Stroke Survivors and Caregivers

Gain strength at local support group

Each stroke survivor who attended a December Stroke Support Group at Fauquier Hospital told a different story. Bryant Smith had a stroke six years ago. “For three years, I didn’t accomplish anything, but then I started to make some real progress. I did nothing for three years. My wife did everything.” His wife, Betrain Hill-Smith, said, “I believe there are no coincidences. Maybe this happened so that I could learn to understand people better. I have to understand how he is coming at things.”

Jess Lowry started driving again, but only on back roads, with his wife alongside him. “I don’t do it a lot. It makes me nervous.” His wife, Suzanne Funesti, said he is making progress, but it’s very slow. “The night before he had his stroke, everything was normal; the next morning, there was a new normal… sometimes the reality of his stroke hits me in the face. When things get difficult, I need to look around and find some joy. We are up and moving, and I am thankful for that. We need to approach things in a positive way. People who haven’t seen us in a year say how much improved he is, but we see each other every day, so I don’t see it as much.”

One attendee, who preferred not to be identified, said she recovered from her stroke almost immediately: “I lost my handwriting, but am working on getting that back.” Her husband remembers the awful day of her stroke: “She was completely unresponsive. Then they administered anticoagulant medicine, and she was back, there she was.”

Joanne Wilkins, who was attending the support group for the first time, had a stroke in November 2015. “One minute I was fine, the next I was being airlifted to Fairfax… life has changed. Every day I try to accept the changes. I’m looking for a new direction. I have to accept my new purpose in life, though I haven’t figured out what that is yet,” she said.

John Lee didn’t have a stroke, but three brain surgeries have left him disabled. “My hand doesn’t work, and I trip over just about everything. I used to do everything around the house. Now my wife has to do the heavy lifting. My purpose now is to get the kids up and off to school on time, and in the afternoon, back from the bus stop. During the day I work to keep myself busy.” Lee, a veteran and youngest member of the group, is “under 40.”

He took their dog out for a walk recently, but the dog ran off. “I had to walk a long way over uneven terrain and I turned my ankle. I was pretty mad at that dog.” Lee has fallen down the stairs four times, and his wife Janette said, “The day he fell down the stairs, I kept telling him he was doing too much. I told him to go sit down.”He gives her a grin, “I was down.”

Kathy Fine said, “My husband had a stroke. He says he doesn’t need a support group, but I do. Sometimes the heavier burden is on the caregivers.”

The Stroke Support Group met for the first time in May. Kim Shuler, in charge of early heart attack education and the Stroke Program at Fauquier Hospital, moderates the group. Dr. Dennis Di Mauro, pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Warrenton, attends some meetings to lend spiritual support:“It’s important to remember that we live in a world where sin and disease happen. Sometimes we are unwitting recipients of bad things. That’s just a reality. Rain falls on the good and bad alike. You might feel angry with God for inflicting this on you, but you can look at God instead as someone who loves you, comforts you, maybe even heals you.”

All agreed that the stroke has affected their relationships. “It’s tough being dependent,” said Wilkins. “I can’t drive anymore, so I have to rely on other people. My friendships have changed. I always used to be the one to call to gather people together. Now, there is no one to do that.”

Funesti agreed, “Some people just fall away.” Janette Lee said, “They don’t just fall away; they actively disappear. You find your true friends when something goes wrong.” Betrain Hill-Smith said she and her husband have a friend like that: “He just disappeared when Bryant had his stroke.” Recently, she spoke to the friend and explained how the loss made them feel. “He spent time with us yesterday, he sat on our couch and we talked.”

Recognizing that caregivers and survivors have different challenges, the support group broke up into two smaller groups. Pastor Dennis DeMauro moderated the survivors group while the caregivers shared stories. Fine said, “Everyone has different deficits, depending on what part of the brain has been affected.” Funesti nodded and added, “Jess couldn’t stand but he could speak, the man next to us at rehab was walking on the treadmill, but couldn’t talk.” Betrain Hill-Smith said, “And because the brain is damaged, you have to teach it new pathways. For a long time, Bryant couldn’t speak, but now he is doing so much better. It has been a very slow recovery.”

Although every day is a struggle for these couples, they also told stories of hope. Funesti said, “We were visiting his daughter. She is a massage therapist and she gave him a massage. In the middle of it, he started talking normally back to her. His personality was back, too. He was 98 percent normal. It lasted two or three days.” She told the fascinated group that although the improvement was dramatic, “Jess doesn’t want to have a massage from someone he doesn’t know, so we haven’t been able to test the treatment.”

Most stroke survivors engage in therapy – physical, occupational and speech therapy. The members of the group agree on a few strategies which help: getting time outdoors, being around friends and family, and staying as active as possible. Lee does regular weight training; when he moved recently and didn’t have access to his equipment, he noticed the difference in his progress: “My strength, flexibility, speech and mindset all deteriorated when I couldn’t work out.”

Lee attends the group because he said it helps to talk about his struggles and successes with others who are going through similar trials: “I go to a psychiatrist too, but I count this as my group therapy.” Suzanne Funesti said she too is grateful for the Stroke Support Group, where members can “share ideas and stories, and support each other.”

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