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Life After Stroke: It's All About Regaining Independence

January 25, 2011

Free Seminar Focuses on Ways to Make Progress Following a Stroke

There’s no question that having a stroke is a life-altering event, one that leaves survivors with many uphill battles to face. With an estimated 6,400,000 Americans living with stroke, 40 percent of those have moderate disability and another 15 percent to 30 percent have severe disability.

Moderate to severe disability can mean anything from requiring some help, but able to walk without assistance to being bedridden, incontinent and requiring constant nursing care and attention. The range of disability caused by stroke and the tendency to impact survivors’ independence makes stroke relatively unique among most health conditions.

"The reality is that you can have a pretty bad heart attack and still have a reasonable quality of life with the ability to do things like walk, drive and communicate, but even a mild stroke can change your ability to do things in a major way," explains Doug Van Houten, R.N., clinical coordinator of Washington Hospital’s Stroke Program.

Despite this, Van Houten is a firm believer that stroke survivors have a lot of power over the recovery process—through hard work and determination.

On Tuesday, Feb. 1, from 6 to 8 p.m., Van Houten and a physician from the Stroke Program will present a free community seminar focusing on the future in diagnosis and management of stroke and life after stroke. The class will take place in the Conrad E. Anderson, M.D. Auditorium in Washington West located at 2500 Mowry Ave., Fremont.

"Life after stroke is about moving forward and trying to take whatever happens and making the most of your situation," he says. "I’m always telling people, ‘You may not be able to do things in the same way, but you can still do them.’ I like to show a DVD about a guy who loved to play golf and moved to Palm Desert after retiring before having a stroke that rendered his arm nonfunctional."

"Even with this challenge, he goes out every day and swings with his other arm. Instead of just curling up on the couch and giving up, he says, ‘I came here to play golf and I’m going to do it.’"

The trick is, according to Van Houten, that stroke survivors must find different ways of functioning and enjoying life in the face of disabilities caused by stroke.

"I’ve had patients that were hard-driving businessmen on top of their game when they had a stroke," he relates. "Memory is often affected and even though a person may look perfectly functional from the outside, they might not have the thing that made them effective in their jobs. When this happens, you either find a different job that will work or find a different way to fill your time well, like volunteering or spending more time with family."

Van Houten points out a program called Disabled Sports USA Far West, which specializes in highly demanding recreational activities, including white water rafting and mountaineering, geared toward people with physical and mental challenges.

"The organization’s motto is, ‘If I can do this, I can do anything,’" Van Houten says. "I think this is the right attitude to attain after stroke. I have always used the American Heart Association’s motto for stroke survivors: ‘It is all about moving forward.’"

Having this type of positive outlook, according to Van Houten, can ultimately turn out to be the major turning point in stroke recovery.

"There’s a mindset you have to take on after stroke," he explains. "Depression’s a huge problem with stroke and when people see how much they’ve regressed after stroke in terms of independence, they get more depressed and they want to give up. It’s a hard thing."

"One of the ways I think people move beyond this is by challenging themselves to do things after stroke, whether it’s getting out of the house to go for coffee with a friend or joining a group."

Support for stroke survivors and caregivers

An excellent way for local stroke survivors to take that first step, Van Houten says, is to join the Stroke Support Group at Washington Hospital.

"It’s surprising how many stroke patients don’t want to leave the house because of things like aphasia, which causes difficulties with speaking, or issues with mobility," he points out. "This is one reason why stroke support group is a safe place to come, because everyone can relate."

The group, which meets the fourth Tuesday of each month from 1 to 2:30 p.m., offers social and emotional support to stroke survivors and their caregivers, as well as education and help with community-based resources. The group meets in the Neuroscience Conference Room located in Suite 224 on the second floor of Washington West at 2500 Mowry Avenue in Fremont.

For more information about stroke support (or to register for the seminar next Tuesday, Feb. 1), call (510) 745-6525 or visit www.whhs.com/stroke.

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