it was not a moment in time. It was a realization that grew as I started to accept the fact that Chuck always would be without the ability to speak, read or write. As he is constrained by his disability, so am I; although in a different way, and voluntarily. I sometimes try to imagine being free, what I would do with my life, where I would go. My longing for freedom sometimes is intense and painful. But the pain I would cause Chuck outweighs my desire to be free.

I admit these very personal feelings because I suspect other people have them as well, and I want to assure them, “It’s normal.” In addition, I want to assert that full-time caretaking doesn’t have to define the caretaker. In my next post, I’ll relate how I was able to find fulfillment while still being the caretaker for my stroke survivor.

Best, Laura Ann Garren

Chuck and Laura

Moving On

24 Nov

The other day I announced to my email list that I had started a blog. I received a message from a friend congratulating me on my “blob.” I laughed, but when I sat down to write my first entry, I froze. I couldn’t decide what to write about. I felt like a blob. I found it difficult to channel the experience, perhaps because it was difficult to relive.

I finally decided to make this entry about moving on, because at one time the thought was unimaginable. The stroke happened to me as well as to Chuck, and I thought I would never be happy again. However, I have managed to find a level of contentment and peace I never thought possible.

The first step, obviously, was to get through the crisis itself. Next was to get Chuck what he needed in terms of continued therapy, which absorbed most of my energy for the first year and was driven in part by my desire for his complete recovery. When I realized that goal was not reachable, I then had to accept it, which was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I had to let go of the idea of Chuck as he was before the stroke. DSCN1338_1_2.jpgThe process was very painful because that was the prize I had been reaching toward, the finish line that had kept me in the race.

I spent the next couple of years avoiding reality. We left our small town to move the city, and then back again. I missed having access the unfettered outdoors: hiking in the woods, swimming in the lake, walking in the country. However, during our “exile,” I received some gifts I would not have otherwise. The first was yoga. The second was being able to be present for a dying friend. I have I learned to find silver linings in the stormiest of clouds.

I also rediscovered my love of writing, which has helped me recover my identity. Garren Biz Card copyI began contributing to an award-winning wildlife magazine, and five years later, I wrote a book (The Chattooga River: A Natural and Cultural History) and published a manuscript, Stroke Happens.

51ZBPymvoMLMy point is that I had to actively seek contentment and fulfillment, not wait for them to find me. For a time, I lost myself in the role of caretaker and victim. I had to redefine myself, or more specifically inhabit the self I had become. The act of writing, or finding my voice, enabled me to move on while remaining in place. May everyone else in a caretaking role be able to do so, as well.

Best, Laura Ann Garren

Your Best Resource is You

21 Nov

Your loved one has just suffered a stroke. You’re overwhelmed. What should you do, and when? In an effort to assist others who find themselves in this position, I’ve compiled a list of things I did, as well as what I wish I’d done, after the initial crisis.  Keep in mind that this list constitutes my opinions based on my experience as a caretaker.

1. Get the best medical care available. Make sure a neurologist is on staff. Some hospitals don’t have one, believe it or not. If yours does not, transfer your loved one to a hospital that does.

2. Apply for Social Security Disability Income immediately, even if you think your loved one won’t need it. Benefits don’t start until five months after APPLICATION, not date of disability, with no retro activity.

3. Demand that therapy start as soon as your loved one is out of immediate danger. Anticipate therapy after hospitalization and start making calls as soon as possible; every facility will have a waiting list, and you want to get your loved one on it as soon as possible.

4. Do not be afraid to dismiss a therapist you or your loved one doesn’t like, for whatever reason.

5. Research treatment options; don’t depend on the experts to know everything. Find out if any clinical trials are running, or where the best therapy is for specific conditions, such as aphasia.

6. Create an email list of family, friends and colleagues so that you can communicate about your loved one’s condition and ask for help when you need it.

7. Create an email list, website or phone tree in order to corral help when you need, then don’t be afraid to ask. People want to help but often don’t know how. Tell them, whether it’s food, a ride to the hospital, someone else to visit your loved one so you can take a break, or just a kind word. Caretaking is a grind, and you may be doing it for a long time, so pace yourself.

8. Wallow in self-pity (aka express your feelings about the situation), but try not to act out; do take care of yourself. Exercise, eat well, don’t misue alcohol or drugs. If you feel depressed, ask your family physician to prescribe meds.

9. Read everything you can get your hands on about stroke: books, magazines, articles, both in print and on line.

10. Start a journal in which you can record events, as well as your feelings. In the chaotic aftermath of a stroke, you may forget things, so it helps to write them down. Also, sometimes you might not realize how you’re feeling until you write it down.

11. Anticipate what your loved one will need upon coming home. Ask the therapists what these might be: a handicap ramp; removal of rugs that might cause tripping; shower seat; etc.

I hope this has been helpful. If you would like a fuller account of my caretaking experience, please read my book, Stroke Happens.

Best, Laura Ann Garren

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About Laura Ann Garren

21 Nov

Laura in Cuba.jpgI have been a writer for more than 25 years, starting out as a newspaper journalist. I’ve also been an editor and a teacher of college-level writing and literature courses, as well as a freelance writer and author of two books. I am also a certified dog trainer.

My most important job, however, is taking care of my husband Chuck, who suffered a massive stroke in 2007.

I started this blog in the hope of reaching people who find themselves in a caretaking role, whether for a survivor of a stroke or any other kind of disability. My goal, in this blog as well as in my book, also entitled Stroke Happens (2017), is to share my experiences so that others may benefit from them.

Best, Laura Ann Garren

Stroke Happens: A Resource for Survivors, Caretakers and Loved Ones

13 Jun

Welcome to my blog, Stroke Happens, a resource for anyone who has been affected by stroke. It’s also the title of my book about stroke, recovery and caretaking. If you are a stroke survivor or a caretaker, like I am, or if you are a loved one of someone who has suffered a stroke, I hope this blog will provide you with information and inspiration.

Stroke happened to us August 31, 2007, when I woke up to find my husband, Chuck, mute and paralyzed. He went to bed himself and woke up a different person, in effect. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, we had started out on a journey that would test the limits of love and endurance.

Chuck Self Portrait

Along the way, I learned many things only after I really needed the information. One of my goals in my Stroke Happens blog is to provide answers to questions that the reader hasn’t asked yet. I want to help other stroke survivors and their caretakers to avoid some of the obstacles I faced. I want to offer support to those who are dealing with stroke and its aftermath, to show that happiness is possible even after the most dramatic losses imaginable.

I hope you will find this website informative, entertaining and helpful. I also have a Facebook page by the same name (Stroke Happens); please check it out and click, “like.” Thanks for reading.

Best, Laura Ann Garren

 

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