surviving a stroke

In Sickness and in Health

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 16 Comments
In the Intensive Care Unit

In the ICU

March 26th 2018 may not mean much to you, but it’s the day my life changed in many ways. It started like any other ordinary day, with me working in my studio. By the end of the afternoon I was rushed into a rumbling helicopter that flew me to the ER.

As I was airlifted, the surgeon waiting for me called my wife to prepare her for three possible outcomes. These were the options: if there were to be enough time, they would remove the blood clot from my brain that had caused a stroke, and I would recover. To what extent, he couldn’t say. If not, there was a good chance the brain damage would leave me greatly impaired and dependent for the rest of my life. Option three was least attractive: me reaching my expiration date.

By the way, what happened to me was nothing special. On average, every 40 seconds someone in the United States has a stroke. Stroke is now the third leading cause of death (behind heart disease and cancer) and a major cause of disability.

I lucked out. As you can tell, I’m still very much alive, and I plan to remain in that fascinating state for as long as I can. This gives me the opportunity to share some of my post-stroke observations with you. Perhaps it’s not what you expect from a blog about the world of voice-overs and freelancing. I get that. But please bear with me. One day, you or a loved one might have to deal with a similar situation. I feel it is part of my mission to tell my story. It’s one of the reasons I’m still alive.

SYMPATHY & SUPPORT

Once the news of my stroke broke, I experienced an incredible outpouring of sympathy and support, particularly on social media. The well wishes came from all over the planet. It was heartwarming and uplifting! If you ever want to find out how much people care, make sure you nearly die and tell the world about it! It will do wonders for your self-esteem!

The two things people told me over and over again were both very sweet and totally unrealistic:

Get Well Soon!

and

Speedy recovery!

We know a lot about the workings of the body and the mind, and there’s probably just as much that we don’t know. Good doctors have no problem admitting that. The not so good ones think they know it all. No doctor can predict how soon you will recover, or how much you will recover. In the case of strokes it greatly depends on which part of the brain is affected, and to what extent. The faster you find treatment, the better your chances.

Recovery from a stroke is more a matter of Getting Well S l o w l y. The first year is crucial, but recovery continues long after that thanks to the amazing plasticity of the brain. That’s the ability of the brain to reorganize itself by forming new connections between brain cells.

Especially during the first six months after I was out of the hospital, I could feel my grey matter making new connections, and boy did it tire me out! Saying I felt tired doesn’t do it justice. I felt utterly fatigued. What’s the difference? Simply put, fatigue is extreme exhaustion that surpasses feeling tired. It’s a total lack of motivation and energy. I spent most of my time in bed, sleeping the day away while my brain was reconnecting.

It took me a few months to be okay with my state of slumber. At first I felt terribly guilty that I wasn’t able to help out and be productive. I’ve always been such a go-getter, and now my biggest accomplishment of the day was a smooth bowel movement. Kicking and screaming, I learned to accept that I could not jumpstart myself into getting well again, and that it was okay and imperative to ask for help.

A NEW JOB

The next thing I discovered was this: recovery is not some passive process. It’s a day job. Apart from getting enough rest, my post-stroke life was (and still is) dominated by frequent doctor’s visits and therapy appointments. I had speech therapy, vision therapy, sessions with a neuro-psychologist, and lots of homework to be ready for even more sessions. I’ve been back to the ER four times now, and spent some time in the hospital over Thanksgiving and St. Patrick’s Day (and I just missed Valentine’s Day another time!).

I’m not bringing this up so you’ll feel sorry for me. I just want to give you a glimpse of my life so you’ll understand why I went undercover for so long. As I’ve described in another blog post, after my stroke I lost the ability to emote and enunciate, which is kind of a problem for a voice actor like myself. My delivery was as flat as a pancake. On top of that, a tremor on one of my vocal folds made my voice hoarse and tired in no time. Forget long-form narration!

DEALING WITH LOSS

So, not only was I reevaluating my physical and psychological state, I also had to take a hard look at my career in voice-overs. My psychologist described it as a state of mourning. I was mourning the loss of my health, my sanity, and possibly my way of making a living. I had to do all of that with a damaged brain that was readjusting and prone to stimulus overload.

I clearly remember going into one of the many hospital waiting rooms, unable to deal with all the noise. Around me, people were making phone calls, kids were playing loud games on their tablets, and patients were comparing notes about doctors and treatments. At the reception desk calls were answered and people were signed in. A big tv hanging from the ceiling was informing us about the father who brutally murdered his beautiful wife and two adorable children. Trump was touting his wall. This cacophony sent my brain into overload and made me nauseous.

