Image by Alison Updyke
Many PhDs that I met during my recovery said that if your stroke affected your right side of your body, as mine did, you should do everything on the left, but that never made any sense to me. I wanted to regain full use and strength of my right side, and I couldn’t do that by always using my left.
I read the Wall Street Journal every morning. It’s a tough newspaper, and I still didn’t get everything immediately, but I read through it. When I walked to RIC in the city, I would make sure I held my newspaper on my right side. I also started wearing my watch on my right wrist and shaved with my right hand. Eventually, I took it even further.
One night early in my recovery (about one month after I was released from inpatient RIC), I came home to a wonderful smell in the kitchen, lamb chops. Kelly knew that it was one of my favorite meals, and she was quite happy to see my smile. I sat down, mouth watering at the familiar food, and picked up my fork with my left hand. Then suddenly, my smile faded. My right arm wouldn’t cooperate. I couldn’t pick up my knife with my right hand to enjoy the meal. I couldn’t even feed myself my favorite food.
I was stubborn and didn’t want to ruin the special meal, so I switched hands, attempting to cut the lamb chops with my left hand. Much like the child who tries to write with the nondominant hand, my efforts were sloppy and awkward. The full weight of the realization that I was handicapped came crashing down on me, and tears blurred my vision. When at last I was able to wipe them away enough to look up, I saw Kelly wiping her own eyes.
“I’m so sorry, Ted. This was supposed to be special. I didn’t know. . . ,” she said, but I cut her off with a wave of my hand. I wiped harder at my eyes.
“It’ll get better. It will, Ted. It will get better,” she reassured me. I knew she was right, but it wasn’t going to get better on its own. I had to take charge. And that’s exactly what I did.
Switching from Right Brain to Left Brain to Right Brain
One day not too long after the lamb chop incident, I took a small rope and said to Kelly, “Tie this.”
“What are you doing?” she asked as she tied my left hand behind my back.
“Today, I’ll eat dinner with my right hand, and after that, I’ll use that side of my body until I am ready to go to bed. I’m trying to get better.”
Once I felt like I was improving, I’d switch to the left side. I began alternating between my left and right side each day. It gave me a different way of firing the neurons in my brain by switching from the right brain to the left brain and back again. I was building new synaptic pathways to replace the ones I’d lost.
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I talked to some of the PhDs at Northwestern about it, and they said they had never thought about it like that; no one had ever done anything like that before. But I did it for the entire first year of my recovery, and my right side improved. Now, nobody can tell which side of my body was impacted by the stroke.
Motivation, Mind, and Determination
It’s all about motivation, mind, and determination. I figured if I really wanted to do something, it was up to me to do it. There was no prescription or set therapy, no panacea that would fix the issues I wanted fixed. All anyone would tell me was, “Wait until later,” or “Oh, you can’t do that,” or “You’re disabled, so deal with it.”
I’m glad I didn’t listen to them, and I hope that people who think they can’t make these kinds of changes are reading this. There is hope, and there are ways to change!
But no one knew what was going on in my head, and the doctors didn’t know what I could and couldn’t take on. They only knew what they were trained to say.
That’s why I did it. It was my body and my life, and I wanted to be in control. The word no has never been a part of my equation.
I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who is as focused and determined as Ted is. I tell people,
“You don’t understand—this guy doesn’t procrastinate. He’s very strategic. He’s great with time management. He’s clever. He’s extremely results oriented.”
People will say, “Yeah, I think I know somebody like that.”
And I think, No, not like Ted. He got frustrated during his recovery, but he never got angry. He wasn’t a quitter. He will find a way to recover.
“Do you ever wonder why this happened to you?” I’d asked him.
“I can’t think about that; I’ve just got to move forward,” he would answer.
Every night at dinner, we would talk about the stroke—not necessarily the events of the stroke, but the rehab. The speech therapy, the physical therapy, what happened with it.
That was the focal point of our conversations.
“I’m sad, aren’t you?” I would ask him.
He would say—not as fluidly as I’m putting it now, but he’d make me understand— “I can’t be sad. I can’t let myself get to that point. It can’t get me anywhere.”
