Reversing the damage of a stroke: How one patient rehabilitated himself through sheer determination
Strange as it may seem, the stroke Ted Baxter suffered in 2005 at age 41, leaving him speechless and paralysed on his right side, was a blessing in more ways than one. Had the clot, which started in his leg, lodged in his lungs instead of his brain, the doctors told him he would have died from a pulmonary embolism.
And as difficult as it was for him to leave his high-powered professional life behind and replace it with a decade of painstaking recovery, the stroke gave his life a whole new and, in many ways, more rewarding purpose.
Before the stroke, Baxter's intense work-focused life as a globe-trotting executive in international finance had eroded his marriage and deprived him of fulfilling relationships with family and friends. Unable to relax even on vacation, he rarely took time to smell the roses. Now, he told me, he leads a richer, calmer, happier life as a volunteer educator for stroke victims and their caregivers and for the therapists who treat them.
The stroke began with a cramping pain in his leg after a long international flight during which he wore compression hose to support his varicose veins. He didn't take the pain seriously until suddenly he couldn't talk or move the right side of his body. The clot that caused his leg pain had broken loose and cut off blood flow to the left side of his brain.
He nearly died. But once stabilised, the doctors discovered that he was born with a hole in his heart that had allowed the clot to bypass his lungs and go directly to his brain. Two of his siblings turned out to have the same defect, called patent foramen ovale, which they subsequently had repaired.
Baxter readily admits that his Type A personality, which was the driving force behind his professional success, was also a major factor that helped him reverse the extensive losses he suffered when the clot severely damaged his brain. And it inspired him to recount his 14 years of recovery and renewal in a fascinating book, Relentless: How a Massive Stroke Changed My Life for the Better, an apt title for what it took for him to regain full physical function, comprehension and intelligible speech.
His mantra, which could help many others facing a devastating health setback, is that recovery takes determination, focus, resiliency, persistence and courage – the courage to weather repeated setbacks and frustrations. He admits, however, that it can also take the financial resources and personal support he had to get the kind of help that can make a difference.
At first, his goal was to get right back in the saddle, working nonstop in finance. But after months of intense rehab, he still could neither use nor understand language, spoken or otherwise.
"It took seven or eight months for me to realise I wasn't going back to my job," he said. "I didn't even understand that the words coming from my mouth weren't making any sense."
The learning curve was steep: "I couldn't read; I couldn't write. I could see the hospital signs, the elevator signs, the therapists' cards, but I couldn't understand them," he wrote. The aphasia – the inability to understand or express speech – "had beaten and battered" his pride.
But he refused to give up. With age and prestroke physical conditioning on his side, he had convinced himself that "100 per cent recovery was possible as long as I pushed hard enough."
Baxter figured if he could get his body functioning again, his language facility might also return. The brain, he learned, was plastic and capable of renewal. So he devoted countless hours to physical therapy, worked out in the gym long and hard, and had his left arm tied behind his back, forcing himself to use the right. He found that as his physical abilities improved, so did his comprehension and communication skills.
When what he tried to say came out garbled, many people assumed he was either mentally slow or a foreigner with limited English. As one of his speech therapists said of people with aphasia, "It's hard to understand that they have their intellectual faculties and know what they want to say, but they don't have the ability to communicate it."
Baxter researched and enrolled in several different aphasia programs throughout the country. For many hours a day, he did language practice, starting with books and flash cards for preschoolers and doing endless repetitions to relearn speech until eventually – after years of hard work – he was finally able to read books and have real conversations.
His original therapists at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, admittedly amazed at the progress he made, asked what benefited him the most and solicited his help developing a new, intensive aphasia programme. He was also invited to participate in Archeworks, a design program in Chicago for students working to solve urban problems.
"I faced the challenge of using my right hand, making new friends and communicating effectively with a team," he wrote. He was building things with his hands and tools and suddenly he realised he was problem-solving, a skill he had used often in finance.
Sports also aided his recovery. As he slowly regained use of his right side, he took lessons in golf and boxing, aided by watching others do things correctly.
"If I could see somebody do something, then I could follow it and mimic what they did," he wrote. "I had to focus on visualisation – picturing the task, the actions needed to perform that task and the intended result."
Art therapy was another helpful pursuit, which he said reduced his stress, countered depression and improved his self-esteem and emotional health. With art as a new source of fulfillment came an invitation to join a museum board that gave him additional conversational practice and "withered away my aphasia every day."
Gradually, Baxter said he "started to realise that by doing more for others, I'd be happier with myself."
Living now in Newport Beach, California, with his second wife, the 55-year-old stroke survivor devotes his life to inspiring other survivors and their caregivers. "I go to universities and hospitals to present my story – what I had experienced, how I rehabbed myself, how it changed my life for the better and what it took to get my life back," he wrote.
"Sometimes, I can't believe how far I've come," he said. He credited family members and friends who "never gave up on my recovery, nor did they ever treat me as if I were lost, and because of that, I never felt lost. None of it would have worked without a positive attitude."
By Jane E Brody © The New York Times