Profiles in Courage: Stories of Stroke Survivors
Paul Michael Bronson
"I treat April 28 as my rebirth on life."
Paul Michael Bronson was young (27), fit, working at Wachovia bank and on military leave awaiting a return to Iraq on April 28, 2004. When he lifted a clothes washing machine by himself and carried it down the steps of his apartment, the last thing he expected was to experience a stroke.
"I started having a really bad migraine, and I had never had one before," he says. "I went back up to the apartment and started acting really weird. Luckily, my mom walked in and called 911."
He was taken to Wayne Memorial Hospital in Goldsboro, where doctors explained that he had experienced a hemorrhagic stroke on the left side of his brain, but gave no specific reason as to why it had happened. Paul lost vision in his right eye and much of his speaking ability.
"When I left the hospital, I was speaking at about a first or second grade level," he says. He began speech therapy and found his military background was a plus. "It helps in the aspect of always being positive," Paul explains. "I know a lot of my brothers in the military have been through a lot worse … in the back of my mind I had to keep that with me to keep me positive."
Paul made great strides in his therapy; however, six months after the stroke, he began experiencing seizures. Despite two epilepsy surgeries in Tampa, Fla., in 2007 and 2009, and the insertion of a shunt to relieve pressure in the brain, the seizures are still not under control and keep him from being able to work. To document his experiences with the surgeries, seizures and medications, Paul takes videos and puts them on his YouTube channel. "This allows me to keep in touch with people who have seizures," he says.
Paul's first contact with the North Carolina Stroke Association occurred after a close friend from high school died from a stroke in the fall of 2014. After experiencing a stroke and losing a friend as well, one of Paul's goals is to be able to travel around the country and educate people on strokes, prevention and rehabilitation.
"The first thing I would say is eat well and get good exercise — and do not smoke or use tobacco products," Paul says. "I was smoking since I was 15, and I think that might have added to the brain injury."
As he continues to experience a new kind of life with seizures, Paul travels to Germany to spend time with his girlfriend and remains positive about life. "There are many worse stories out there that have happened, and mine is not as bad as others," he says. "I treat April 28 as my rebirth on life. God was able to decide to leave me here on earth to enjoy life for what it is."
Dr. Frank "Chip" Celestino
"Improvement continues well beyond what the medical establishment predicts"
It was Dec. 18, 2012, when 61-year-old Chip Celestino, MD, a professor of family and community medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, found himself receiving patient care instead of administering it. After experiencing a weeklong virus and coughing, he woke up in the middle of the night with "the worst headache ever," prompting his wife Joan to call 9-1-1.
"My wife said I had been coughing harder than she had ever heard anyone cough before," Chip explains, "and I developed a headache, which I assumed was part of the virus. After three days, it got much worse."
Chip received a CT scan and migraine medication in the Emergency Room. When the CT came back clear and his pain lessened, he was sent home at 5 a.m., where he slept briefly and then got ready for work. "I took our car to the dealer for service, got a loaner and went to teach a resident at the nursing home," he says. "My stroke occurred around 9:30 that morning. I slumped over while working with the resident. She initiated emergency care and got me to the hospital."
At the hospital, it was discovered that the coughing had caused a bilateral dissection of his carotid arteries. This occurs when there is a tear in one layer of the artery wall and blood leaks through the tear and spreads between the layers of the wall. The blood collects in the area of the dissection and forms a clot that limits blood flow through the artery, and the result can be a stroke.
"A clot from one side went to my brain and caused my stroke," Chip explains. "The doctors were able to salvage one carotid artery and resolve the blockage with tPA."
Chip experienced an ischemic stroke on the left side of his brain. Initially, his entire right side was paralyzed, and he could not speak because of both aphasia and right-side weakness in his facial muscles. He spent five days in the Neuro ICU and then was moved to the Sticht Center for rehabilitation. "Immediately, the physical therapists began working to reinitiate my walking, getting me up out of bed, learning to sit, stand and walk over the next three weeks," he says. "I was released to go home on January 21— five weeks after the stroke."
