As a sport, rugby isn’t as well known in America as football. But rugby and football both require similar qualities of their players: strength, speed, endurance, teamwork, and most of all, a very strong desire to make a goal.
For 35 years as a rugby player, John Griffiths had to summon up all of these qualities, and more, to play the game against many equally-athletic and determined opposing teams. But, for all those hundreds of times that he was tackled to the ground playing rugby over the years, John never dreamed that he’d be taken down by a totally different kind of opponent.
One Sunday afternoon in July, 2002, John was on a Burlington, Ontario, rugby field playing what seemed to be a typical game on a very hot day. At 57 years of age, he was still fit enough to give younger players a run for their money, but that day he made the mistake of not drinking enough water between plays. As a result, he became a bit overheated and dehydrated. Then, it happened. Somewhere in the middle of the game, as he was in the process of tackling an opponent during a play, John experienced an ischemic stroke in the left side of his brain.
John was rushed by ambulance to Joseph Brant Hospital, in Burlington. Once he was stabilized, it became apparent that his stroke was largely centered in the language processing areas of his brain. John didn’t have any paralysis, and his balance was intact, but he had problems understanding language and expressing himself (receptive and expressive aphasia).
After he was discharged from the acute care hospital a month later, John began a formal two year out-patient therapy program at a local Aphasia Centre, where he worked with specialized “speech software” on the Centre’s computers. He also received some short-term Occupational Therapy, but since he wasn’t paralyzed, John was left on his own to manage the “physical therapy” portion of his recovery program. He also had many acupuncture sessions, on and off, for 4 years following his stroke.
John says he experienced a variety of strong emotions in the months following his event. He was angry, fearful and depressed, but those emotions faded somewhat over time. Like many people who have a stroke, John also experienced a lot of denial about the “new normal” life he was left to deal with. He has since come to an uneasy truce with his circumstances and his aphasia “residuals.”
At this point, nearly nine years post-stroke, John still continues to have trouble speaking and understanding language. He says that he has difficulty expressing himself about 40% of the time, and understanding what is being spoken to him about 60% of the time (but that is upped to 100%, if the person speaks to him very slowly). He says that he still has to concentrate on the right words in his mind before he can say them.
Since language expression and comprehension are his biggest problems, John feels that his greatest achievement since his stroke has been to recover his ability to read and write. He feels that one of the keys to recapturing some of his language capabilities has been to practice speaking over and over. For example, as part of his on-going therapy, John reads the daily newspaper out loud. This discipline has paid off; John has improved enough to be able to resume singing in his church choir.
In addition to changing the way he processes words, John says his stroke ended up changing him in other ways. For example, he’s become more tolerant of other people (but he still remains less forgiving of himself because his language capabilities aren’t “100%.” His stroke also gave John a new appreciation of his caring and organized wife, Caryl, whom he says was instrumental in his recovery.
Because of his language difficulties, John wasn’t able to return to his job after his stroke. He retired from his own company, where he was a Human Resources consultant. Now, John says his new “job” consists of singing in his church choir, enjoying music on his iPod and attending on-going speech therapy at the local Aphasia Centre. John bicycles there twice a week, where for four hours per session, he works on his speech problems and networks with other people who are also wrestling with aphasia (John calls this as his “group therapy”).
John took up running in the early part of his recovery, and he continues to be a disciplined runner to this day, jogging every week, year round. Spring through Fall, he also gardens 2 or 3 times per week, which provides him with a different kind of exercise and allows him to savor being outdoors while cultivating his favorite plants.
As for playing rugby, for the nearly nine years since his stroke, John never set foot on a rugby field. But just recently, he has started bicycling to his rugby club on Thursday evenings to play “touch rugby” (which is played without any tackling, just like “touch football” is played in the U.S.). Afterwards, he and his teammates meet at the clubhouse for some liquid refreshments and camaraderie. He plans to continue this weekly ritual through the end of September, essentially bringing him full circle with is favorite sport.
John and his wife, Caryl, live with their cat in Burlington, Ontario, Canada. They have a 20 year old son who attends the University of Windsor. You can reach John via the Stroke Network. His user id is: johngriffiths