Saturday, July 09, 2011

My Recent Stroke

© Mark Pettigrew

When I was young, in the fall of 1970, my grandfather (who we'd nicknamed Grandman) had a stroke, following a heart attack he'd had earlier that summer. The stroke was what eventually killed him, while he lay in a bed at a nursing home in my home town. He was 65 years old at that time.

The last thing I remember Grandman saying to me after having that stroke was "german chocolate cake". What part of his brain triggered that thought, I don't know, but it comforts me to think that he was probably having a pleasant memory of a dessert he'd once enjoyed eating.

It was my first experience with the death of anyone I loved, and I remember that I couldn't contain my tears when I attended his funeral. In some respects, they were selfish tears. I couldn't imagine life without Grandman. I sensed that life, in many respects, would soon change for me in many ways. I was right about that.

Most of those changes weren't good. Two years later, my parents got divorced, and I suspect that the stress from the loss of my grandfather was one of the factors which led to that divorce, although I can't prove it. Of course, the fact that my father decided to start committing adultery didn't exactly help, either. It's a good thing Grandman never lived to see the betrayal of his daughter and his grandchildren.

I never thought I'd experience a stroke myself, and certainly not at this age of 54 years, but several weeks ago, I woke up with what seemed like a really, really painful leg cramp. I tried to let the cramp work itself out, the way I had done on previous occasions when I had similar (but less severe) leg cramps. It didn't seem to be working this time. I tried to stand up and walk to the bathroom to relieve myself, and I almost collapsed. My right leg, in particular, seemed to have lost a lot of its strength. I managed to make it to the bathroom, but just barely. My balance had been severely affected, and I was lurching around like a drunken man. I'd never gotten drunk in my life.

That day, Everett Barton, with whom I'd been staying in his home in Bellingham, had planned to go with me to a local meeting of the Band of Business Brothers, being held at Cascadia Pizza. I still wanted to attend that meeting, because I hoped (in vain) to receive some encouragement and help in relation to the Artistic Rescue Project (related to my desire to sell digital fine art prints for the purpose of raising funds both for myself and for the victims of the recent devastating tornado in Joplin, MO). So I managed somehow to get dressed, and we went to that meeting together. But Everett could tell just by watching me attempt to walk that I was in a bad way. When I got to that meeting, which was being held on the second floor of the restaurant, I appealed to that group for their prayers. I also told them that I suspected that my difficulty in walking had something to do with high blood pressure. One person made a comment which was somewhat dismissive of my analysis, saying essentially that I shouldn't pretend to be a doctor. That was somewhat unfair to me, I felt, because I had never claimed to be a doctor, or a medical expert of any kind. But what I did know was that my blood pressure had very recently been tested, and I'd been told that it was dangerously high.

After the meeting ended early in the afternoon, I just barely managed to walk downstairs and out to the car, by holding onto the banister. But the problem clearly wasn't going away, so I asked Everett to take me to Peace Health St. Joseph hospital, which was very close nearby. It took a while for me to check into the hospital, and of course, they had to run a variety of tests. Just as I'd suspected might happen, the emergency room doctor told me that my blood pressure was "through the roof".  Then he told me that they thought I had very likely suffered from a couple of small strokes.

I spent the rest of that weekend in the hospital, from Friday night until Sunday night, while they ran several tests, the most unpleasant of which was my first ever MRI. Two MRIs, actually, the first one of which lasted a half hour, and the second one of which lasted about 45 minutes. I felt like "the man in the iron mask" (for those of you who have seen that movie with Leonardo DiCaprio). They'd asked if I suffered from claustrophobia, and I'd told them that I didn't; but then again, I'd never had an MRI before, and I had no idea what to expect. To spend such a long period of time in a contraption like that, while all kinds of banging noises are being constantly made near one's head, while one's head is encased in what does indeed feel a bit like an iron mask, was a very unpleasant experience. The second time they ran the test was easier, though, even though it took longer, because they gave me a Valium pill beforehand, and it enabled me to relax without experiencing the anxiety I'd felt the first time around. I've heard of people getting addicted to Valium, and I would never want to experience such an addiction, but I have to say, I wouldn't have wanted to go through that second MRI without it.

The tests they ran on my brain in the hospital apparently confirmed that I'd had a couple of small strokes. Later on, when visiting, I learned that the major symptoms I'd personally experienced were listed as significant signifiers of a stroke. I was fortunate that Everett had advised me to seek hospitalization when he did.

