Back in June of 2011 I had a stroke and an accident (in that order) while driving in Staten Island, New York. I never made it to the funeral we planned to attend and I surely won’t be making it to mine anytime soon.
My life took a turn but not necessarily for the worse. Every now and again it is good to go through changes, so, I’ve been told. Sometimes we do it because we want to and other times it is forced upon us. In this case it was forced upon me. In many ways my life had been comfortably stagnate from my own perspective in the months preceding “The Event” of June 18th but that all changed.
What a long, strange trip it has been. More than a touch of gray but I will survive. Thanks, Grateful Dead for those lyrics that inspire me so much these days.
“I will get by,
I will get by,
I will get by,
I will survive.
See, every cloud lining- got a touch of grey.”
So I’ll start at the begging and later on skip around like flashbacks on TV. On Friday, June 17th Susan, Mike, Mulan and me traveled from our home in Maryland to New York to attend a family funeral on Sunday. Susan was my girlfriend at the time, Mike is her son and Mulan is our pet Shiatsu. The funeral was for Gert, Susan’s ex-Mother-in-Law and Mike’s Grandma, as he called her.
Saturday morning I rose early to take in a morning of yard sailing as we called it, while Susan and her mom hit the malls. The weather was wonderful and I was feeling great and loving doing what I enjoyed most. With Susan’s routing and my GPS I was hitting the sales and grabbing up some great stuff for EBay and for my own selfish self.
Suddenly I felt confused and disoriented and although I had never had a stroke before I knew I was having one now. I tried to get off the road so I could continue to have my stroke with some degree of privacy but I ran into a moving car instead. Nobody got hurt but there was a little body damage to both cars. There, is of course, no such thing as “a little” body damage. I called Susan confessing the accident with the excuse that I had had a stroke. I needed my wallet because it had my driver’s permit in it; the police were sure to be on the way. Susan rushed to the scene. I fussed around for my cigarettes but my coordination was way off and they must have fallen to the ground. Maybe Susan took them away. She hated my smoking. Instead of the police, ambulances arrived instead. I tried to explain that I couldn’t go to the hospital because the police were on the way but Susan and the medics would hear nothing of it. Just another cigarette would surely make everything all right.
Sirens blaring, I was rushed to Staten Island University Hospital where a team of nurses and doctors worked to save my life. They succeeded. I because I spent a few days confined to a bed with side rails, I presume, so I could not escape. I felt captive. I was told that I could not walk yet because I had a stroke. I protested, insisting that I could in fact walk. I could not help but to wonder if I could in fact walk. Calls were coming in from all over the country from relatives and friends. I wanted Susan to come but she never did. It was too much for her. Sue’s brother Jeff and wife Beverly did come. Bev brought pastries or me. I wanted her to come back. I complained to Jeff that I was being held against my will. He said it was for my own good and I have yet to forgive him. I just hated that remark. He’s a really nice guy and all but I don’t care.
I was in that hospital for several days. Pneumonia had come and gone and my near death experience, if I had had one was unremarkable. I took a special liking to a young nurse named Samantha. She wanted five children, three girls and two boys and already had the names picked out. She was adorable. No, she didn’t have a husband or even a boyfriend. All the good-looking guys (like me) were taken or too lame (unlike me) to bother with. I only saw her that one time but I met her sister who said she was off work for a few shifts and most likely partying somewhere. I wanted to save her from that lifestyle. She was not a Jersey Shores kind of girl. What a nice girl she was and I didn’t know many nice girls. I miss Samantha and always will.
I complained of my sore back and wanted out of my soft bed just to sleep on the floor. It was against hospital protocol I was told. I really didn’t give a &$#% about hospital protocol and the damn doctors. Yes, the doctors had saved my life and all. I freaked out a poor nurse by saying that the doctors who had saved my life had done me no favors. Well, the doctors gave me morphine for my back pain and I liked it. All was forgiven.
My stay at that hospital was short because I wanted to go home, about a 200-mile trip.
Travel plans had been made by my sister, Kathy, my logistician. Home to me was not really my home but St. Mary’s Nursing Center. I was whisked away first class and the travel back to Maryland was uneventful save for making a pit stop to gas up and an opportunity to pee first class in the parking lot. I hated peeing in a bottle. We did not have an on-board flask urinal. I hated using a bottle anyway because it had spilled onto me before and made me look incontinent and that was the first impression I did not want to make. Along the route there were communications between Kathy and me and upon arrival she put out the bulletin to all concerned “the Eagle has landed.”
I really don’t remember my first day at St. Mary’s. I do remember my new friends Ella and Doreen. I especially remember their promises to “sign me out” for road trips, maybe to one of their homes, I fantasized. The promises were never kept but those promises meant possibilities.
