Jim and Nancy celebrate life together after stroke recovery
Jim and Nancy Graham had already planned and paid for a long-anticipated trip to Hawaii when Jim had a serious stroke. He was just 61 and retirement was not on his radar.
"I was fat, dumb, happy and indestructible," he says of his life before the stroke. After was another story. Following treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital, Jim was admitted to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital Cape Cod for rehabilitation. Left side paralyzed, he couldn't walk and didn't have use of his left arm or hand. Going home was his first goal, but like many aspects of stroke recovery, that wasn't going to be simple.
"Aside from the physical effects of the stroke, my biggest concern was whether or not I would be able to recover emotionally," Jim says. "Everything had changed. In a couple of heartbeats on a Saturday morning, I became dependent on others for everything. That put me in a dark place."
Like others whose lives have been upended by stroke, Jim's first days confronting his new reality were filled with doubt. His team of rehabilitation specialists at Spaulding Cape Cod helped him make sense of it all. "My therapists worked on improving my physical condition and gave me the confidence that I could make progress."
Daina Juhansoo, DPT, one of Jim's therapists, describes the day she felt Jim was ready to attempt climbing stairs. "He was very unsure of himself and couldn't imagine trying even one step. He said our practice steps looked like a mountain. That it was insurmountable. But Jim trusted me and trusted our process. So, he went for it. Before he knew it, he was on the top step. He experienced an incredible sense of accomplishment and hope."
"The therapists have the expertise. They know what you can do," Jim says. "You may not know it, but they do, and they work you to that end."
Including the family in the rehab process is an important part of our care philosophy. As part of Jim's recovery, Nancy attended family meetings. "The biggest part for me was to understand what was going on. There was no dumb question. They were always there for me."
Communication between the team and family was critical as Jim and Nancy got ready for him to return home. "After the medical crisis is over and your loved one is coming home, you wonder, where do we go from here, how do I do this? I really don't know how I would have managed without Spaulding's support," Nancy says.
Though Jim was home, the couple had reconciled themselves to cancelling the Hawaii trip. During a follow-up visit, they asked Jim's neurosurgeon to sign the paperwork. He refused. "He told us, 'the stroke is over. You have to live your life because you don't know what tomorrow will bring,'" says Nancy. "It opened a lot of doors for us. We didn't need to sit home. We didn't need to be afraid."
Still, Jim was hesitant. An adventure like that seemed more than he could handle. So, he told his outpatient therapists and they put preparing for the trip into Jim's therapy plan. "We worked on improving my mobility and on increasing exercises. Gradually my stamina improved."
Eleven months after the June morning of the stroke, Jim and Nancy embarked on their Hawaiian cruise. "It was extremely important we realized that dream," Jim says. "I learned I could do it and should do it."
They fell in love with the islands. They returned for a month to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary with their daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter. Among many other adventures, they've climbed trails at Volcano National Park, ventured through the steamy rain forest and took a helicopter ride over a volcano.
Though Jim retired after the stroke, he found an outlet for his energy and what he learned about life and recovery. He started a Stroke Survivor's Support Group at Spaulding Cape Cod, which he continues to lead, and he visits patients who've just had a stroke, to share his story and inspire others.
"What makes Jim's involvement with our patients so special is he remembers what it feels like to be in their shoes - the fear of the unknown, the fear of losing the life they've been living. He encourages them to trust their bodies' potential for healing and trust the skill we have to offer. It's pretty powerful for patients and families to hear that message."
Many moments from Jim's and Nancy's Hawaii trips stand out, but one is emblematic of Jim's journey after stroke, his tenacity and belief there will be a way to get to a goal.
"There was a hill in the rainforest I wanted to climb. Man, that was hard! But I climbed it myself, using a cane. I used to not like the cane, but now it's like a badge. I wish I had a photo of me at the top of that hill, because I did it."