More than two years after having a stroke, 77-year-old Larry Gerdes is back to the job and lifestyle he loves, thanks to his care team at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation.
Wearing a T-shirt that says “I can survive anything” and with a smile on his face, Gerdes tackles rehabilitation exercises that on a recent day included stepping up and down on a rolling ball to increase mobility on the right side of his body. Loss of feeling in the right side is one of the biggest side effects of his stroke.
Gerdes’ routine includes rehabilitation twice a week, attending a monthly stroke support group at the hospital and finding ways to maintain a positive attitude.
“If your attitude is bad, you are going to have trouble,” Gerdes said, laughing. “If your attitude is good, you are going to be much better. It is true that a stroke is a life-changing thing, since we do not plan on having a stroke and it happens fast. But, it is best to bounce with it.”
A stroke is a sudden interruption of blood to the brain. Stroke is a leading cause of death and disability nationwide. Across the nation, more than 795,000 people have a stroke every year. On average, one American dies from a stroke every four minutes.
Gerdes had his stroke in October 2014.
“I woke up one morning and when I went to walk to the bathroom, my right leg would not work, so I crawled to the bathroom,” Gerdes said. “My wife woke up and asked if I was all right and I said, ‘No.’ I had symptoms that I guessed was a stroke, so she called 911.”
His symptoms included an upset stomach, impaired speech and vision, and paralysis on the right side of his body. Gerdes was admitted to St. Luke’s Magic Valley for immediate treatment.
Eventually, he was ready to begin rehabilitation. St. Luke’s provides stroke rehabilitation in Magic Valley and Treasure Valley. Each patient works with a variety of clinicians to regain ability in movement, speech and cognitive function.
Gerdes spent three weeks at Gwen Neilsen Anderson Rehabilitation Center, where he worked on improving his speech, swallowing, safety with walking and dressing independently. He now works his body and mind at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation outpatient therapy at St. Luke’s Magic Valley.
When he began his rehabilitation, the nurses secured his right hand to the rehabilitation machine because it “just flopped around,” he said. After two-and-a-half years of rehabilitation, use of his right side has been restored. While his hand isn’t as strong as it once was, he continues to work at a milk processing business in Buhl. He still gets double vision when he is tired, which serves as a residual reminder of the stroke that sidelined him.
Getting to this point wasn’t easy. Gerdes is thankful for the support of others, including the stroke support group that he regularly attends.
“You get acquainted with others, since you have a common problem and while every stroke is identifiable as a stroke, every stroke is different,” he said. “For the most part, we just talk to each other and tell each other what is going on in our own lives. I learned that there were others in the room with similar problems. It just isn’t something that you talk about normally. It was nice to know these problems were not unique to me.”
Risk factors for having a stroke include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, atrial fibrillation, heart disease and diabetes. Lifestyle choices may also have an impact. Obesity, drinking too much alcohol, tobacco use and having an unhealthy diet can influence the risk for stroke. While genetics may be a factor, up to 80 percent of strokes are preventable.
Recognizing a stroke and acting fast is essential. That’s the biggest piece of advice from Dr. Kevin Kraal, medical director for Air St. Luke’s and Magic Valley Paramedics.
“If you think there is any possibility at all that you are having a stroke, call 911 immediately,” Dr. Kraal said. “You lose 1.9 million neurons each minute that you are having a stroke.”
Support for Adjusting to Life after Stroke
Both patients and family members experience major lifestyle changes following a stroke. To help adjust, St. Luke’s offers a stroke support group for patients and families. The groups meet monthly at St. Luke’s Magic Valley and St. Luke’s Meridian. In addition to group discussion that offers encouragement and support, each meeting includes a brief presentation by a medical expert.
Michelle Bartlome is the public relations manager at St. Luke's Magic Valley.