The long road to recovery after stroke

South Surrey couple share story to raise awareness about symptoms, support networks.

South Surrey residents Bill and Ann Baker

Ann Baker knows the signs of a stroke as well as anyone.

The 72-year-old South Surrey resident came face-to-face with the symptoms nearly two years ago, when her husband, Bill, suffered what doctors described as a “catastrophic” stroke while the couple were at their summer cabin near Bellingham.

Considering the severity of Bill’s stroke, the Bakers consider themselves lucky. After first-responders rushed Bill to St. Joseph hospital in Bellingham, doctors were able to perform a CT-scan and begin administering blood-thinners within an hour and a half of his symptoms first appearing.

He did, however, suffer major damage as a result – his speech was severely impaired, he was temporarily paralyzed on his right side and he was unable to read for months afterwards.

What followed was half a year of hospitalization and rehabilitation treatment, first at Surrey Memorial Hospital’s Laurel Place, then at the Rehab Early Discharge (REDi) program, a six-week outpatient program operated by Fraser Health.

Back home since Christmas 2013, Bill, 76, has seen plenty of improvement in his mobility – he’s able to walk on his own, although he still attends biweekly physiotherapy sessions.

His speech is still an issue – he was diagnosed with aphasia (the inability to say a word) and apraxia (the inability to find a word) and has a rigorous speech-therapy regime he follows at home.

“All things considered, we’re fortunate,” Ann said. “He’s not in a wheelchair. He’s able to speak – some days better than others.”

Bill’s stroke has had a huge impact on the couple’s lives, Ann admits. They’re not sure how long they’ll be able to stay in their house, as the maintenance and upkeep become too much for Ann to take on herself. She spends much of her time as “taxi driver,” transporting Bill, a retired Vancouver police officer, to and from his many weekly appointments.

There’s no question, Ann said, that the experience has heightened her awareness of the potentially deadly health condition.

Which is why when she felt numbness in her left arm while cleaning up after breakfast at their cabin over the May long weekend, Ann immediately knew something was wrong.

She raised both arms above her head – one of the first things you’re instructed to do if you suspect you’re having a stroke – and had no mobility problems. As she turned to check if her face appeared droopy in the mirror – another common indicator – she noticed she had weakness in both legs, and decided she needed to get to the hospital.

Doctors determined she had suffered what’s known as a transient ischemic attack – a ‘mini-stroke’ that didn’t cause permanent damage.

The incident came as a surprise not only to Ann, who strives to lead a healthy lifestyle, but to her family doctor.

“My doctor tells me if his patients were as healthy as me, he’d be out of business,” she said, noting she doesn’t exhibit any of the risk factors for stroke, which include obesity, poor diet, diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

“I do all the right things, and I still had it. Don’t think that you’re exempt just because you do the right things.”

As important as knowing the risks and symptoms associated with a stroke is knowing what support networks are available in the community, Ann pointed out.

As chair of the White Rock South Surrey Stroke Recovery Club – an organization the Bakers were referred to in early-2014 after Bill finished the REDi program – Ann is working on getting the word out about what the volunteer-driven club offers for stroke survivors.

Members meet Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 9:30-11:30 a.m. at their headquarters in the Horst and Emmy Werner Centre for Active Living, where they take part in an hour of speech therapy and an hour of physiotherapy, led in a group setting by qualified therapists.

Though members pay an annual fee of $100, and a drop-in fee of $1 each time they attend, Ann said the cost is minimal compared to what some stroke survivors pay for private therapy, which can cost upwards of $150 per session.

“If you want to do that once or twice a week, it’s not very long before you’re paying big money,” she said. “There are so many people that simply don’t have the resources to pay for that, and they need it.”

Ann said the club has been experiencing dwindling membership in recent months, and with the high cost of its lease at the CAL, is at risk of going under if things don’t improve.

“People are still having strokes as much as they were before, but they’re not coming in our door,” Ann said, noting the REDi program used to bring patients to the club, but aren’t able to do that anymore due to financial cutbacks.

“The connection has really been broken.”

In addition to attracting more stroke survivors, the club is hoping to sublet an additional 17×17-foot room within their space at the CAL, which Ann said sits empty most days of the week.

Anyone interested in finding out more about the stroke recovery club can call 604-536-4673, or drop in on a Tuesday or Thursday morning.

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