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Coming Back After a Stroke

Three survivors share their stories of what it took to recover

Older patient holds hand of young doctor

Pornpak Khunatorn/Getty Images

Annie Smith: Taking back control of her life

En español | In December 2015, college professor Annie Smith was in her home office entering grades into the university computer system when she was suddenly hit with a wave of fatigue.

Smith wasn't surprised she was tired; she hadn't been sleeping well. Her husband of 38 years had died of a brain aneurysm that year, and she was still grieving. It didn't help that she had spent many frustrating hours trying to navigate government red tape to prove he qualified for military benefits. In addition, her workload that semester was particularly intense; she had more than 300 students.

"Maybe I should take a little nap before I start grading,” she remembers thinking. She pushed her chair away from the desk, stood up … and then collapsed to the floor. “My legs buckled under me,” she says.

It was a massive stroke.

Smith, who was 55 at the time and lived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, didn't fit the profile of a typical stroke victim. She didn't smoke, have diabetes or high blood pressure. She wasn't overweight. She exercised a few times a week and avoided fried foods.

Her cardiologist said the sheer stress she was under, coupled with an undiagnosed heart condition, triggered the stroke.

Through this experience, I learned that I'm even stronger than I thought I was.”

— Annie Smith

Afterward, the left side of Smith's body was paralyzed. Doctors said she might not walk again. As she lay in her hospital bed, confronting an uncertain future, Smith missed her husband more than ever. “I felt depressed and defeated,” she says.

The hospital offered physical and vocational therapy, but Smith's heart wasn't in it.

After Smith declined yet another physical therapy session, the therapist on hand offered some tough love that resonated, Smith recalls: “She said, ‘Girl, that bed is not your friend. You are not helping anyone by staying in bed all day. You need to take back control of your life.'”

Something about the therapist reminded Smith of her mom, and she knew the woman was right. She owed it to her daughters and her baby granddaughter to try. At that moment, she resolved to do everything she could to walk again.

"Growing up, I was stereotyped as someone who wouldn't amount to anything because of my last name and color,” said Smith, who is African American. “When we allow other people to tell us what we can and can't do, we lose some of who we are. I didn't know how I would bounce back. But I knew I would.”

Smith began attending therapy sessions and doing the exercises diligently. At first, her left side was completely unresponsive. Then one morning she woke up and noticed something: Her left leg had moved overnight. Smith knew if her leg had moved in her sleep, then it could move while she was awake. “After that, I really started trying to send signals from my brain to make my leg move,” she says. “It took a few weeks, but one day it started cooperating.”

She remembers the first time she tried to walk during a therapy session, holding onto two parallel bars. “I just kept falling down,” she says. The session was supposed to last an hour, but Smith got so frustrated after 45 minutes that she just sat down and watched other people walk until her session was up. “I knew my brain was trying to rewire itself, so I stared at their legs to see if it could figure out how your legs are supposed to move.”

Eventually, Smith got the hang of it. When she went home in March 2016, three months after her stroke, she was using a walker. By April of that year, she was getting around with a quad cane. And in June, she started walking without help. She celebrated with her family by going on vacation to Orlando, Florida.

Meanwhile, she continued to work on other aspects of her recovery. To strengthen her left hand, she spent hours picking up coins one at a time and dropping them into a box, unscrewing lids and screwing them back on. She did sudoku puzzles and other brain games to boost her brainpower. She says repetition was key to her recovery. “Our brains like patterns,” she says.

These days, she watches her diet, exercises four times a week and works hard to keep her stress in check. Immediately after the stroke, Smith formed a stress management group at her library to talk with others about ways to ease anxiety. Now, her favorite way to de-stress is spending time with her 3-year-old granddaughter, “the calming force in my life who makes everything better.”

Smith, who is now 59, considers herself about 75 percent recovered. She is driving again and does nearly everything on her own.

Weakness on her left side means she occasionally drops things and has balance issues. She also has some stiffness and soreness that make mobility challenging. But overall, she is grateful for every day now, for the things that are working in her life. “Through this experience, I learned that I'm even stronger than I thought I was,” she says. “We all have good days and bad days. All you can do is be the best that you can every day."

Kathy McCormick: A stroke helped her find new purpose

Kathy McCormick knew something wasn't right the moment she woke up on Oct. 22, 2013. She was so off-balance, she couldn't walk to the bathroom without holding onto walls and counters.

"It felt like I didn't have full control of my body, but my brain was so clear,” she says. “I kept thinking, What is going on with my body?"

McCormick, 58 at the time, collapsed back into bed. Moments later, her husband came home from an early-morning workout. In a slurred voice, she called out from the bed, “I think I'm having a stroke."

McCormick wouldn't let her husband call an ambulance. (Note: She now knows that was a big mistake. Because every moment counts when you have a stroke, you should always call 911.) The ride to the hospital seemed to take forever, and McCormick felt worse by the minute.

Doctors at the hospital confirmed the stroke. They said a tiny blood vessel at the base of her skull had ruptured, discharging a piece of plaque into her brain. They blamed it on her high blood pressure.

McCormick, who had recently retired from teaching in Reno, Nevada, knew about her hypertension and had been on medication for it. In fact, her doctor had recently increased the dosage.


 “I see the bigger picture, and it's family. I just feel so fortunate that I'm back doing everything I want to do and more."

— Kathy McCormick

Even though her stroke was mild, McCormick had to learn to do many things all over again. She struggled with walking, speaking, reading and writing. Swallowing liquids was particularly difficult; it was like her mind couldn't keep up, she says, and she would start coughing.