In the hospital, they gave me some medications, to try to get my blood pressure under control. The medicine seemed to be helping somewhat, but even when I left the hospital, it was clear that it would probably continue to be a problem for some time to come. I've tried to remember to take my medications every day since then.

I was still feeling weak and very unsteady on my feet on the Sunday when I was released from the hospital, and I was also a bit embarrased on account of having urinated all over my hospital gown earlier (on Saturday night) when I was attempting to use the restroom. (The fact that the tie on the back of the gown wasn't working didn't help matters any, since the gown kept falling down in front of me while I tried to use the toilet.) But I was able to walk around a bit in the hospital halls, while holding onto a cane and also while holding the physical therapist for some support and balance. They characterized my gait using the word "hyperextension", and I felt as if my legs were made out of lead, but at least I did manage to walk a short distance.

A stroke can affect cognitive abilities and speech, among other things, but after I'd had those various things tested repeatedly, it seemed that I'd been relatively fortunate. I was able to speak clearly (with just a little bit of slurring of my words), and to clearly identify various objects, and to follow various verbal commands. (For instance, "Touch the tip of your nose, then touch the tip of my finger.")

Even after getting out of the hospital, I continued for quite some time to struggle with my balance and with strength issues pertaining to my right leg. When I got a cane at the nearby Lion's Club (after struggling for about a week with a more unwieldy support which had kindly been given to me by a man from the Band of Brothers men's group), that cane was a blessing.

As recently as Sunday, however, I still experienced problems. Specifically, I'd gone forward to ask for prayer, and when I tried to use the cane to stand up again, my balance temporarily failed me, and it was only on account of a nearby brother who caught me in time that I didn't fall flat on my face.

Nevertheless, with the help of the cane, I managed to walk over to the Haggen grocery store today and to do some computing here, just as I was doing before having the stroke.

I think that the worst aspect of my stroke, however, has been that it's made me abundantly conscious of my vulnerability, and aware of how short life can be (especially for someone whose parents and grandparents were not especially well known for their longevity). Thankfully, long before my stroke, I'd already accepted Christ as my lord and savior, so I wasn't worried that I wouldn't go to heaven if I died. But what did concern me, and still does, was the thought that I'd die before I had a chance to really achieve my full potential. And that still concerns me, because I've already wasted a lot of time in my life, not because I wanted to do so, but because I had difficulty procuring the material help I needed in order to make the most of my talents.

I still struggle with anger, to be candid, with regard to certain obtuse Christian leaders who seem to be oblivious or indifferent to my need for their help along those lines. That isn't universally true, of course. I've received support and help from other people in positions of Christian leadership. But a lot of people seem to be less interested in getting done things which badly need to be done than in making lame excuses for their unwillingness to do so. Fault finding and nitpicking seem to be the order of the day. Defending myself against unwarranted accusations has exhausted me, and I'm also inclined to suspect that the stress from repeatly being forced to do so played a role in my recent stroke.

Regarding my relationship with God, I know that I can't earn my salvation. But it isn't a matter of trying through my own accomplishments to prove that I'm worthy of salvation. It's a matter of wanting to achieve the satisfaction of a life well-lived, which I define in large part as a life in which I've achieved what I am capable of achieving, not only for my own benefit, but also (potentially) for the benefit of many other people. I've had the pleasure of a few small achievements in my life, but I still feel as if I've also lost out a lot in that regard. Time is running out for me in some respects, and frankly, contemplation of that possibility makes me sad (and more than a little bit depressed) on a pretty frequent basis.

Sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I find myself wishing that I had not done so. I even find myself thinking that surviving my stroke has been a mixed blessing. If life is going to just be constant reiteration of past failures, I wonder, then what's the point? The salvation I most need, and which I have not yet experienced, is not salvation from hell, but salvation (or rescue, if you will) from a lifetime of mediocrity. Maybe there are people who don't quite understand that, but I hope that some people do understand it, or at the very least, that they will try to do so. Maybe I'm naive, but I continue to believe that even at this stage in my life, I still have a lot of untapped potential.

I therefore need a real breakthrough in my life. I hope that that breakthrough comes soon. Even though I don't feel much confidence in the idea that the leaders of my current church will do much to enable me to experience such a breakthrough, I hope and pray nevertheless that they will do so.

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