I guess that was his way of coping so he could keep moving forward. In a way, he was sad and somewhat depressed, but overall, many people who have brain injuries, like a stroke or a traumatic brain injury, have depression issues. He didn’t. He had down days where he was a little blue, but that’s normal; we all have those. But he did not go through any major depression like a lot of stroke survivors do.
Remarkable? Yeah. Ted’s personality never changed, thank God. He’s just as driven as he always was.
No Fun in Arizona
“Let’s try to use our timeshare at the resort in Scottsdale or we’re going to lose it,” Kelly said to me one morning. “It’d be fun to get away.”
“Okay,” I replied.
“Okay? You’re okay with me scheduling it?”
“Yes,” I said.
“All right,” she said with a smile. “I’ll call today.”
We took an early flight. I was extremely tired, and it’s a long stretch from the airport terminal to the gate.
“Do you want me to get someone to help us? Maybe one of those carts?” Kelly asked.
I said no quite emphatically. I wanted to walk through the airport. I always walked. I had a disabled placard for my car in Chicago, but I never used it. Still, by the time we got to the gate, I was exhausted.
“Are you okay?” Kelly asked me.
“Yes,” I answered her. She would ask several more times before we touched down in Scottsdale.
“Are you sure that you’re okay?”
“But, you’re limping, Ted,” Kelly answered the final time as we made our way out of the airport.
The next morning at the hotel, the kind surrounded by golf courses, I woke up bright and early, but Kelly wanted to sleep in.
“Go to sleep, Ted. Get some rest,” she muttered and then rolled over.
“Can’t sleep. Need coffee,” I said and then started for the lobby. It was about seven a.m. when I left our room, which was like a casita.
Walking down the path, on my way to the front desk, I spotted a gym in our hotel. No one was in there that early, so I decided to exercise for forty-five minutes. I didn’t have a water bottle, but they had a fountain with little cups, so I was able to have a little water. Then, I continued my walk.
I found the front desk and asked, “Coffee?”
“No. I’m sorry,” the receptionist answered. “There’s a coffee maker in your room though, sir.” She gave me an apologetic smile, and I walked away.
There was a spread of breakfast foods being set out for a conference. I saw a banana and took it as I walked by. I was sorry to see they were still grinding the coffee, so I opened the door to take the path back around the outdoor pool and toward my room.
That’s when my body froze. My face locked; I couldn’t move my jaw. I fell down on the ground, unconscious. It felt like I was only out for one or two minutes, but a couple of people who saw me said that I was out for ten minutes. I’d had a second seizure. Somebody from the hotel recognized me from when we checked in the day before, so she called Kelly, who rushed down to the hotel lobby to find me on the ground.
Déjà vu! Paramedics, gurney, ambulance, emergency room! I was only in the emergency room for the day—I didn’t have to stay overnight—but I knew, and Kelly knew, that this would be a major roadblock in my recovery progression. Once again, the seizure had affected my speech.
Getting My Speech Back, Again
We were in Arizona for a week, but I couldn’t have a good time because all I could think about was how to get my speech back. There was one upside, though—I had brought my flash cards along. I had a full set, from kindergarten through eighth grade, on a wide array of topics. Whenever Kelly drove us somewhere on that trip, I would ask her questions from the cards, like, “Who was Magellan?”
“No, I don’t know that,” she’d say.
I’d say, “I’m trying to connect questions and answers. This is the question. The answer is on the back.” And I’d flip it over and read: “A Portuguese explorer who led the first expedition that sailed around the earth.” Of course, I wouldn’t remember all of that, but I would be quite pleased if I remembered he was an explorer.
Then, I’d go to the next one. After about an hour, I’d go back through the flash cards to see what I could remember. I found I couldn’t recall any of them. More frustration.
Now, put yourself in Kelly’s shoes: I couldn’t talk. I didn’t know much about Arizona before my stroke, and I was too preoccupied with rehabbing myself to focus on vacation planning, so Kelly had to do all of it.
