Some people that I met during in-patient rehabilitation were part of my post-stroke life for only a very brief time, but impacted me greatly. Michael was one of them. He came to Penetanguishene General about six weeks into my stay. He’d also had a stroke that had affected his dominant side.
Michael was in his sixties. I didn’t hear him speak for several days after he arrived. His wife was with him whenever possible, and for the first couple of days I mistook his quiet for terror. He actually couldn’t speak, as his stroke had severely affected his speech as well as his mobility. I was again reminded to count my blessings.
Due to the nature of Michael’s stroke, his recovery process moved much faster than mine. However, it also worked in his favour that he worked even harder at rehabilitation than I did (and I was working pretty damn hard). He had the best attitude that I saw in anyone, in all my time in rehabilitation. Before long, he could give one-word responses to questions such as “How are you?” (to which he always gave an emphatic “Excellent!”). He was soon talking in short, halting sentences when his wife came to the hospital to have dinner with him. He did his physiotherapy and occupational therapy exercises diligently and without complaint. When the physiotherapists gave him the “okay” to walk short distances with a cane, he would practice even after daily therapy hours were over, until the nurses would make him stop. His determination renewed mine, and made me want to work even harder than I was.
Sometimes we were in the Occupational Therapy room at the same time. He did worksheets while I did my arm exercises. One day, another patient was complaining that Jim, one of the physiotherapists, was in a terrible mood. I was struck (not for the first time) that someone was always complaining about something on that floor, and I tried to hide my annoyance.
“He’s probably just having a rough morning,” I sighed as I did a set of reps with the eight-pound weights, using my right wrist. Part of my therapy was to strengthen my right arm in preparation for making it my dominant arm. Being able to lift eight pounds with your wrist is pretty good. Normally, I’d have been very proud to be able to do that. However, it just didn’t seem very impressive that morning.
“Jim’s. Hung. Over.” said Michael, and winked at me. Due to his speech difficulties, when he spoke, he had to pause between each word for a short period. That time it didn’t even register; the words were so unexpected and yet so perfectly timed that I’d started to giggle before I could stop myself.
Once I started giggling, I couldn’t stop. The morning suddenly looked a little less gloomy. Ellen, the occupational therapist, looked over at me to see what so funny, but I couldn’t explain myself, and I didn’t really feel like it anyway. When I looked over at Michael, he was grinning, and I thought, I like this guy.
Another time, as I laboured to stack cups using my left hand, Michael started looking to me for help with his memory worksheet. He was stuck on a grammar exercise. Thinking back to how difficult it was for him to retrieve words, and how he sometimes got different elements of speech mixed up, I am so grateful that most of the machinery for that sort of thing is on the opposite side of my head from where I bled.
“Take. This....” he read from the sheet. He was to supply a noun.
“Take this...” I wrinkled up my face, hoping that maybe if I thought hard enough, my hand would work and I could stack the plastic cups effortlessly.
“Take. This. And. Shove. It.” said Michael.
I nodded. He’d pretty much summed it up. I suddenly felt a kinship with Michael, perhaps just based on a mutual frustration (and perhaps boredom) with occupational therapy exercises, but a kinship nonetheless. A little while later, during our one, real conversation, I realized that there was perhaps a deeper bond of understanding behind it.
"I. Love. My. Life.
We were both sitting on the porch between physiotherapy sessions. The other people with whom we’d been talking had gone back inside. We were sitting out in our wheelchairs in comfortable silence, enjoying the sunny day. PGH was a nice hospital, on a scenic piece of property. I could almost believe that I was out in the country when I looked off the porch at the surrounding trees.
At length, I started asking Michael about his life outside the hospital. He talked, in his slow, halting speech, about his wife (who still came daily to have dinner with him), his children, and his grandchildren. He talked about how worked in a bank for most of his career, and about how much he now enjoyed doing things outside now that he was retired from his job. He particularly enjoyed snowmobiling.
After a while, he became silent. He stopped looking at me and appeared to be biting his lip. It took me a moment to realize that he was trying not to cry. I suddenly felt very, very badly. I’d only been trying to make conversation, but obviously I’d hit a nerve. I knew which one was it was, too. When hit it the right way, it was a sharp, stinging reminder that just a little bit of blood where it shouldn’t be could turn your world upside down and change it forever.
“I. Love. My. Life.” he said softly. “I. Love. My. Life.”
Yes, I said to myself, looking at my hands.
He quickly turned his wheelchair away from the railing and started to roll towards the door. Halfway there, he broke down and started to sob.
My heart was breaking. I rolled toward him in my chair, absolutely clueless as to what I was going to say or do, but feeling like I needed to do something to let him know that I understood. I had my hand reached out to put it on his shoulder, but as I got close to him, he grabbed my hand and squeezed like he was never going to let go.
In that instant, I felt as if I’d found my rehab soulmate. I felt like someone understood how hard it was to get up every day and be positive, work very hard and just be generally “excellent” when there seems to little to feel good about.
One of the hardest parts of rehabilitation was that I just didn’t know what was going to happen. I had to go put as much into process as I could, with no guarantee of how much of my old life I was going to get back. It was exhausting and terrifying…and up until that moment, I’d been feeling very alone in those feelings, despite being surrounded by support.
All this passed through my mind in an instant, as did the sudden certainty that I was not alone in these uncomfortable feelings. To know this so deeply brought tears to my own eyes.
Michael only held my hand a couple of seconds, and said nothing. He then let go, wiped his eyes, and wheeled towards the door to go in for lunch. I might have met up with him a couple more times in occupational therapy after that, but we never spoke of that day on that porch, and it wasn’t long before he was walking out of the hospital with his wife for good.
Sometimes, when I see people snowmobiling, I wonder if he’s out on the trails. I like to think that he is.