Our whole situation was surreal. Dan was hooked up to life-sustaining machines in the neurological ICU when just the day before he had been out mountain biking with his buddies. He had suffered a devastating stroke at work with no apparent cause: he wasn't overweight, he had no family history, no high blood pressure and no diabetes. He was an active, healthy individual until that day.
My youngest son and I tried to sleep in the one visitor chair in the room, huddled together, but sleep was impossible. We were anxious about Dan's condition and the beeping of the monitors. The cacophony of noises from the breathing machines in rooms on our hall were a constant reminder of where we were. Sometimes the noises, which resembled an orchestra warming up, were interrupted by a speaker system calling a "code blue" or "rapid response." We would then hear feet running in one direction -- someone was in terrible distress.
Late at night we observed a group of residents walking from room to room in our unit. A full-sized robot that had a computer keyboard accompanied them. The robot was making rounds. A resident would make notations on the robot's computer and the information was sent from the robot to a doctor who was in another location. The doctor analyzed the data and instructed the residents how to proceed.
It was sometime during our second night in the ICU, when I was again huddled in the sole visitor chair, that I began to hear the most beautiful strains of music coming from somewhere outside my husband's hospital room. I tiptoed out to the hallway to see where they were coming from but didn't see anything. I followed the sounds around the corner and there in front of me, like a hologram, was a harpist. I learned that volunteer musicians play in the ICU because it soothes the patients, visitors and staff.
Music does soothe and I relied on it during the tensest situations. While in the hospital, Dan needed several surgical procedures. His aphasia prevented him from communicating vital information to the doctors and nurses, so I accompanied him to the pre-op area and often to the operating room to fill in the information gaps. The operating room waiting area was very stressful, filled with people anxiously waiting for the whoosh of the corridor door that led to the operating room and news of their loved ones. Each time the door opened, hearts would stop and every pair of eyes would turn to the door to see if it was their doctor. Once Dan's operations began, I would take the elevator down to the hospital's main lobby where a volunteer pianist played a baby grand piano. The operating room staff would call my cell when there was news and I would return, soothed.
Dan is one of the fortunate ones to have survived a devastating stroke. His co-workers recognized the signs of a stroke and called 911. He was rushed to the hospital, received the clot-busting treatment TPA and began the long and difficult road of recovering the functions that he lost when the clot passed through his brain.
Even now, 22 months after the stroke, he works his program daily. Our neuropsychologist recently said that Dan was "the poster child of stroke," confirming that the program he follows is making a difference. Although Dan still has many disabilities -- physical, neurological and cognitive -- he has made progress. He is not who he was and he can't do many of the activities he once loved (e.g. bike riding, driving), but he has found fulfilling activities. And with the support of friends, family and therapists, he is pursuing them. Here is a glimpse into his daily program.
• Exercise. The more you exercise the more nitric oxide is produced in the body, according to Nobel Laureate Dr. Louis Ignarro (1998, Medicine). The blood vessels dilate and allow greater amounts of oxygen to be carried throughout the body and nourish the cells, Ignarro found. This promotes physical and mental capabilities. Dan incorporates physical activity into his routine daily. He has progressed from a walker to a cane to being able to walk unassisted, albeit with supervision. Twice a week he walks/runs around a local track and he "rides" his stationary bike daily.
• Learn Novel Skills. When you learn new things and challenge the brain, it increases the number of brain cells and the number of connections between those cells, Dr. Keith L. Black told AARP The Magazine. Learn new skills -- take classes, solve puzzles or learn to play an instrument or speak a new language. Dan enjoys various classes at the Osher LifeLong Learning Institute for students age 50+; he attends an aphasia group and he's learning to play piano.
• Maintain a healthy weight and eat right. We promote healthy eating and follow a simple plan that they taught us in the hospital -- half of Dan's plate is vegetable, one quarter is protein and one quarter is carbohydrate.
Knowing the signs of a stroke, getting to the hospital quickly and working the rehab program can make all the difference. We hope Dan's story will reach and encourage more "poster boys" (and girls) out there.
(To learn more about the warning signs of a stroke, check out our slideshow below.)