Then even harder work began. He was walking with assistance from a four-pronged cane, had no use of his right arm and couldn't verbalize many of his thoughts. "I needed assistance with everything – showering, dressing, walking, eating, etc.," he says.
Chip underwent physical, occupational and speech therapy, and in April 2013 he went to the University of Michigan Aphasia Center for a month to work on regaining his speaking ability. He regained movement in his hand and worked with a special SAEBO "brace" that trained his hand to open and close.
"By September 2013, I was able to give up my cane, and I was able to begin driving," he says. "I have slowly improved my arm and hand, and this summer I was able to resume golfing! I am not as good as I was before, but double-bogey golf is okay, and I have even had a couple of pars!"
Today, Chip continues to experience deficits in word/name recall and reading comprehension, and he needs to train his brain to use his right hand automatically. Every day, however, there is improvement.
"We go to Pennsylvania every summer, and it is there that I can best measure my progress," he says. "The first summer, I walked with a cane, barely able to walk down the street. The second summer, I tried and was able to walk without a cane for about a mile. This summer, I ably walked the whole three miles around the lake almost daily — and I was able to play 9 holes of golf, walking and pulling my clubs!"
He says the support of his wife Joan was crucial in getting him where he is today. "She was there every step of the way," he says. "I think, for the most part, the first six months were critical, and she was responsible for making sure that everything went smoothly. Joanie was very demanding and assumed that I would make progress. She always waited for me to try something and did not do things for me that she thought I could do myself."
Chip wants other stroke survivors to know that recovery takes a great amount of effort and time. "Improvement continues well beyond what the medical establishment predicts," he says. "The brain can form new connections and pathways to replace those that were damaged by the stroke. I have learned that rehab takes a lot of mental strength and continues for years."
"We are fortunate … we lived and can tell our story."
As an African-American woman, Mary Ford already had double the risk of a Caucasian woman for a first-time stroke. In addition, the married mother of two boys (now ages 25 and 17) was diagnosed with high blood pressure, which is the No. 1 risk factor for stroke and a condition that is found in one out of three African Americans, according to the National Stroke Association.
"I went to the doctor because I was not feeling well," Mary says. "My blood pressure was up, and I was prescribed medication at that time."
Three weeks later (and just a few weeks before her 50th birthday) on May 1, 2014, Mary's life changed.
"I woke up 3:55 am and was having a stroke," Mary says. "The problem is, I didn't realize I was having a stroke because my symptoms were not the normal or typical symptoms … that is at first. By the time I got out of bed at 7 a.m. I was feeling terrible. I had double vision in my left eye, I was dizzy and I could not walk straight. The ambulance was called around 7:15 or 7:30 am, they arrived about 10 to 15 minutes later."
Mary was transported to one hospital and remained for about four hours before she was transported to another hospital. "I received no medication at the first hospital because they didn't know what was wrong with me," she explains. "[At the second hospital] I was put in a room, and they began to give me blood thinners. I had an MRI around 6 pm and found out the following morning that I had a stroke. It hit me like a ton of bricks!"
Mary describes the after-effects of stroke as her legs feeling as if she were carrying two concrete beams. Her left side was weak, and she had to walk with a cane. In addition, her speech was delayed.
"I had in-home occupational therapy (OT) and physical therapy (PT) for two months," she says. "I started regular PT in July twice a week for six months, and it was grueling but necessary! It took me nine months to regain strength in my legs, enabling me to walk without my cane. I still have the cane because at times I get fatigued and need support."
The stroke also affected her memory and eyesight. "I definitely have cognitive delays because of it; my retention of material is not what it was," Mary says. "I was able to find some normalcy after 10 or 11 months; however my life will never be the same.
"I have a new normal."
Mary is gradually getting back into the workforce doing contract work as an early intervention specialist. She says her stroke event has given her a new purpose to educate others about stroke prevention and recovery. "When you're not sick you don't think about getting sick; however when you have a life event you realize, it — life, death, or illness — can happen to you. It is at that moment that you want to educate everyone, making them knowledgeable of what they need to do to avoid going though what you've experienced."
