My wife, Diana, and I will celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary this year. We were married in November, but it's impossible to get the three adult children and their families together then, since grand kids are busy in school and lives are bursting with discovery, careers, and whatnot. So we selected July, since schools are on break and the weather is good. We were retired and on a comfortable glide path, almost taking for granted a pleasant sameness as we settled into a life focusing on the grand kids and grand-kitties.
So where am I going with this? Oh yes, health. My wife has prided herself on living what I would describe as one of the healthiest lifestyles anyone could imagine. She is gluten free, vegan with the exception of some cheese and lots of salmon. She is the master of making smoothies with crushed celery, beets, and other strange ingredients. She buys these huge crusher-blenders in Costco and I'm used to the rugged sounds of strong motors beating out the juices and healthy vitamins from all sorts of vegetables and fruits. Want a celery/beet/artichoke/kale smoothie? Diana can deliver it "stat."
So given her history of marathon running, which transitioned to frequent power walking, many years of professionally teaching dance and exercise classes, healthy living, and creating strange smoothies, it was a huge shock when she fell victim to a severe hemorrhagic stroke on November 11th of last year. That's 11/11/11 to make it easy to remember. I drove her to the emergency room, not aware of how serious it was, since she was "loopy" and seemed to be in a fog after driving home from a very early morning exercise class. By the time we reached the ER, she was having trouble speaking. I remember rushing in and telling the man at the window at Saint David's, "I think my wife is having a stroke," but didn't really comprehend what that meant. Two months later, she had progressed through the entire panoply of advanced medical services: ER, ICU, Internediate Care, Acute Care, a relapse into treatment for a severe pulmonary embolism, and in-patient Rehabilitation Care. By that time, I had spent only six widely-spaced nights at home, spelled by all our children, both local and who had flown in to assist, as well as her brother and sister and their spouses, who had visited often from West Virginia. Diana was discharged to come home and continue intensive five days-a-seek out-patient Rehab Care. At that time, she had learned to walk with care, but her right arm was hanging limply and not usable, her right hand was flaccid, and her speech capacity had progressed to make a few simple sounds. She was just starting to be able to distinguish letters or numbers when shown these in writing. She had developed the ability to signal "yes" and "no" with both head movement and the beginning of those two words.
Skipping to the present, the middle of May, with five days a week of therapy, now two days a week at St. David's Rehab Hospital (leg, arm, hand, speech) as well as three days at the Austin Speech Labs, a non-profit speech rehabilitation center, Diana has gained strong walking skills as well as limited progress with her right arm/hand, as well as additional capability with her speaking.
It's a brutally difficult process to relearn to speak following certain types of strokes or brain trauma. There are issues forming the words in one's mind, and difficulty in being able to match the brain to the muscles to deliver the sounds that constitute words. Diana concentrates with incredible intensity. These are things most of us take for granted, but it's a complex sequence of miraculous cognitive and physiological actions: a "hard K" sound, a "B" sound, or an "L" sound. Each is complex and requires different positions of the jaw, mouth, and tongue. It goes on and on for every single sound that makes up words when put into the correct combinations. To end a word with "D" or "T" is extremely hard. To make "blended sounds," which are formed by combinations of consonants, is so tough that it hurts to watch her.
So it's with great love, gratitude, and pride that I can report she is moving forward. Last week, her speech therapist informed me that Diana tested at an 80% level on the professional progress evaluation. When she was tested only eight weeks prior, she scored essentially zero. The therapist, who is the founder of the Austin Speech Labs, was beaming. Diana was exhausted, but exuding pride. Our son here in town and I both have noted a jump in her expressiveness and verbal acuity during the last week.
Just yesterday, Saturday morning, she made it clear that she wanted to go walk by the lake in Austin. She was unusually expressive, and made it clear that I should jog in one direction while she would walk by herself in the other. Thus we would meet up and I could confirm all was going well at the half-way point of a three mile loop. That's the first time I felt comfortable letting her walk by herself—we always have walked together prior to yesterday. So that's what we did. I finished before she did, of course, and continued around to meet her and walk in together. She was radiant and happy, and proud of herself. When we got back to the parking area, she used a women's bathroom, and was coming back down some stairs to the car. Two young men were talking on the steps and gave way to her since she needed to hold on to the left handrail with her strong hand. She looked at them and stated clearly, "I had a stroke."
That was such am amazing happening. For one thing, she almost never speaks "in public," since it's hard and her volume is limited. She is shy about being around people since her conversational capabilities are so limited. Frankly, I think she must feel like she isn't her old self, a form of inadequacy, although everyone is so happy with her progress. So when she just came out with that statement to those two teenagers, it signaled to me that she is entering a new phase, one embodied with more self confidence, one that will enable her to be more interactive. Hopefully she will start to reengage with her friends and her groups, including book club, bunko babes in the neighborhood, and her precious Al-Anon step sisters.
Spring transitions into summer. Life is good.