She found a Native American reservation near Tucson for us to visit. We took a drive, two hours there and two hours back. That’s when I really got into the flash cards.
“What animal eats meat? A lion or a rabbit?” I’d ask, and then, ignoring her answer, I’d read from the back of the card. “Lion.”
“What sport did Michael Jordan play?” I’d ask. Then, I’d read the answer: “Basketball.”
And so on. This went on for the first hour or so of our drive. It often took me several attempts to read the questions without errors. To Kelly’s credit, she didn’t get pissed, but she got more and more annoyed
I included the flash cards in my weekly routine when we returned home from our vacation. I kept pushing myself harder. I started with five different cards every day and then jumped to ten. I had to rebuild my memory. I went from second- to third-grade vocabulary during that trip. Kelly was impressed with the determination and grit that I had (and still have) to go through those flash cards, always taking baby steps.
Learning to Play Golf, Again
“I think I should ask the resort golf pro to see if he can help you learn to play,” Kelly told me after I had had a little time to recover from the seizure. We were still in Scottsdale and seated right on a beautiful golf course.
I decided to follow her advice.
“Okay, Ted,” the golf pro addressed me. “Let’s see what you know.” He placed a ball on the tee and handed me a club. I stepped up, lined up correctly, but everything else felt awkward. I could grip the club, pull it back a little, and move it forward through the ball, but the ball just dribbled off the tee. I didn’t have any power; my legs and hips didn’t move. I could walk, but I couldn’t move my legs while trying to hit the ball. “That’s okay. That’s okay,” he reassured me.
That’s pathetic, I thought.
“You just have to rotate your hips at the waist,” he said and showed me the motion, but I couldn’t move my waist. While I was trying to figure out the clubs, the pro told Kelly I was like a first grader, but it would come. First comes the coordination.
Giving Up? I Can’t Do This!
This was one of those times I thought about giving up. I thought golf wouldn’t work for me. I knew how to swing the club; I had been a baseball player all my life—I knew how to swing a bat. Now, after having a stroke, I couldn’t do it.
I can’t do this. What if the doctors are right? I’ll never be able to play sports again. What about retirement, I thought in a panic. I’ll be bored to insanity. I have to be able to do something—golf, tennis, boating. . . something. My mind raced. I’ve got to choose one now, so I can do it later, when I retire.
If I tried to do all three, at that point, I’d do a shit job at all of them.
It’s got to be golf. I like golf. I was good at hitting the ball before. I can be good again. To hell with the doctors. I’ll prove them wrong.
I decided I was through with Scottsdale, but I would play golf eventually. I would get better to prove to myself that there are things I can do, by focusing—stroke or no stroke. Today, I can usually hit the ball 270 yards using my driver.
©2018 by Ted W. Baxter. All Rights Reserved.
Excerpted with permission.
Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group Press.
Relentless: How a Massive Stroke Changed My Life for the Better
by Ted W. Baxter
In 2005, Ted W. Baxter was at the top of his game. He was a successful, globe-trotting businessman with a resume that would impress the best of the best. In peak physical condition, Ted worked out nearly every day of the week. And then, on April 21, 2005, all that came to an end. He had a massive ischemic stroke. Doctors feared he wouldn't make it, or if he did make it, he would be in a vegetative state in a hospital bed for the rest of his life. But miraculously, that's not what happened . . . Relentless is a wonderful resource for stroke survivors, caregivers, and their loved ones, but it is also an inspiring and motivating read for anyone who is facing struggles in their own life. (Also available as a Kindle edition and an Audiobook.)
About the Author
After spending 22 years in the financial industry, Ted Baxter is retired as a global CFO with a large hedge investment firm based in Chicago. Prior to that, Ted was a managing director for a global investment bank and he was a Price Waterhouse partner and a consultant concentrated on banks and securities, risk management, financial products, and strategic planning. Internationally, he spent 8 years working and living in Tokyo and Hong Kong. Ted now volunteers at 2 hospitals in Orange County, leading groups in a stroke-related communication recovery program, and is a member of the Board of Directors at the American Heart and Stroke Association.