She wants other stroke survivors to know that they have conquered the biggest obstacle — survival. "They survived … they did not die, and so many people do," she says. "Recovery is hard but with love and support from family and friends they too can come out stronger. They need to take it one day at a time and enjoy life! Smile more, laugh often and live on purpose with no regrets.
"We are fortunate … we lived and can tell our story."
"Lift as you climb."
When Michael Gaines slid into his car one morning last April, health issues were the farthest thing from his mind. However, at only 38 years old, those thoughts quickly changed when he suffered a stroke while traveling on the road with his wife and children. He began to talk incoherently, his face was deformed, and he was unable to use his right arm. Michael says one of the many miracles he experienced was not being in an accident, since he was the one driving. Another was that they reached the hospital within the three-hour time window, and doctors in Fairfax, Va., were able to administer medicine to aid in his recovery.
The doctors also discovered that Michael had Patent Foramen Ovale (PFO)—a condition in which the flap-opening of the heart does not close properly and allows a blood clot to travel through the flap and to the brain, leading to a stroke. Doctors were successful in performing a procedure to close the flap, and his recovery began. Michael was able to get feeling back in his arm, and he says that after the medicine took effect, he was back to his normal self. He suffered no permanent loss of bodily functions or speech capability.
Life after stroke has become very different for Michael in his lifestyle and outlook. He stays active and has given his diet a complete make-over. Since his stroke, Michael has lost more than 15 pounds and kept his blood pressure steady and normal.
His view on life has also changed. Michael believes it was a miracle that he survived and feels "hugely blessed." Having a stroke heightened his awareness of the trials people endure, and he wants to use this experience to help others who have had strokes through education, volunteering and support. When Michael sees people going through different ordeals, he now thinks about how their lives might have been completely normal just the day before. It only takes one instant to change your life. He would never have thought about volunteering with the NC Stroke Association before his stroke, so it has opened up a new way for him to help others.
Today, Michael wears many hats. He is a husband, father, engineer, church member and community volunteer for programs such as Habitat for Humanity and Junior Achievement for North Carolina. He follows his life motto, "Lift as you climb."
Michael explains, "I don't want to be selfish with growth—I want to be uplifting as I climb… I don't feel entitled to have the outcome that I had. I don't deserve that miracle, but I'm so grateful to be here." Things that once aggravated Michael before now have less of an effect, "I don't have bad days anymore. I could be dead or seriously handicapped right now." Michael simply wishes to lead by example, be there for others and live life to its fullest.
"It's good to have people behind you"
Five years ago, David James was a healthy man, working during the week and enjoying his favorite activities such as racquetball on the weekends. However, on August 6, 2009, David suffered a stroke while in the shower. His wife called an ambulance and assured him things would be okay. However, when they arrived at the hospital, David blacked out and due to internal bleeding, doctors gave him a slim chance of survival.
The next day the doctors put him on life support, and David was in a coma for three weeks. He was given a feeding tube and a trach. Toward the end of August, he finally awoke but couldn't talk or move his right side. In September, David was moved to Whitaker Rehabilitation Center where he spent seven weeks. He was finally able to go home and start out-patient rehab in October.
David began recovery training with James Lyons, the lead trainer of The Millennium Team Recovery Center located at the YMCA in Kernersville, NC. James helps people regain their strength and their lives after they have had strokes. He says David "works as hard as anybody [he's] ever worked with. He's a fixture here [at the center]."
Doctors had told David he would be under nurse supervision daily for the rest of his life—that he would never talk or walk. His wife Sue remembered the experience, "We had to put our trust in God, because we didn't know David's future. They told us he wasn't going to survive and we would have to get our life in order. He's definitely a miracle; the doctors will tell you the same thing." David said because he always had people praying for him he was able to recover. He was given a second chance, and he completely changed his lifestyle post-stroke. He stays more active, weighs himself daily and keeps a strict diet—he rarely eats sugar anymore.
He has also trained with James over the past three years and loves it. "He's tough," David jokes. But the two have developed a great friendship and that has made all the difference.
