By Boyce Fullmer as told to Linda Chism
Computer technology had always come easy to me, and I had spent most of my life as a very capable programmer and systems administrator. I could fix just about anything that could possibly go wrong. One day, however, it was me rather than the computer that needed fixing.
I had been trying for half an hour to string together even one sentence, but it was useless. An aching pain enveloped my head. I took some aspirin and called my wife, Tina, who was with her terminally ill mother, two hours away. Tina strongly suggested that I go to the emergency room, but I resisted the idea.
Still worried, Tina called her daughter, Tanille, who had just arrived home for lunch. She immediately transported me to the nearest hospital. There the nurses hustled me to an empty cubicle in the ER, and the attending doctor ordered an MRI. The results showed that I had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke, the deadliest and most disabling form of strokes. The doctor explained that I would be airlifted by helicopter to a larger hospital in Dallas. Although “helicopter” sounded familiar, I couldn’t quite grasp the meaning of his message.
The Great Escape
Usually strokes affect either the right side, which controls our emotional responses, or the left side, which controls our logical thinking. But the doctors discovered that my stroke had affected both sides. Even walking required tremendous focus. I had no vision in my right eye, but my hearing had become hyper-sensitive. Conversations down the hall mingled incoherently with the words of the person standing in front of me. I had lost 60-70 percent of my vocabulary, and could not even tell my caregivers to close the door of my room. Sleep was impossible because of the sensory overload I was experiencing.
The brain is an incredible instrument, even when only half-functioning. After ten days of involuntary imprisonment in the hospital, my muddled mind hatched an escape plan. I knew that the hospital lay near to a stop for the Dallas Area Railway Transit (DART) system. Unfortunately, I had no idea that it was New Year’s Day, and that trains would be running on a reduced schedule.
Despite the limitations of my crippled brain, I somehow deduced how to leave the floor without tripping an alarm. I carefully dressed in the clothes I had worn to the hospital, but realized that I had no identification and no money for the DART train. “I will have to be very careful,” I thought to myself, as if I were traveling home from the office that day.
Amazingly, I made it outside of the hospital. The temperature hovered around 30 degrees, and light rain was falling. I had no jacket and no internal compass for heading west. I began walking in the wrong direction, getting colder with each step. A bank building lay in my path, and its door surprisingly opened for me. After warming inside for a bit, I ventured out again to find the DART station. All too soon, I was wet and cold. Looking for warmth, I entered a parking garage where a bright yellow, hooded raincoat beckoned to me. My clouded mind saw it as God’s providence, and I left the garage covered in neon yellow.
Eventually I made it to the DART station, and after what seemed an eternity, boarded a northbound train. I planned to get off at the downtown Plano station and walk home. However, I never made it that far. The DART police asked for my ticket, and realizing that something was very wrong, took me into custody.
The hospital, meanwhile, had discovered my absence and had called Tina. Knowing that I usually rode DART when I traveled downtown, she immediately called their office. In a truly miraculous moment, I had entered the DART office at the same time.
My road to recovery
I refused to go back to the hospital when Tina arrived at the DART office. She took me home where I enjoyed my first good sleep in ten days. But my battle to regain my mind had just begun. The stroke had left my mind in a state of mental topsy-turvy, unable to speak coherently or read a printed page.
After consulting with my neurologist, Tina enrolled me at the Pate Rehabilitation Center for short-term outpatient therapy. There my initial therapy included communicating, reading, and comprehending the written word. Over the course of time, I re-learned many words, although I still have trouble finding the right ones. The “book club” allowed me to read short selections and then report back what I had read. Not surprisingly, my learning curve was highest at the beginning, but leveled out over the next two years. Today I still attend therapy at the Collier Speech Center at the University of Texas at Dallas. There one or more students continue to help me with my communication and reading skills.
Lessons learned from the stroke
I wish I could say that I experienced a miraculous recovery and returned to my former self. Unfortunately, that did not occur. I still have issues with conveying my thoughts, with focusing on a project, or performing a manual task. As is often the case with the chronically ill, I have sometimes succumbed to feelings of depression over my situation.
It is then that I try to focus on the good things I still have in my life. The first is my wife, Tina, who married me when I was still healthy and successful, but she had nevertheless remained committed to our marriage. I am grateful every day for her kindness and resilience. Her two youngest boys live with us, and they teach me daily how to be a better parent and person. I am extremely thankful for the mental and physical abilities that have returned, and for family and friends who continue to support me. But most of all, I am grateful just to be alive.
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