My Stroke of Luck: Using Yoga As Therapy
By Nikita Mehta
When she first came to me, patient x was a shell of the woman she once was. She had graduated from San Francisco State University with degrees in Mathematics and Business, but now we were working on her just being able to say her name. She had had a hemorrhagic stroke (bleeding into my brain) in her left temporal lobe and now had right side hemiparesis. Before she came into my care, patient x had taught herself to write with her left hand, could travel around on public transportation and was attending regular therapy at SFSU at the stroke center. But she still couldn’t say her whole name.
“Let me try yoga,” I said to my clinical advisor. “I think that with some chair yoga and some pranayama I can increase her lung capacity and self-confidence. I’ll find the research to back it up.” She told me that if I could find the research I could do it. Ten weeks later, patient x was making jokes during group therapy, standing for longer periods of time, holding her vowels for twenty to thirty seconds, and, oh yeah, saying her whole name in a loud, clear voice. Why do I tell you this story? Why is this important in a yoga magazine? It is important because we are a community of yoga teachers, students, seekers of truth, givers of care and love. Maybe you know someone who has had a stroke, maybe you have a student who is still suffering from the ramifications of a brain injury, or maybe you just want to know the warning signs of a stroke. We are a community of healers, and in order to know what we are healing, who we are healing, we must be informed.
Last week, I went to go see Diane Barnes perform her one woman show, My Stroke of Luck at The Marsh Theater. I left thinking that this was an important piece of theater for everyone to see. Important for all, but truly essential for our community of healers. I sat down with Diana after the show to talk warning signs, recovery process and why yoga is essential to healing.
Can you explain to us what it felt like when you were having the stroke and what was physiologically going on in your brain?
For me, it started out as a glorious evening! I was a single mom, mother of 2 sons 12 and 14, and for the first time in eons, our neighbors asked to take the kids to the movies with their sons, offering me an evening of no responsibilities! YES! War of the Worlds! A movie I wanted to see, but hey, if you’re a single parent, and someone offers you a night off? YES!
So, I went alone to Novato Horseman’s Arena for Team Penning, a cowboy job that in Marin, is a recreational pastime, one I loved sharing with my boys. It was therapeutic riding for my older son that led our family into riding. And Team Penning is a team sport, cutting specifically numbered cows from the herd and driving them into a holding pen against the clock. We often did this as a family, but that night showing up solo, I was matched with another cow gal, and two guys, ok! Fighting chance to win!
So, during warm ups, suddenly, my horse stops listening. WTF? He takes a right hand turn, crosses the arena and stops in front of our veterinarian! WTF?
I’m thinking, what is his problem? Vet asks, “You’re supposed to be warming up. Is there a problem?”
I say, “No, yes, I don’t know. Dr. Z seems to have a mind of his own!” I dismount, and am suddenly aware I have the worst headache of my life. So, the horse sensed something before I did.
Now, I’m a radiologist who diagnoses strokes. I know immediately that the worst headache of my life means I am having a hemorrhagic stroke.
And no, I don’t want to die, I don’t want to be on life support in the ICU, I can’t be the patients I’ve seen dwindling away in the ICU. I can’t go there! I have to get home for my children. And so, I drove myself home (Do NOT do as I did)!
That’s what I was thinking, but the truth is, I was in so much pain, with a deep left-brain area of synapses already gone, that my thinking was short circuiting. That’s the problem with brain damage. You might be thinking, but your brain is already impaired, so logic and rational thinking may be long gone.
For our readers who don’t know, what are the common symptoms to look for when identifying a stroke?
There are two kinds of strokes. Ischemic strokes account for more than 85% of strokes. Too little blood flow to the brain, a brain attack, like a heart attack. These are commonly associated with older patients, and risk factors of smoking, hypertension, diabetes, vascular disease. The FAST Acronym for diagnosing stroke applies to ischemic strokes: Face - does one side droop? Arm- ask person to raise arms, does one droop? Speech - ask person to say a simple phrase. Is it slurred? Time: call 9-1-1. The good news: observers have the best chance of detecting this kind of stroke and you can save a life and a brain by calling 9-1-1!
The other type is hemorrhagic, meaning, something bursts and floods the brain. Hemorrhagic strokes comprise less than 15% of all strokes, young predominate, and usually a vascular malformation (such as an aneurysm) one has no foreknowledge of.
Sadly, either you collapse on the spot, or you have the worst headache of your life. First case, hopefully someone will call 9-1-1. Second case, mine, only you know you are having a life changing event in your brain- or maybe, you don’t even know, but no one else is the wiser. These tend to be devastating.
What role did yoga and movement play in your early therapy?
Unfortunately, in the early stages of recovery, I was confined to my house, and did not have early movement support (not even physical therapy). I had right sided motor weakness, and struggled to walk with a cane. But my recovery was not well coordinated. Having a physiatrist or rehab medicine specialist involved in your case from the hospitalization through recovery is essential to getting the very best coordinated care. Sadly, that was a system fail for me.
It was months later before I was able to get out of the house, at which point I had movement support through my trainer and gym, including gentle yoga and pilates.
I was later told that equine therapy would have been very good for me, especially as I loved riding, and my horse took such good care of me. But, sadly, at the time, that was not suggested, and after months of being unable to ride, and uncertain of future income, I sold my horse.
Why should yoga be included in all rehab therapies?
Recovery is such an intensely challenging process that a supportive mental and spiritual practice is crucial. Yoga offers not only the kind of strength, balance and breath work essential to health and well-being, but the discipline for the mind and spirit. And it is endlessly adjustable to the needs and abilities of the practitioner.
I did discover Attitudinal Healing, a spiritual practice that was key to my recovery, and for 8 years afterwards, I facilitated an Attitudinal Healing group.
What advice would you give to stroke patients who would like to return to their activities of daily living?
You can do it! Believe in yourself. Know you are in for the hardest struggle of your life, but it will pay off in spades. One minute at a time may be as far as you can see or think, but those minutes will add up.
Ask for help, and accept it gracefully and gratefully.
Fight with all your might to get the help you need. If anyone says no, find a way around. If someone says you won’t benefit from help, or don’t qualify for help, get a second opinion. And a third. Enlist all your support systems to fight for you!
And believe in yourself! There was not a day in the first year that I didn’t end up in the floor in tears of frustration. But you can’t give up. Attitude is everything. Dry the tears and keep at it. You can do it!
When did you decide to turn your story into a one woman show?
I totally didn’t ever make that decision. One step lead to another, one open door led to another.
Though I got back to work part time after a year of rehab, work was no longer fun or satisfying. I realized I wasn’t interested in being a doctor anymore. Luckily, I was close to being able to take an early retirement package. As I cast about for what to do after retiring. I took some continuing ed classes. I discovered improv, was then asked by an improv coach to be in a play. I loved that, and figured I should learn about acting. I signed up for a class in Solo Performance from W. Allen Taylor (Walkin’ Talkin’ Bill Hawkins) at The College of Marin. At our final performance, I performed a piece about qualifying for single parent adoption. An audience member said, “You were born to do this. You need to find David Ford at The Marsh.” I did, and just wrote whatever came to mind week after week. After a year, I realized the story I was telling, and that if I kept at it, I would have a one woman show!
What can we look forward to seeing from you next?
I am working on my second show, about growing up middle class and black (“or Negro, as we were then called”) in Manhattan and daughter of a second generation physician. Stay tuned!