February 27, 2011, started out as a regular day. I got up early and went to work in the emergency department at Greenville Memorial Hospital. My husband, John O’Donnell, an emergency physician, had worked the evening before and was sound asleep. I received a phone call at work that morning that would change my life—our lives—forever. A friend of ours phoned. “Call home,” she said. “Call home NOW.” I can still see myself in my mind’s eye at the nurses’ station, calling home, having my usually verbose husband answer in words of one syllable, and even worse, in sequences of numbers to my questions, “Can you hear me? Can you walk?”—and thinking “It’s got to just be low blood sugar or something strange like that.” But I knew. And I KNEW that I knew it when I had EMS sent to my house. I KNEW that I knew it when I called my neighbor to check and make sure my husband could get to the front door. And I KNEW that I knew it when he arrived at the emergency room, and the only logical thing he could say was “I can’t say what I want to say.” I knew he was having a stroke.
After a short stay in the hospital, OD began intensive speech therapy, but this really began the day he came home. We began reading the dictionary together so he could repeat the words, and I think there are still some index cards around with the names of all our furniture and appliances that we had taped to everything. If he couldn’t say it, he couldn’t use it! We learned quickly that we had multiple challenges. OD had speech, memory and multitasking impairments that hindered communication and disheartened both of us, for a while.
OD spent over a year in speech therapy, starting with the ABCs, and learned how to read and write—and speak—again. He had to learn to temper his need to re-learn with the demands on his injured brain. Our daily routine changed to meet the new challenges, and we both had to learn to laugh at our frustrations and arguments over verbal misunderstandings and misdirection. Even now, we often sound like two people having two different conversations!
OD’s stroke has changed the course of our lives, and indeed, robbed some of the richness of life from OD. But our lives have been enriched and strengthened in other ways, mostly through the generosity and humor of good friends. Most importantly, we have realized that every day together is a gift. Life after stroke may not be easy, but it can be rewarding and fruitful and full of joy.
Mary McGee, BSN, RN, CEN, is a Prisma Health clinical nurse educator.