I also remember Denise bringing me back special treats from McDonalds. I had no cash but promised to pay her back as soon as I did have money. The Big Mac I ordered was complimented with super-sized fries and a Coke. When I did have money Denise refused it.
I was constantly hungry. We got breakfast, brunch, lunch, an afternoon snack, dinner, and a bedtime snack. It was never enough. I figured that upon release I’d be ready for the fat farm and joked that was how St Mary’s really made money.
I was upset that my wallet was still not with me. I really missed it. Susan had turned it over to my niece Genie for safekeeping. I was told that I didn’t need it, my ID, and money was unnecessary. I was obsessing, so I was told. Still I wanted them. This is America and who doesn’t need money? I was not reunited with my wallet again until early August.
Brian, my son, flew in from Miami just to see me. I had not seen him in years. He was strikingly handsome and the staff took such notice of his GQ good looks, dress and manner that were a real plus for me.
Brian’s visit was too short and mine was short too. The time had come for me to move on again. The doctors thought I would benefit from more intense therapy. I took that as bad news thinking I was really in a bad state and beyond their rehab capabilities. One of my activities was stacking small colorful cones one atop the other using my left arm without knocking them over any in the process. A monkey could have done it. I could not. I cheated using my good arm but got caught. I was so discouraged. Another activity was putting colorful plastic rings on round wooden pegs and then removing them one by one. I was too clumsy. A preschooler could do it. No way could a dog. Dogs are colorblind I reasoned. Speaking of dogs, we got weekly visits from Pets on Wheels. With help, I was mobile with a wheelchair. I chased after dogs for hugs and sloppy wet kisses. I had been kissed by worse. Pets on Wheels visits were anticipated like a kid waiting for the ice cream truck. We also got a visit from an Elvis impersonator. The old ladies were quite excited. I was not. He was not Elvis. I didn’t care.
When my wallet got delivered it was kept in St. Mary’s safe for safekeeping. Safekeeping? I wanted my wallet and its’ contents. I felt naked without them. But the staff insisted. I was regarded as too irresponsible to have my wallet, I figured. I was told that things got stolen from the facility. That was the least of my concerns.
So I was readied for transport to the internationally acclaimed Washington National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C. It took a long time for my entourage to arrive. My entrance was a grand event. I was greeted by doctors and nurses, hospital administrators and others. Everyone was so friendly and loving. The only thing missing was the flashing lights of media cameras..
I made myself at home surrounded by a wonderful, caring, loving staff from all over the globe. Food was excellent if not abundant. My main complaint was that I didn’t get enough of it. I pulled one of the dietary staff aside and complained that I wasn’t getting enough food. Yes, I was going to give the facility a five star rating in the “Washingtonian” magazine because the food was outstanding but I also planned on complaining about the meager servings. I was always hungry and remarked that they were trying to starve me to death. I begged for more and more food and my demands were often met. I was given extra servings by a kind kitchen worker and the head dietician got me special chocolate bars delivered daily. I also got cash money delivered Fed Ex from my sister. I spent it very wisely in the vending machines and at the Starbucks in the lobby but the money ran out fast. I got graham crackers from sympathetic nurses, if not for me at least for my pet mouse. I told the story of how I wanted graham crackers for my pet mouse. “You have a mouse?” a nurse screeched! “You have a mouse in your room?” I explained that I did not have a mouse in my room. It was in my drawer.” I thought it was pretty amusing but the nurses did not share my humor.
I made a friend for life while waiting in line at the Starbucks in the hospital lobby. Kathy was a hospital administrator in a wheelchair who rolled forward and said “Excuse me, the coffee is on me”. I was flattered to have such a gorgeous lady pick-up my tab.
At the vending machines I met a sixteen-year old boy in a wheelchair. I engaged him in conversation wondering, as I put it, “What is wrong with you?” He replied simply saying that his legs just stopped working one day. I confessed to him that I felt sorry for myself sometimes and he comforted me by saying “That’s alright. It’s okay. I understand.”
This was coming from the wisdom his coming from a sixteen-year old kid.
I now had my very own wheelchair. It was just a loaner but I took full advantage of my wheels and traveled everywhere, earning the nickname “Cruiser” from Dr. Paul Raul, an administrator and author of the book Managing Stroke: A Guide to Living Well After Stroke.
Our friendship was immediate. Dr. Raul had told me that I’m an excellent communicator. “Gee, doctor, nobody ever told me that before. I must have had a stroke of genius,” I said.
