Enjoy essays and poetry by people living with neurologic disorders and their caregivers. Readers can also find letters to the editor.
Monday, October 31, 2016
The author works with people who have Parkinson’s disease but almost missed signs of the condition when they appeared in her mom.
BY ANISSA MITCHELL
It comes on gradually but, still, I should have seen signs of the disease in my Mom earlier than I did. Maybe I was in denial because of the irony: for years, I've run a Parkinson's disease outreach program, where I provide education and counseling to people with Parkinson's and their families. Maybe it was because my mother doesn't live in the same state and I don't see her every day. Whatever the reason, I should have known better.
Instead, I delayed and avoided using the word "Parkinson's" even when her movements slowed, when her arms didn't swing while she walked, when she lost her sense of smell, and when she said she was constipated and had trouble sleeping. It was until she mentioned that her toe was bothering her and sometimes curling under painfully, that I finally blurted out, "You need to see a neurologist because I think you have Parkinson's."
Even that outburst didn't work. It wasn't until she developed carpal tunnel syndrome that she went to a neurologist. I encouraged her to describe her other symptoms to the doctor, which she did, but to my dismay, he told her he didn't think she had Parkinson's because she had no tremor. Even if she did, he said, it was "just a little Parkinson's." I was stunned. Saying someone has a little Parkinson's disease is like saying someone is a little pregnant. Either you are or you aren't. Sure, there are sub-types and different stages of the disease, but there aren't degrees. Either you have the disease or you don't. And while it's true that a majority of patients experience tremors, about 30 percent never develop one.
I was frustrated I hadn't noticed the symptoms earlier, knowing that by the time a person develops symptoms, such as a tremor or slow movements, he or she has already lost 60 to 80 percent of their brain cells that create dopamine, a neurotransmitter that affects movement and mood. Brain degeneration likely began years ago, so my Mom had more than "just a little Parkinson's" but, in her mind, she was cleared of the diagnosis.
Soon after, she came for a visit and accompanied me to a meeting with a Parkinson's disease specialist for whom I was scheduled to do a presentation. After observing her for a short time, the specialist explained what he saw and encouraged my mother to get a second opinion. When she did and the diagnosis was confirmed, I was relieved but saddened, too. I know too much about the disease and what it will mean for her, and of course, for me as her daughter and care partner.
I spend a great deal of my professional time going out into my community to educate people about the disease and being an active participant in managing it. How is it that I, who am informed, did not see the symptoms sooner, or did not make sure she went to a specialist? Like many family members and care partners, I experience the same frustration, guilt, and challenges that others face regardless of my professional position. I may be a social worker for people with Parkinson's disease by day, but I am still a daughter and sometimes these two roles collide.
Fortunately, my mom has found a good movement disorder specialist in her state and is getting proper treatment. My job now is to encourage her to dig in and fight this disease. While I struggle at times balancing being a social worker and a daughter, I remind myself to accept the things I can't change, advocate to change the things I can, and keep love at the forefront.
Anissa Mitchell is a licensed clinical social worker for people with Parkinson's disease and their care partners at the Florida Hospital Parkinson Outreach Program in Orlando, FL. She lives in Longwood, FL, with her husband, three children, and three dachshunds. She enjoys running, biking, swimming, paddle boarding, and practicing yoga, and loves to read.
Tuesday, October 18, 2016
After a stroke at age 33, the author let go of perfection and embraced a slower, more meaningful life.
BY DELANIE L. STEPHENSON
Before I had a stroke at the age of 33 in 2012, I thought I was the ideal mom. I worked hard as a teacher, but never brought any work home. I kept the house clean and was devoted 100 percent to my husband and 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son. I felt like I had everything under control.
That notion was shattered on June 6, 2012, when I sustained a massive brain stem stroke. I was locked in with no movement except my eyelids. I couldn't talk, walk, or swallow. All I could do was think and all I could think about was my family. Would I ever be that Superwoman again, so determined to be the best in every part of my life? Would I be able to hold and kiss my babies? Would my husband leave me for another woman, one more able to fulfill the role of wife and mother, a role I may never be able to play again?
After six months of intensive speech, occupational, and physical therapy in the ICU, a subacute hospital, and inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation, I was able to reclaim most of my physical. I walked with a cane, but was thankful I could walk at all. My speech wasn't the same but I was grateful I was able to communicate. I learned to swallow again and quickly made up for all the time when I couldn't eat!
The physical challenges were difficult but they paled in comparison to the emotional changes. While I was in the hospital, the doctors put me on antidepressants, expecting a little depression after what I had been through. But once home, I started having uncontrollable bouts of crying and laughter. I could barely make it through the day. I was finally diagnosed with pseudobulbar affect (PBA) and was prescribed a combination of antidepressants and other medication that brought the PBA under control somewhat.
While my body and mind were healing, my family and I were learning how to deal with this new person. My son often referred to me as Old Mommy and New Mommy. Old Mommy was fun, New Mommy not so much. He wanted to know when Old Mommy was coming back. He also developed separation anxiety and anger problems, saying he was mad at me for leaving him for so long while I was in the hospital, with no explanation. My daughter, however, became my nurse. She got me anything I needed and made sure all the toys were out of the way so I wouldn't trip on them. It was interesting to see two kids go through the same experience and react so differently.
It has been four years since my stroke and we are still adjusting to the new normal. I am slowly realizing that I'll never be the Old Mommy, a reality my children seem to be accepting. They know I can't go on field trips with a lot of walking nor can I make and bring homemade cupcakes to school on their birthdays—store-bought ones will have to do. They also accept that I may be too tired to do certain things and may need to take a nap. Life post-stroke isn't better or worse, it's just different.
