A few months ago around nine on a Wednesday evening, my vision blurred, and I lost my sense of balance. It seemed like a fine time to go to bed. When I attempted to explain my predicament to my wife, it turned out I’d also lost my ability to communicate verbally. I was having a stroke. My wife–wiser than I and besieged by the mismatched words that I believed constituted communication–collected our infant son, coaxed me into the car, and we were at the nearby hospital a few minutes later.
With Covid protocols in effect, we separated at intake, and I spent the evening alone as I drifted from the emergency room to MRI machine and back again a few times. The situation felt surprisingly abstract. Probably because I wasn’t thinking particularly well, my wife had a different experience. Our son had his own experience, frustrated to be woken up ten hours before his opportunity to wake up us.
Slowly I felt a bit better, and tapped out a few messages to my wife. It also felt very important to explain my imminent absence from work, and I spent an unknowable duration tapping, erasing, and retapping a message before finally sending it. Writing these texts was a challenge. In one sense, this was because my brain was in the early stages of recovering from asphyxiation, but in a more concrete sense it was because my left thumb kept sliding from the space bar to the return key.
With the morning shift change, I was moved into the neuro floor, passed a swallow test, and control of language slowly returned to me. Our son was with his nanny, and my wife took off work to stay with me during visiting hours. I was at the hospital for two and a half days getting worked up with a bit of everything, including another MRI, several ultrasounds, and a spinal tap. One perk of being at a teaching hospital was receiving the doctor’s very first spinal tap. Which didn’t require much bravery from me–no one asked my opinion about it–but impressed me with the true spectacle of learning to be a doctor: imagine learning so much in public!
My test count grew due to an absence rather than a risk. Results were pretty normal for someone of my age, an age that is rather young for experiencing a stroke. As they ran out of tests to run, they let me go home. There are few joys like having the last IV removed from your arm after several days in the hospital. Although I’ll admit walking out of the hospital with your wife is a similar joy. Another is going home to your son after spending your first nights sleeping more than a wall removed.
The early days at home were rough. This was mostly due to the spinal tap taking a bit longer to close, which made keeping food down difficult for three or fours days. The mental piece was hard too. I read bad fiction on my phone. I struggled, mostly failed, to parent. A few days later I tried using a computer and was overwhelmed. So many windows, all filled with different things. It ended up taking a bit over a week at home before I could start using a computer again. Once I was back at it, I did the smallest bits of writing. I slowly migrated my blog to a simpler setup over the course of three days. After two weeks, I went back to work.
I could have taken longer to recuperate, but I think folks who suggest taking longer as a solution miss one of the hardest parts of recovering from a stroke: you want to know how much of your previous life remains available. Will I still be able to do my job? Will I still be able to write? Will I have lost that conceptual spark behind all of it that I’ve wasted so much time being proud and vain about? Will I become a burden to my family? The answer to all these questions is only discoverable by returning.
Perhaps most frustrating is that your own confidence and belief regarding the outcome have a large influence in deciding your outcome. You have to take the rest you need. Then you simply have to decide that you aren’t changed. To decide that you’re still the capable person you were before. Well, that’s the beautiful dream, anyway. Some would suggest it’s difficult to retain a vivid memory of your own perfection while also spending every afternoon sleeping your first week back because you’re too exhausted to continue working. But it got better. Each week, a bit better. Fewer forgotten names. Energy levels returning. Better.
At some point the question shifts away from returning to who you were, and instead to loving whoever you are now. I’m fortunate that the difference between the past and present feels faint, although in some ways I wonder if that’s simply a newfound inability to perceive the distance.
It’s hard to say what someone should take from this experience! There’s a lot of merit in taking nothing away from it: random events happen. Personally, I’ve tried to simply be grateful for all the blessings around me: my wife, my son, my family, access to health care and insurance, a supportive team and workplace, financial stability to weather some of the potential storms. Ultimately, there’s no right way to come to terms with life’s events, we all have to find our own way forward.
As part of finding my way forward, I’ve been writing less since my stroke. I don’t think that will last forever, hopefully it won’t even last long, but for now most of my energy is going towards the places it’s needed the most.