James calls David the inspiration: "A lot of people are scared to do things, and David will do anything I ask of him. His attitude is a big reason why he's recovered the way he has." Now, David can walk with the help of a Bioness Stimulator and drive with a special pedal, making the trip to the recovery center much easier.
Throughout his recovery, David has leaned on his family, and they say this experience has brought them closer together. When asked what they would say to others going through any similar experience, Sue replied, "Have a support group. They help you get through. Trust the Lord."
David agreed, "It's good to have people behind you. And a person like James to help you, he's got the patience of Job. He's never short with me." He also added that it's about attitude: "I don't give up, and I don't get down on myself. You have to be positive. You can't give up. Keep on, it'll get better."
"Having a stroke does not mean life is over."
Steven Lowe calls himself a fortunate man. "I would not have accomplished anything if it weren't for my family, friends and my community in Mt. Airy. They kept me going. They kept me from going ‘Life sucks.' It would've been a different story without them."
On April 23, 2012, Steven Lowe, then 49, was mowing the lawn to prepare for his daughter's upcoming prom pictures. A few minutes later, he felt the back of his neck pop and immediately collapsed, his head hurting too badly for him to open his eyes. He knew he had suffered a stroke. After his neighbor found him and called 911, he was rushed to Forsyth Medical Center and later spent six weeks at Whitaker Rehabilitation Center for recovery.
Following his stroke, Lowe couldn't tell time or do simple multiplication and division. His vision was impaired, and he lost the use of his left side. He could not walk, swim or hike. Doctors told him he might never be able to do any of these activities again, but Steven knew it was up to him and his faith in God to prove them wrong. The time he spent doing those things with his family was his joy, and he was not ready to give it up.
Steven then spent the next six months relearning everything from counting change to answering the phone. While recovering, he was hit with humility: "Nothing is more humbling then having to relearn stuff you learned in the third grade, because you just don't know how to do it."
It has been two years since his stroke, and now Steven hits the pool two to three times a week and is able to swim one lap freestyle—one of his hardest accomplishments. He walked a 5K last December, and just recently hiked four miles at Pilot Mountain. His next goals? To run a 5K and eventually complete the 1,000-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail from the Smokey Mountains to the Outer Banks. Steven hopes that by doing this he will raise awareness for strokes and raise money for the NC Stroke Association.
Presently, Steven meets on the first Monday of every month at First Presbyterian Church in Mt. Airy with a stroke survivor support group he started last March. He hopes to not only provide support but to educate others on the signs of strokes and ultimately reduce the number of people having strokes.
Through this support group and his own experience, Steven has learned just how hard people are affected by strokes. "People say you can't do things. That is a very depressing view of life. You get to a point where you think there's no hope... What's left? Watching TV? I'm not going to do that." He wants them to know that having a stroke doesn't mean life is over, and with a little hard work and determination they can still make their dreams come true.
"When something bad happens, something good has to be made of it. I don't believe God does bad things just because. Some friends told me to ‘make lemonade with lemons'-- anything bad can be made into something good. It just takes a little creativity, resilience and perseverance… and sometimes, you just gotta laugh."
Leslie Martin (Marti) Myers, Jr.
"God has given me that gift of being on the other side."
Marti Myers of Winston-Salem is a spiritual man, and he views his experience as a stroke survivor as an opportunity and a reminder from God that he has been blessed.
"I now have a compassion in both the physical and spiritual sense that I did not have before for those who have permanent lifelong disabilities," Marti says. "I am thankful for the experience."
In August 2012 at 57 years old, Marti began feeling strange on a Saturday morning. "I knew something was wrong," he says. "I went up the stairs and fell forward while ascending them. I went outside in an attempt to alert my wife and could barely speak, but I couldn’t figure out what was going on."
His wife Patsy immediately realized what was happening and called 911. Within 14 minutes from the time she called Emergency Services, Marti was at Forsyth Memorial Hospital, and doctors were evaluating him as a candidate for treatment with tPA (tissue plasminogen activator), an FDA-approved treatment for ischemic strokes that works by dissolving the blood clot and improving blood flow to the brain. The drug has to be administered within a short time frame from the start of the stroke and significantly improves the chances of recovery.