Even though I have been generally impressed with the extraordinary level of care I received, hospitals and doctors’ offices do very little to create an environment conducive to stress reduction, well-being, and healing. I’d prefer a spa-like atmosphere with soothing colors, greenery, soft lighting, essential oils, and meditative music. A sanctuary away from the constant distractions and hubbub of our 24/7 society.

FOCUS & RESPONSE

Now, for those who are dealing with the effects of a stroke, it is easy to get despondent and depressed, making a bad situation even worse. I must admit that I’ve not always been able to keep it together, but a few things helped me not to wallow in my fate. One of them is the belief that human beings are free to choose what we focus on, and how to respond to what is happening to us.

Instead of bemoaning all the things I had lost, I chose to be thankful for the many things that were unaffected. I started reading about people in similar situations who had made remarkable recoveries that could not always be explained by traditional medicine. What did they do to get there? What were they thinking, eating, and drinking?

I came across stories of self care and self love, stories of patience, and picking new priorities. I decided to give myself time to heal, and to spend it on things that made me happy. I began writing my blog again as a way to have a voice. I purposely stayed away from petty problems and draining interactions with people who thrive on negativity. Gradually, my level of energy and my vision improved, and I was able to express myself with more emotion.

SUPPORT NETWORK

my wife

To be honest: I never could have done this on my own. I have a whole team of doctors, nurses, technicians, and therapists to thank. Colleagues came by and friends stepped in making meals and driving me to appointments. But by far my best bedside advocate, designated driver, medication manager, cheerleader, and personal chef is my wife Pam. She is my solid rock, and the soft shoulder I lean on every single day.

When I’m forgetful, she remembers. When I am anxious, she calms me down. When I need to rest, she makes sure I’m not disturbed. She fills out the many forms, deals with my health insurance, and talks to my doctors. For my trip to VO Atlanta, she’s set up a support system to make sure I won’t overdo it. In short: she’s my guardian angel, and I’m so lucky we’re together in health and in sickness.

On Thursday I’ll be leaving for VO Atlanta. 800 participants are coming together to immerse themselves in all things voice-over. If you’re going, I can’t wait to meet you! You’re invited to attend my X-Session “Six Steps To Turning Your Business Around,” on Friday from 1:30 PM to 4:30 PM, and my Breakout Session about “Winning Mindsets” aka the Stinky Sock Session on Saturday from 4:45 to 5:45 PM.

See you soon!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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I’m Still Here!

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Personal, Studio 80 Comments

There’s not much I remember of Monday, March 26th, but it’s a day I will never forget. 

In the late afternoon while at work in my studio, I suddenly and inexplicably began to feel light-headed. My legs became weak like rubber, unable to support the body they held up. Then I blacked out for who knows how long. It felt like minutes, but it could have been for hours. When I regained consciousness, I found myself on the floor, painfully twisted like a pretzel, gasping for air. I tried to get up on both knees but couldn’t. It was as if my brain’s messages didn’t reach my muscles. I’d never experienced anything like it in my life. 

The phone rang several times. My arms reached to the desk above, hoping to grab it. No matter how hard I tried to lift myself up, I had no strength to do it. It was infuriating and terrifying at the same time. After a while a text message came in, and I desperately wanted to answer it. I grabbed my desk chair, hoping to climb up on it, but it rolled away from me. 

Something told me that whatever was happening to me, was serious, and I needed to contact the outside world without delay. Then I remembered that I could simply ask Siri to call my wife by shouting instructions at my iPhone. But when I attempted to form words, I noticed something very alarming. My tongue felt swollen and useless. My slurred speech sounded like a drunken sailor. What the heck was going on? 

While I was lying on the floor, I noticed that my breathing had become very shallow. I had no idea for how long I had been down. The lightheadedness got worse by the minute, and suddenly it dawned upon me that I was using up all the oxygen in my seven by seven, hermetically sealed, and unventilated voice-over studio. I clearly needed help, but who could possibly rescue me? 

My wife was at a borough council meeting that night, and she wasn’t scheduled to come home early. Screaming to alert the neighbors was pointless, since I was in a solid soundproofed space I had designed myself. I remember trying to open the heavy studio door, which under normal circumstances takes a lot of strength. An industrial metal door closer keeps it firmly shut, and to make matters worse, my unresponsive body was leaning against it. 

I felt trapped, and it quickly dawned upon me that if no one came to liberate me, I would soon use up all the oxygen, and suffocate in my own studio. 