She attended strenuous physical therapy sessions designed to awaken her muscles, pushing herself to get better. After a few weeks using a walker, she was walking independently, albeit unsteadily.

McCormick walked as much as she could, every day, down her street and back up. “There was a little incline and it felt like a mountain,” she says. “I just kept pushing.” Ten months after her stroke, she was strong enough to hike up a small mountain in Bozeman, Montana, on a trip with her husband. “That was my first big victory,” she says.

McCormick struggled with comprehension and memory for months. She forgot words, and had trouble with money and keeping a schedule. Her neurologist told her sleep was key for brain recovery, so McCormick took lots of naps. She also had bouts of deep depression. According the National Stroke Association, more than a third of stroke survivors experience post-stroke depression, and McCormick sometimes had days when she cried all the time. Medication, she notes, has helped a lot.

McCormick says it was tough letting family members see her weakness, but they were incredibly supportive, and the experience brought them closer. Her pregnant daughter did yoga with her. Her husband helped her learn to drive again. And they all laughed, a lot. “I think laughter can cure,” she says.

In 2016, she and her husband moved to Denver to be closer to their kids and grandkids. Watching her grandkids two days a week and volunteering with the American Heart Association there gave her a new sense of purpose. “Before the stroke, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do in retirement, and to tell the truth I didn't know what it was,” she says. “Afterward, I took a completely new turn. I went and volunteered at the hospital where I had my stroke. I figured out that's what I love."

Today, McCormick, 67, feels healthier than she did before the stroke. She keeps a focus on healthy eating and continues to work on strength, balance and coordination at the gym.

Sure, she has days when she can't think of the right word or gets frustrated because it's difficult to swallow a salad. But she looks at life differently now. “I feel like the stroke gave me a second chance,” she says. “I see the bigger picture, and it's family. I just feel so fortunate that I'm back doing everything I want to do and more."

Steve Seigel: Limited speech couldn't steal his spirit

On a Thursday night in May 2015, Steve Seigel walked into a restaurant, grabbed his takeout order and went to say “Thank you” — then realized he couldn't get the words out.

Seigel, a successful business owner who was 63 at the time, still managed to drive the few miles between the restaurant and his home on New York's Long Island. “I was scared,” he says now. His wife insisted they go to the hospital.

The diagnosis? A stroke caused by a blockage in the carotid artery that led to his brain. Doctors said his high cholesterol probably played a role.

The medical team decided not to do surgery. Instead, they put him on medication to prevent another stroke and recommended speech therapy. Though Seigel was still having trouble forming words, he felt fine and was in good spirits when he went home.

Two days later, on Sunday afternoon, Seigel had a devastating second stroke that left him paralyzed on his right side. His wife called 911 and he was rushed back to the hospital. It took a month for his blood pressure and other vital signs to stabilize enough for doctors to do surgery to repair the artery.

Afterward, Seigel barely resembled the man he had been before, says his daughter Shara Seigel. He couldn't talk. He couldn't walk. He couldn't feed himself. He couldn't run his screen-printing business or play basketball or get the newspaper from the driveway — all things that he used to love. The one thing he could do was sing. “He knew all the words,” Shara Seigel says, noting that the brain's speech center is on a different side of the brain than the part that controls singing. “It gave us hope that he might one day relearn how to talk."

 “I feel connected with him again."

— Shara Seigel on her dad Steve

In July 2015, two months after the stroke, Seigel moved to a rehab facility. He was still in a wheelchair, and he wasn't happy about it. Aides reported that they kept finding him on the floor because Seigel was trying so hard to get up and walk.

Over time and with a lot of work, Seigel regained strength on his right side. He learned to walk with a walker, then a cane and finally on his own. By the time he left the rehab center in late 2015, he could take care of many of his personal care tasks on his own.

But he still struggled to speak. Diagnosed with aphasia, Siegel had trouble thinking of words and also with how to verbalize them. Sometimes, he would get so frustrated with his inability to communicate that he would kick objects in the vicinity.

He didn't give up. He continued speech therapy, enrolled in extra speech sessions at a nearby university, and tried music therapy for a while. He did worksheets and practiced with flash cards. And he wasn't shy about trying to converse.

One day when Seigel had been out of rehab for a few months, he grabbed a piece a paper and scrawled what he was trying to say with his left hand (even though he had always been right-handed). It was a breakthrough, his family says, because it was the first time they realized that he might be able to write a word even if he couldn't think of how to say it. For Shara Seigel, an even bigger breakthrough came about a year ago, when he learned to use his cellphone again, and the two began using Facetime to talk. “It opened up a new line of communication, and I feel connected with him again,” she says.

Seigel communicates these days using simple words and short sentences. When asked about his progress, he has a simple answer. “Exercises every day,” he says. “And patience."

Seigel, now 67, talks to everyone and always has a smile, his daughter says. He insists on showering, dressing and making his breakfast by himself, even though it's difficult. And while he misses running his screen-printing business, he finds joy in little things: watching the news, going out to dinner and going out to his driveway every morning to fetch his New York Times.

Not long ago, Seigel told his physical therapist that he would like to play basketball again. The therapist was skeptical. When Seigel insisted, they went a gym with a basketball court. Seigel dribbled the ball with his left hand and shuffled down the court. Somehow, he managed to get the ball in the hoop.

Now, Seigel plays ball with his therapist twice a week as part of his therapy. When a reporter asks him what that's like, he has no trouble getting the words out: “I'm good,” he says, with a hearty laugh.

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