I learned that one of the parts of my brain that was damaged was the part that controls inhibitions and that I must be careful of what I say. Well, one of the good things about my stroke is that I was no longer shy in any way and that I could approach anybody I wanted to engage in conversation.
One evening a group of women were at the nurse station at the Stroke and Brain Damage unit I was a patient of. They were fascinated by me because even though I had a stroke I was able to talk. They wanted to introduce me to their fried Pat whom had just had a stroke. So we went on to Pat’s room and we met each other. Pat invited me to stop by anytime and I took that as an open invitation. She was a pretty, petite blonde and was brainy too. I have always been attracted to women of intellect and I wanted more than her acquaintanceship. I wanted her. She was placed on my route,
A day or so later I found Pat’s room and from the outside announced my presence. Pat invited me in. She owned a public relations firm in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. and she wanted me to find her appointment book so she could contact a client.
I am a helpful guy and so I started searching through her personal stuff. In came a hospital employee who was infuriated with me and demanded to know what the hell I was doing. Pat came to my defense scolding the employee explaining “Michael and I go way back”. Spoken like a true public relations professional, I thought.
With a stroke and in a wheel chair I was great at picking up women. One day I was staring at a visitor and apologized saying I was simply admiring her dress and how it looked so great on her and that her perfume made it just a pleasure to stand there and breathe. She was flattered.
I was so flirtatious with the beautiful nurses in my unit that I wanted to marry one of them but she was already married. So she introduced me to her cousin who was available and we had a wedding of sorts.
Another stroke related problem was that I was argumentative even more so than before. One day I was angry about something and demanded to meet the staff in the Conference Room and they better have a team of lawyers with them because they were going to need them. Well, that never happened.
I really wanted my wallet. An attorney visiting his mother-in-law said that the reason my wallet was being withheld from me was because I was sure to escape should I have my identification. Of course this angered me. Now I really wanted to escape or at least try. So one evening I got permission to go down to the lobby and I wheeled myself right past the hospital security desk onto the streets of Washington. I made it. But now I wanted to go back inside and I could not find my way back. Lost, I tried waving down passing cars but cars just passed on by not wanting involvement. I didn’t think I looked like a carjacker. Finally a man stopped to help and he wheeled me to the hospital entrance and I got on the elevator and made it to my unit. I apologized for being so late. I later told an employee what I had done but I don’t think he believed me.
Getting lost as I still do is because of the stroke. My short-term memory is very bad and I still get lost constantly even in my own neighborhood.
At the National Rehabilitation Hospital I was enrolled in three different kinds of therapies: speech, occupational and physical.
I enjoyed speech therapy because it gave me the opportunity to talk. I was in a group with other people. Cheryl, a government worker had been run over twice. She had exited a bus and was struck. The driver panicked and trying to undo the damage backed up running over her again and she had suffered brain injury. Paul, a construction worker for Habitats For Humanity was also in our group. He had used a nail gun to attempt suicide. It didn’t work. Another person was a young lady whose name I cannot recall. Like me, she simply had a stroke. She was only in her thirties and looked fairly healthy. She was, I believe, the only person other in the group other than me that had smoked. Her stroke, of course, was attributed to her smoking and her drinking.
I really did not like occupational therapy at all. It was work for me. I learned to shower and to dress myself. I still have trouble tying my shoes and keeping them tied. Buttoning shirts was and remains a challenge. The hospital had a wardrobe and shirts to practice buttoning. It was not my favorite activity.
Early every morning a member of the staff came by, asked us what day of the week it was and what our name was. I always knew the day of the week because there was a calendar on the wall. Just for fun when asked my name I said I was Barack Obama. The staff member had a sense of humor and I was told that a Joint Chiefs of Staff meeting was on the agenda that day.
The National Rehabilitation Hospital is a class operation so every day the patients had their agenda for the day delivered to them. Physical Therapy was on the agenda and Dr. Eric Trenty introduced himself and I was told that I was going to get up from my wheelchair and walk. He wheeled me into the atrium and I made my first steps and I was clumsy just like a toddler. Dr. Eric, as he liked to be called, did not have a negative bone in his body. He was always encouraging me by praising me when I did something right and never making a comment when I wasn’t able to perform as I thought I should. Dr. Trenty, as I like to call him, had studied sports medicine and later on decided to be a physical therapist. He is on my list of favorites. He is a credit to his profession and to the human race.
All things must pass and the graduation day came. My discharge was an affair. The sweet nurses had a farewell party for me. Pizza was delivered and other special treats. Everyone stopped on by to say goodbye. Like in the Wizard of Oz, I would never see any of these wonderful people again.
My longtime friend, John, arrived to drive me to his home in Maryland where I stayed with him and his future bride, Helen.