Life changes in a stroke

How does one deal with sudden illness or misfortune? I hope I will face them with equanimity

It's been a trying week for my family.

Last Saturday, I woke up to an e-mail from my sister informing us that Phill, her 56-year-old husband, had suffered a stroke.

He had gone to work as usual on Friday. At about 8am, he felt weird and also couldn't raise his left arm. He told his colleagues he could be having a stroke.

They called an ambulance and phoned my sister with the bad news. She rushed to the hospital with the kids.

The stroke affected his right brain, that is, the left side of his body. He could move his left leg but couldn't lift or move his left arm. His speech was a bit slurred and his face a little crooked.

It was an anxious weekend for everyone, over there in the United States and here in Singapore.

My father had a stroke and we had all witnessed first-hand how debilitating it can be. One moment you are up and about and the next you are robbed of functions you take for granted.

Lucky ones can emerge from it relatively unscathed, but stroke left my poor dad unable to swallow, speak and walk. He died six painful years after he was stricken with it.

My sister posted updates of Phill's condition on her Facebook.

Soon after he arrived in hospital, doctors administered a clot-dissolving medicine to improve blood flow to his brain. But there was also a danger that this could cause too much bleeding. Luckily, a CT scan the next day showed no signs of this.

Further checks revealed that there wasn't actually a clot in his brain but that vessels were clogged.

On Saturday, his left arm remained immobile but he could wiggle his left shoulder a little. He could also lift his left leg and suspend it for more than 10 seconds, which were good signs.

A speech pathologist came to check his swallowing. He was given ice chips, water, applesauce, fruit and crackers and peanut butter to try. He could handle all of them although he had some trouble with the left side of his tongue.

On Sunday, he was moved to a regular ward and my sister and nephew spent the night with him.

By then, he could shrug with both shoulders - another positive sign.

Doctors said he had to go through another procedure to see if his heart could be producing blood clots that resulted in the clogged vessels in the brain. The result came back and there was good news - no hole or blood clots in the heart.

In fact, my sister reported, he emerged from the propofol sedation with a goofy grin and made funny remarks, like asking her to marry him. It cracked everyone up.

We celebrated every slight improvement.

His face resumed much of its symmetry and his speech improved.

The occupational therapist came and did exercises with him and helped him stand up and take a couple of small steps.

He could sit on a chair and hold himself up, tap his feet and raise his knees.

The mobility of his left arm improved slowly. He could move his left elbow, then his left arm with some effort. He could shake the doctor's hand and tentatively grip my sister's palm. He walked a couple of steps by himself.

The effort left him exhausted.

While we cheered his progress, we knew there was a lot more rehabilitation ahead.

I've always liked Phill and am glad my sister married him. He's soft-spoken, has a calm temperament and simple hobbies like astronomy and playing the banjo.

While our conversations don't usually go beyond "Hey Su, Hi Phill" and small talk, we get along.

I was very sad that he was unwell. I was also worried because I had seen my father suffer from stroke and how the illness so dramatically changed not only his life but also that of my mother's as she was his main caregiver.

My sister, I knew, was shaken by what happened but she had to put up a brave front because of the children and for his sake.

Phill's illness and the aftermath was a wake-up call for me on several counts.

On a practical level, it highlighted to me the need to have good medical insurance. Unfortunately, theirs isn't great, which led to a delay in him being admitted to a rehabilitation hospital as paperwork had to be sorted out first.

It also brought home to me the importance of a healthy lifestyle. While he didn't smoke and he did eat properly, he hardly exercised, had a high cholesterol level and a stressful job.

I vowed to revamp my high-fat diet, exercise more and not be overly worked up by problems at work. Is that plate of char kway teow worth it if it might contribute to stroke? Or getting frustrated about an office-related matter?

Mostly, though, his illness showed me the value of family and friends.

Phill's family was there for him and a brother spent the first night with him in hospital. In Singapore, relatives sent their best wishes.

My sister's friends here and in the US rallied around her, writing words of encouragement and praying for her on Facebook.

Those who could visited Phill, others helped to drive the two children to and from school and kept them company while my sister was in hospital.

It really helped for her to know she wasn't alone in this difficult time. Reading their messages, I was touched too.

Faith, I also discovered, is a great comforter and I'm glad she has that to turn to.

H and I often remark that we're at the age when it's going to be more common for us to face misfortune, either our own or that of people we know.

When bad things happen, what does one do? Scream and rage against fate? Collapse in a heap? Cry uncontrollably?

When it happens to me - as sooner or later it will - I will probably do all that.

But when the tears have dried, I hope I can display equanimity and be strong, clear-headed, brave and calm, even in a world that has turned upside down.

And, I think, perhaps one can reach equanimity only if one comes to terms with one's mortality.

Phill was finally moved to the rehabilitation hospital on Friday and continues on his road to recovery.

It will be a long journey and it won't be easy for him and his family. There are so many hurdles to clear, so many problems that have suddenly surfaced, like how on earth is he going to make it up the steep stairs of the house when he goes home.

But, I tell my sister, take it one step at a time and we'll be behind you all the way.

Follow Sumiko Tan on Twitter @STsumikotan

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