"I had no pain and I was completely aware of what was going on, but I couldn’t talk and I could move nothing on my right side," Marti says. With Patsy’s help, he was able to indicate that he accepted treatment with tPA. "In about 30 seconds, I went from being speechless and paralyzed to saying ‘What do you want me to do now?’ By that evening, I was hitting on all cylinders."
He wants everyone to be aware of the phrase: "Time is brain."
"If you think there is a problem, respond to it as soon as possible," Marti says. "My wife became aware of the situation rapidly, and the doctors needed a decision right then about tPA. With an excessive delay, I likely would have suffered permanent impairment."
Marti was healthy, with no apparent risk factors for stroke, such as being overweight or having high blood pressure. However, testing after the stroke did uncover some problems - a patent foramen ovale (a hole in the atrial septum of the heart that didn't close the way it should after birth) and a floppy atrial septum (an aneurysm in the atrial septum). "The doctors believe the stroke was a result of this anomaly," Marti says.
In November of 2012, he underwent open-heart surgery to repair his septum. Today, he has no disabilities and takes no medications other than one aspirin each day. Psalm 40, verse 17 is his touchstone:
A Special Guest Inspires at Annual Partnership Nurses Luncheon
In November 2014, the NC Stroke Association hosted its 11th Annual Partnership Nurses Luncheon in Winston-Salem. Attended by stroke care professionals representing hospitals across North Carolina - from Vidant Health in Greenville to Mission Health in Asheville - the participants welcomed a special guest from Charlotte: stroke survivor Harshada Rajani, along with her parents and grandmother.
"As stroke professionals, it is always inspiring to come together as a group and hear about great work being done at the partnership hospitals," said Beth Parks, NCSA Executive Director. "The importance of stroke advocacy was made even more apparent as we heard from Harshada and her family about her journey as a young stroke survivor, the significant improvements she has made and the amazing things she has accomplished."
Harshada graduated from Duke University in 2007 and started medical school. At age 23, during her second year of medical school at Duke, she suffered a vertebral artery dissection leading to a bilateral brainstem stroke, which left her severely physically impaired. She spent several months completely paralyzed from head to toe.
"The hardest part about all of this is that no one knows my prognosis, Harshada explained in a later interview. "I had a very rare type of brain stem stroke at a very young age, so there is really no precedent for my situation." Some predicted that she would be completely paralyzed for the rest of her life, while others said she would make a full recovery.
With daily physical therapy, she has made amazing progress. Today she can take steps, talk softly and move every muscle in her body. She writes a blog for the Huffington Post and founded a non-profit - "We Win" - to help other young survivors of stroke and spinal cord injury with the financial cost therapy, which is often not covered by insurance and can cost up to $300 per hour.
"Every morning, I incorporate a few exercises and stretches into my daily routine," Harshada said. "It takes me a few hours to get ready and complete these exercises. I then spend the entire afternoon in physical therapy either at my local rehabilitation hospital or my local exercise-based training facility called 'Race to Walk'."
During the evenings, she spends time writing, reading, answering emails or working on "We Win," as well as working with her parents on walking and hand exercises, and her grandmother on yoga breathing exercises. "Every day is full of blood, sweat and tears," she said. "Every day holds a new set of frustrations and setbacks, and every day is complete with unanswered questions," she says. "But through it all, somewhere in the mix of things, I always stumble on a few glimmers of hope, a few pockets of progress or a few words of empowerment that all work to remind me of my fearless fight and my potential."
She offered a reminder to those who think they may be having a stroke (and their families) to go to the emergency department as soon as possible and advocate for yourself or your family member. "CT scans don't always give doctors a complete picture of what is going on with a patient's brain," she said. "Sometimes an MRI is needed. Doctors aren't used to diagnosing stroke in a young person, so be aware that this diagnosis may not even be on their radar.
Harshada finds inspiration in the quote: I don't need easy, I just need possible. "I urge other young survivors to always keep fighting. We are young, with our whole lives and futures ahead of us, and with neuroplasticity and plenty of time on our side, the sky is the limit."