One Year Out

The thing about anniversaries is that some anniversaries are really good and celebratory and involve cake and stuff and some anniversaries are bad and make your heart hurt and your stomach fall and encourage you to crawl under the covers for the entirety of the day. Yesterday’s anniversary was the latter. It has been one year since Bob suffered a stroke.

A few months ago, Bob was formally released by his neurologist with the instruction to please, don’t come back. I believe the doctor’s parting words to Bob were, “You were very, very lucky.” Out of the host of physicians caring for Bob, his brain specialist was probably my favorite. Also, his work was the most critical of any of the doctors those first few days. Bob’s neurologist was handed the tricky task of finding the right level of intravenous blood thinner to administer. The blood thinner was meant to thin Bob’s blood just enough to ease flow while reducing the risk of additional clots forming but the medication couldn’t thin it too much or Bob risked bleeding in his brain at the site of the four existing clots. I remember talking to the neurologist in the ICU and him admitting that it was all a risk versus reward equation. The risk of a brain bleed with the reward of preventing clots. It was a fine line and there were no guarantees. Can you IMAGINE having that job? Being responsible for making the call in such a dicey situation? I can’t, but am exceedingly grateful for people gifted with that level of confidence.

I think I’ve worked to bury some of the more stressful memories of that first stint in the hospital, like the possibility of permanent brain damage. But, that’s the thing about anniversaries. The forgotten details tend to bubble to the surface.

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For someone who suffered a stroke twelve months ago, Bob’s recovery has been remarkable. So remarkable, in fact, that we’ve mostly moved past the daily impact his illness had on our lives. For the better part of a year, I’ve asked him several times a day, “How are you feeling?” But, I’ve noticed over the past month or so, that I’ve stopped asking. That’s a tidal shift for me – moving from the assumption that Bob is unwell to the assumption that he is well, unless otherwise informed.

The most lasting impact of Bob’s stroke has been his lingering physical exhaustion. It’s closely tied to the level of chaos and stress surrounding him at home. The part of his brain that was injured seems to be the part that deftly handles noise and mayhem, the type three young children tend to create. Weekends can be exhausting for Bob with the general insanity level of our home, leading to the need to rest at regular intervals. Recently, we ate dinner with dear friends and by the time we arrived at their house, Bob had been subjected to a full day of kids and their incessant demands with no respite. He was mentally taxed and retreated to our host’s basement after we arrived to nap for a bit. (Our friends are awesome and totally understanding and probably wished they could nap at random, too.)

However, even the physical exhaustion seems to be improving recently. One year later and Bob seems to be back running at 100 percent. Well, back to Bob’s version of 100 percent anyway.

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I’m not upset or mad that Bob suffered a stroke. It’s just something that happened to us. I started to move forward almost from the moment it occurred. My goal was to make Bob well, to enact improvement and progress. For everything to be better. To SOLVE THIS PROBLEM. I learned a few lessons along the way, too.

The first being that medical science is inexact. Throughout the past twelve months, I have been consistently surprised at the amount of just… guesswork that goes in to treating sick people. Before Bob’s stroke, I just assumed that, when diagnosed with a problem, for the most part, doctors knew pretty much how to treat that problem. Modern medicine isn’t really like that. There’s still a significant amount of surmising, speculating and theorizing. That’s not a bad thing. It was just unexpected to run into so much shoulder shrugging from so many people with so many advanced degrees. I mistakenly thought doctors had all of the answers. I learned this past year that they don’t, no matter how badly you wish they did.

I also learned that nurses are basically unheralded. We saw nurses more than anyone else during Bob’s hospital stays and almost without exception, they were kind and compassionate. They shared advice and reassurances and anecdotes and survival stories and ensured we had a single room and were just generally really amazing. I ran into Bob’s discharge nurse at Target several months later and although she didn’t remember me when I approached her with words of thanks, she still asked if she could give me a big hug and sent her best wishes to Bob.

This past year proved that while almost everyone knows what to do to help in a crisis, almost no one knows exactly what to say in a crisis. They will undoubtedly say the wrong thing a good percentage of the time. It is inevitable and we should probably accept this as a universal truth and cut everyone some slack. It’s hard to find the right words when someone is suffering and sick. Some people will offer standard platitudes of “everything happens for a reason.” Some people prefer denial and will tell you that “he doesn’t even look sick at all!” Some people are uncomfortable with the idea of… finiteness and will change the subject entirely. Some people don’t know what to say so they won’t say anything at all. This is all okay. Really. WITH ONE EXCEPTION. We need to all agree to ban the practice of telling a sick person a story about this other sick person that they know from work or their cousin’s wedding or their mom’s book club that had a stroke too – “JUST LIKE YOU!” – and was incapacitated for life because of it. Tales of death and despair told to someone facing death and despair is never helpful. We need to work together to knock this off.

While I may have been downtempo and reflective during yesterday’s anniversary, I don’t think Bob was. We didn’t talk about it much actually. He spent the day cleaning up flower beds, giving Cub Cadet rides to the kids and practicing marksmanship with Charlie. Maybe that was Bob’s way of commemorating such a transformative day.

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May happens to also be American Stroke Month. HOW CONVENIENT, people who decide these types of things. Also, I kind of feel like it should be called, “American Stroke Prevention Month,” people who name these types of things. American Stroke Month sounds a little too glamorous. Kind of like something you’d like to catch. Anyway, I had no idea what was happening to Bob the evening he suffered a stroke and described his condition to the 911 operator as a “cardiac event,” since I assumed something in his recovery from the cardiac procedure he had had the day before was causing his problems. She knew better from my description of Bob’s symptoms so the EMTs that responded were therefore ready to treat a stroke victim. Remembering the “FAST” acronym is easy and identifying even MILD symptoms early on can make a huge difference in treatment success.

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So, maybe cut this out and paste it to your fridge or something. Do it for Bob and stroke survivors everywhere.

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