Thoughts by Richard Bleil
Many people use the words “stroke” and “heart attack” as synonymous. They’re not the same. A heart attack, like I had, is literally clogged arteries in your heart. Often it can be cleared up in a procedure called “angioplasty”, which is so routine these days that it is nearly an outpatient procedure. For bad cases, like mine, it’s a bypass. The arteries in my heart had to be bypassed in three locations (a “triple bypass”) wherein the artery from my leg had been removed to create the bypasses. A stroke, on the other hand, is a clog in the brain. It can come on quite suddenly and have a variety of effects.
Working in the police department, our police psychologist had what might be termed a “mini-stroke”. Suddenly, he just had no idea where he was or what he was doing. It was basically a severe form of disorientation, and fortunately it cleared up relatively quickly. It was a form of “warning”, where at least the doctors knew he was prone, and he was put on blood thinners to prevent it from happening again. On the other hand, a brilliant biochemist with whom I had the honor of working had something a little bit more severe. It was a large teaching history, and I found myself riding in an elevator with him alone. I took the opportunity to introduce myself and tell him what an honor it was to meet him in person. His textbook was one of my “go to” books in my personal library. He smiled but said nothing. Later I learned that his stroke destroyed the part of his brain that allowed for speech. As sharp as ever, still doing research and writing, he couldn’t utter a single sound.
She was a good friend of mine. I’d never met her in person, but we enjoyed chatting regularly. She was very liberal, but many of our opinions aligned, so we loved complaining to each other about the political state of this country. She was working when we met at a social service office. Eventually, she excitedly told me that she had been accepted to graduate school and was off to get her master’s in social services.
We were never romantically involved, but she was, frankly, a very lovely woman. I figured she would meet a man at college, and hoped that, when she did, we could remain friends. But, sure enough, she suddenly disappeared. I should mention that this was all before social media platforms, so “texting” basically meant a texting service, such as those offered by Microsoft or Yahoo (there’s a name you haven’t heard in a while). Time went on, and text chatting kind of went on the wayside as it yielded to social media. But I logged in periodically just to see if there’s anything interesting. And there was.
She was online! Our last message to one another had been, quite literally, a year ago (yes, the dates of the messages were shown). I excitedly texted a quick greeting and made some kind of comment along the lines of “tell me about him”. I was certain that she found somebody and just stopped texting me, but, hoped it was not because of jealousy. But when she responded, she didn’t respond. It was, in fact, her daughter who had logged onto her account. She told me that my friend had had a massive stroke, and lost everything she had ever learned in school, including how to read, write and speak.
To this day I feel guilty that I didn’t keep in touch with her as much as I should have, but I watched as she struggled to regain her stunningly beautiful intelligence. She was trying to learn to speak and read again. We don’t really think about it much, but when you consider what it takes to actually speak, the brain first has to realize what it wants to say, choose the proper word, and send impulses to the throat to make the sounds that make up that word. She struggled as in her mind, she would spend minutes thinking about the right word, and trying to speak it. When I did speak with her, there was always a long pause between each word she spoke.
If you think that’s a challenge, I literally wept when I received a Christmas Card from her one year. It was, of course, a pre-printed card, and all she wrote on it was my name, but she clearly hand-wrote it herself. Now she had to think of the word, the spelling, and send the signals to her hand to grip the writing utensil and make muscle movements for each stroke of each letter.
Today she is restricted (the last I heard) to a wheelchair but has regained much of her ability to communicate. I think of her and her struggles often and am encouraged by her efforts and bravery. I doubt that she has any idea just how much I adore her, or how much she means to me.