After suffering a stroke last fall, Carol Wendle could no longer move the right side of her body.
She lost the ability to walk or write. She couldn’t dress herself. In order to eat, she needed someone to feed her.
Wendle, in her mid 60s and a retired school teacher who walked every day and led an active life prior to her stroke, was determined to move again. So she turned to St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute for help.
“When I first got to St. Luke’s in a wheelchair, I couldn’t push it with my right arm -- it would keep falling off the wheel,” Wendle recalled. “I went in circles because I had one strong leg and one strong arm.”
The Spokane resident spent 35 days in inpatient therapy learning how to use the right half of her body again. During her stay at St. Luke’s, Wendle overcame her paralysis – she progressed from the wheelchair to a walker and eventually to a cane. With continued outpatient therapy, she was able to walk without assistance just five months after her stroke.
“Going from my hospital room to the therapy gym was a big trek,” she recalled. “Now, as I work out at a local fitness center, I think, ‘Oh my gosh. I really have come so far.’”
What is a Stroke?
A stroke is often referred to as a “brain attack.” Just like a heart attack – which occurs when blood flow to a section of the heart muscle is blocked – a stroke or “brain attack” is the sudden interruption of blood flow to the brain. This deprives brain tissue of essential oxygen and nutrients. And when brain cells die, an individual can lose the ability to walk, talk, swallow or even breathe.
Every year, about 780,000 Americans suffer a new or recurrent stroke, according to the American Stroke Association. That’s an average of one stroke every 40 seconds. Stroke kills more than 150,000 people a year and is the number three cause of death behind cancer and heart disease.
Stroke is also the leading cause of serious, long-term disability in America but there can be life after stroke. According to the Stroke Center at University Hospital in Newark, N.J., more than 4 million people in the United States have survived a stroke and are now living with the after-effects.
Through rehabilitation, about 50 to 60 percent of individuals who suffer a stroke can regain basic skills and become independent again, according to Dr. Stefan Humphries, medical director at St. Luke's Rehabilitation Institute, the only hospital in the Inland Northwest dedicated solely to acute inpatient medical rehabilitation, including stroke.
“There’ve been a lot of moments where people who’ve come in the facility are unable to walk, feed or dress themselves and left the facility whole again – able to resume a full life,” he says. “It’s so rewarding to help them progress to independence and restore quality to their life.”
About 10 percent of stroke victims in our region recover almost immediately after their acute hospital stay and have no need for follow-up care, according to Humphries. The remaining, however, need Physical, Occupational, Speech and Recreational Therapy – a combination of at least two and as many as all four therapy interventions – and Rehabilitation Nursing care in order to recover. Among those who require follow-up therapy, nearly half seek help from St. Luke’s through both inpatient and outpatient services. These decisions are usually based on an evaluation by a physiatrist – medical doctors who specialize in medical rehabilitation.
At St. Luke’s most patients stay for an average of 17 to 21 days depending on the severity of their stroke. Recovery times vary from individual to individual, said Humphries, but studies show that most people improve significantly within the first three months after a stroke. The recovery rate slows down after that period but stroke patients can continue to get better for the next one to two years, he said. Peer support is also important, which is why St. Luke’s hosts a support group for stroke survivors of all ages and their families.
When she was first discharged from the hospital to St. Luke’s, Wendle couldn’t sign her own name. Her inability to write anything at all came as a shock, especially after teaching penmanship for many years. Now, after her efforts at rehabilitation at St. Luke’s, Wendle says her arm and hand feel almost normal. She also can write calligraphy again with a flourish.
Wendle was able to make great strides thanks to the “caring and dedicated” staff at St. Luke’s. “When I got there, there was so much I couldn’t do, but from the moment I went through those doors I improved each day thanks to the amazing staff,” she said. “They were so in tune with what my needs were. I was so impressed with the level of care and commitment.” They pushed her daily to meet so many milestones.
Throughout her stay, Wendle witnessed doctors, nurses, therapists and others as they supported stroke survivors of all ages and from all walks of life.
With all their patients, the staff “always had this love, care and concern,” she said. “Everybody (at St. Luke’s) is genuinely involved in your health improvement. Every staff person, no matter their position, is focused on the patient, from the aide to the nurses to the physical therapists to the people who clean your room. It is amazing to me what a team it is and how concerned they are with the welfare of each patient.”
Her prescribed therapy was challenging, practical and completely customized, said Wendle. Staff at St. Luke’s took into account her hobbies and interests as well as movements that were essential to her everyday life. Sessions prescribed by her therapist included: gardening, cooking, sitting down and getting up from a chair, grocery shopping and getting in and out of a car. Wendle also learned how to modify tasks to accommodate her varying skill levels.
“They try to assess what you love doing and match something that will be beneficial to your therapy,” she explained. “Every day was a challenge to improve – to do things better, to do things easier.”
During her stay at St. Luke’s, Wendle established relationships with many of the staff.
“They are friends. They make you feel that you are part of the extended family,” she said. “St. Luke’s just overwhelmed me…the overwhelming support and love and positive reinforcement that you receive and the confidence that they helped to build after you’ve experienced something like this.”
“You see this level of dedication and commitment and concern for each patient. It was genuine love.”
While it was hard to leave that extended family and the safety of St. Luke’s, Wendle was able to make the smooth transition back to her home thanks to the careful preparations made by hospital staff. They not only assessed her home for any needed accommodations; they also took Wendle on multiple outings including trips to her regular grocery store and on walks through her neighborhood. These excursions helped Wendle develop confidence in her ability to regain independence, she said.
Now, Wendle can cook once again and accomplish many of the chores and activities that have always been part of her day-to-day life.
“I can take care of myself and my needs,” she said. “I’ve come a very long ways and often remind myself of that. I have often thought I’m not sure where I would be today if weren’t for St. Luke’s.”