Sometimes I'm even grateful for my stroke. It forced me to stop trying to be Superwoman, and it has slowed the pace of our lives. Instead of spending hours in the car racing from one activity to another, we watch movies or sit around the fire and talk. My stroke has helped us slow down, appreciate the gift of time, and be thankful for each and every day.
Delanie Stephenson is the author of The Calm before the Storm: A Stroke Survivor's Story and the children's book Mom Had a Stroke, both available on amazon.com. She lives in Wilsons, VA, with her husband and two children.
Tuesday, October 4, 2016
After a traumatic brain injury so severe it should have killed him, the author ponders the gift of life.
BY BERNIE GREENBERG
I didn't die but I should have.
In August 1999, I was hit by a pickup truck as I crossed the road to get to our mailbox. I have no memory of this incident but police reports say I flew through the air and landed on the right side of my head.
My wife, Janeane, returned from work in time to see them transport my nearly naked body to a level one trauma unit in downtown Cleveland and to be told it wasn't certain whether I would live or die. I was unconscious and couldn't breathe on my own. I had a torn colon, severe bruising, and a serious traumatic brain injury—all of which landed me in the intensive care unit in a coma for three weeks, including a few days of an induced coma to prevent swelling and further brain damage. Unlike people in a made-for-TV movie who recover instantaneously, I woke slowly to a very, very different me.
Over these last 17 years, I've often wondered why I survived and even mused about it aloud with friends. Why did they think I lived? Many believed it was a spiritual intervention. Perhaps God wasn't in favor of me dying then. Others credited specific guardian angels looking out for me, or the many prayers of friends and family. Perhaps it was Lazurus-like and I came back from the dead.
My scientifically oriented friends cited the rapid emergency response; my treatment at an experienced trauma unit; the expertise of critical care physicians, nurses, and aides; timely surgery; and the presence of a first-rate brain rehabilitation unit. Others saw my survival as an appropriate reward for having spent 30-plus years of my professional career in the service of people struggling with mental illness, sometimes severe. Some friends thought it was good luck, others say it was bad luck.
As for my own perspective, I'm still not sure. If I had died I wouldn't feel the many disabilities precipitated by the brain injury. I wouldn't have double vision or poor depth perception. I wouldn't have trouble making decisions or planning ahead or remembering things. I wouldn't have the frustration of not being able to drive, play sports, or work. But I also wouldn't see all the beauties of nature. I wouldn't hear fine music or taste the flavor of my favorite cookie. I couldn't savor the texture of that cookie or my wife's touch. I'd miss out on the aroma of Indian food or a fully bloomed rose. And of course the internal sensations of joy and excitement and intimacy.
Perhaps in that coma, I thought to myself, death would be very, very boring. So, why do it?
Bernie Greenberg lives in central Florida with his wife and two cats. He has a son, a daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren.
Monday, September 19, 2016
BY GREIG WELCH
Life as I knew it has completely changed.
What used to be has been rearranged.
Ways of the past disappear each day
without me having much to say.
I move slowly and feel my body shake
Creating adjustments that I have to make.
What once was a simple movement
now is an effort with little improvement.
Speaking is full of lingering doubts.
I have thoughts that do not come out.
I often just nod my head and smile
wishing to join in all the while.
Trips to the doctor are something to dread
worrying about things not being said.
Taking pills that I cannot spell
hoping they make my day go well.
In my heart I wage a strong fight.
I want this to end with all my might.
Wondering how this could happen to me
I had many plans I may now never see.
But despite my will and resolution,
I eventually come to the conclusion
Life as I knew it has changed.
What used to be has been rearranged.
Greig Welch, a retired educator in Paso Robles, CA, was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2012. During his 38-year career, he was a teacher, coach, high school principal, assistant superintendent, and educational consultant. He is also a former college athlete.
He has been married to his high school sweetheart, Gwen, for 45 years. They have 2 daughters and 5 grandchildren.
Wednesday, July 27, 2016
BY BERNIE GREENBERG
I am clueless, more often than useful.
Annoying to everyone else,
and at times dangerous.
Could be I am forgetting,
but I have no idea.
Do you remember memory?
When things fit in,
when life was semi-sequential,
when there was meaning,
Well if you do...forget it.
It will be less memorable.
Can't remember memory.
Not a big deal for me,
more so for everyone else.
They expect me to make sense
but I don't recall being logical.
Nor do I care.
I am happy not remembering that I know.
Long-term memories are easier somehow.
They seem fixed in place like concrete.
Medium-term memories get lost transferring from short to long.
It's a transmission problem like being stuck in park.
Short-term memories are just that, short.
Memory is hard work.
Looking for what was,
among billions of brain cells
and trillions of synaptic connections.
There is a lot of pressure to find familiar links.
Memory is tense.
It is all past tense.
It would be nice to learn from the past.
To recreate those moments of joy
To fix those that brought disappointment or fear.
However, both would require that I remember the past.
When I can't, it is not a character defect,
a hiatus in concentration, or lack of willpower.
It's just because I forgot.
Bernie Greenberg sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in 1999 that affected his balance, depth perception, vision, and memory. He began writing poetry in 2002 and has since made almost 60 presentations about his TBI experience. He lives in central Florida with his wife and two cats. He has a son, a daughter-in-law, and two wonderful grandchildren.