When one door closes, another one opens. It’s an old saying, but it couldn’t be more true than for Lydia Acevedo-Chapman’s post-stroke life.
Lydia was home the day after Christmas, 2010, when she experienced a series of ischemic strokes throughout the left side of her brain.
Even though her husband got her to the hospital very quickly, the strokes left 42-year-old Lydia with a spectrum of residuals: right-sided pain and weakness, anomic aphasia, swallowing difficulties, impaired balance, short-term memory and concentration problems, and emotional turmoil in the form of fear and depression.
After four days in acute care, and some physical, occupational and balance therapy sessions, Lydia was discharged home. Because she met all of her therapist’s benchmarks, she was only given one additional out-patient session, and then was expected to handle things on her own. The self-described type-A “control freak” suddenly found herself in the disturbing position of not being at the helm of either her body or her brain, or of her very uncertain future.
Lydia’s first reaction was denial; she couldn’t accept that all her post-stroke problems weren’t going to evaporate “on demand.” Then as the weeks dragged on, her denial turned into desperation as she agonized over her short-term memory loss and aphasia, and the fact that she couldn’t be as active as before. Lydia found memory and language deficits particularly hard to accept, since she’s bilingual (Spanish/English). When she got tired, she had difficulty “toggling” between these two languages, which only compounded her anger and frustration (she still struggles with this residual).
Although Lydia made good physical progress, quickly graduating from a wheelchair, to a walker, then a cane, this wasn’t fast enough for her. She struggled to accelerate her recovery, but things moved along at their own pace, leaving Lydia stressed and discouraged. At some point, she realized that she had to change her perspective if she wanted to recapture her physical and cognitive capabilities. Lydia knew she had to “let go” and be patient, something that was truly foreign to her, but she gave it her best try. She struggled to put her denial to rest, and to move forward with her life.
At the time of her stroke, Lydia was a Data Base Administrator for a computer call center, but her post-stroke deficits made it difficult for her to return to work full time. She tried working 20 hours a week, then 30 hours, but she knew she was a “short-timer” and would ultimately have to take an early medical retirement (which she subsequently did in June). But, the big question was: what would she do then? She was too young to sit back and do nothing for the next 25 years. The answer came unexpectedly in the form of a dog named “Monster.”
Lydia knew that “service dogs” help people with physical problems, so when Lydia adopted Monster this past Spring, she decided to train him to be her own service dog, spending many hours a week teaching him how to assist her with her balance problems. Monster was a quick study, and in short order, he was awarded his “Canine Good Citizen” certification by the American Kennel Club. This certification allows Monster to go out in public as a “Service Dog in Training,” the first step required for full service dog certification (Monster will train for an additional one to three years until he gets to that point.)
Lydia feels that training Monster, and receiving this initial certification, has been her greatest achievement since having a stroke. More importantly, going through this experience made Lydia realize that she has a talent for training dogs. It occurred to her that she could transform this “hobby” into a new career as a service dog trainer, so she’s set her sights on training dogs to assist stroke survivors. Although the past couple months have dealt Lydia a few setbacks (she had another small stroke and her son burned his hands badly in a recent accident), she’s focused on the long-term and still intends to pursue service dog training as a career, once things settle down.
Lydia continues to make strides. She’s weaning herself off of her cane, as she relies more and more on Monster to help her get around. In fact, she says that she made more progress in the first month that she teamed up with him than she had since leaving the hospital.
Working with Monster has yielded other, indirect benefits, as well. In order to work with him, Lydia has to be physically active so she’s been walking more, and working out with light weights to improve her overall physical condition. Also, long before she had her stroke, Lydia taught tai chi, so she occasionally practices a related discipline, qi gong (chee-gong), since that’s easier to do for people with serious balance problems.
As for her new, post-stroke outlook, Lydia says that she used to have to be in control of herself and everyone around her; things had to be “just so” otherwise she got annoyed. But, since her stroke she’s had to let go of the need to control, as well as the need to be “right” all of the time. She says it’s harder to upset her now, and that she’s calmer than she used to be.
Lydia acknowledges that she couldn’t have made it this far without the unfailing support of Sam, her husband of three years. He’s been her main “caregiver”, as well as her staunchest cheerleader. Her adult children also occupy an important area in the “cheering section” of Lydia’s life, constantly encouraging her and refusing to let her give up. Rounding out their family are three cats and, of course, Monster.
Lydia tries to stay in regular contact with other stroke survivors via chats on the Stroke Network, three or four times a week, as time permits. You can contact Lydia via the Network. Her member name is: lydiacevedo