At borough council, my wife was concerned that I didn’t show up for the meeting I’d said I would attend, and that I did not answer my phone. A few weeks earlier she had found me face down on the kitchen floor after I had thrown out my back and was unable to move. Six hours later an ambulance crew had to pick me up off the floor and take me to the nearest hospital. With that in mind she called our friends who lived nearby and had a house key, asking them to check in on me. Since this was a council meeting, the police and fire chiefs were present, and they promised to send a few guys over for a welfare check. 

Knowing that crying out for help would be futile, I began to bang a loud SOS on the walls of my recording space in the hopes somebody would hear me. It took all the strength I had, but suddenly and miraculously, the back door opened, and I heard voices. Neighbors Scott and Danny had arrived, but they had no idea what had happened and where to find me. In one final attempt I pounded the loudest SOS on the studio door and it worked. My friends came running down to the basement where my studio is located. 

At first they couldn’t open the door because I was lying against it, so I had to roll myself away from it. As the fresh air was flowing in once the door opened, I took the deepest breath I had ever taken in my life. I remember Danny, who is a trained nurse, bending over me, saying: “The left side of his face is drooping and he’s unresponsive. He might have a stroke!” At that point police officers and firemen came in, ready to get me out of my miserable situation. 

What happened next, I don’t remember very well. They got me out of the house and to the nearest hospital to stabilize me, and find out what was going on. A quick scan confirmed that I had indeed suffered a stroke caused by a blood clot in the right side of my brain. To avoid further brain damage and possible paralyzation, it was imperative to get me to a stroke center as quickly as possible. That’s when the medevac team was contacted. 

A helicopter landed on the helipad at a nearby high school, and within minutes I was airlifted in a cacophony of engine rumble and intense vibration. At the stroke center a specialized team was anxiously awaiting my arrival, ready to physically remove the blood clot using a procedure called mechanical thrombectomy. Doctors threaded a catheter through an artery in my groin up to the blocked vessel in the brain. A stent opened and grabbed the clot, allowing doctors to then remove the stent with the trapped clot. 

Get this. During the operation I actually woke up out of my sedation, and I felt the stent going in, grabbing something inside my head. As I stared at my smiling surgeon’s face, there was a moment of sharp pain, followed by intense relief as I drifted away. The next thing I remember is waking up in the ICU, being welcomed back into the world by my wife. For the next two weeks, I would be attached to a network of tubes leading to beeping equipment measuring any type of vital sign. 

I was weak, I was dizzy, but I was alive. Thank goodness I was alive!

What happened next was even more miraculous. As soon as I shared my hospitalization on Facebook, hundreds of people started reaching out to me. Every day I received encouraging, heartwarming messages from all over the world from friends, colleagues, and family members. Some mornings, the nurses caught me using WhatsApp to talk to my sister in the Netherlands, Facebook Messenger to connect with a colleague in Spain, and email to let a client know I couldn’t narrate a script just yet. 

While new medications were slowly stabilizing my situation, I want to tell you that there’s nothing like the positive power of kind, caring people healing what was broken. I felt strengthened, supported, uplifted, and energized. Soon I would be walking the hospital halls in my yellow slipper clogs to the amusement of staff members. I began climbing stairs, regaining my balance, and finding my bearings. Paul Stefano, Trish Basanyi, Uncle Roy Yokelson, and Mike Harrison came to visit, bringing good cheer and yummy treats. 

Friends started cooking for my wife who spent most of her time by my side, keeping track of all the information and advice from neurologists, cardiologists, and other health care experts involved in my treatment. She was the one I leaned on, literally and figuratively, and I count my lucky stars to have her love in my life. 

So, how am I feeling now, a little over two weeks after I had my stroke?

Right now, the biggest challenge to my recovery is… me. I want to get back on my feet as soon as possible, doing all the things I’m so used to doing, even though I might not have the energy and coordination to do them. I have to learn to pace myself and say no. I also have to come to terms with how I handle stress caused by pressure I put on myself, and pressure from others. But based on what has happened, people are surprised to see me in such good shape. I attribute that to two things. The day after my operation the doctor told me: “It’s important to keep a positive outlook. He’s absolutely right. I truly know that being negative is a luxury I can’t afford. 

The second thing is the importance of having a support system. That’s precisely where you came in, and I am so grateful for that. To you, it might have seemed like a few kind words on social media, or a card with an encouraging message. To me, it made all the difference, and I can’t thank you enough for that!

The consequence is that you’ll be stuck with snarky, lucky me for a while, using this blog to dish out my weekly commentary on the wonderful world of voice-overs and life as a freelancer.

Are you sure you can handle that?

Really?

I know I can, because I’m Still Here, and I’m not going anywhere!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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