Carol Coulther -“You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.
My name is Carol Coulther. I am a special education teacher. My husband had a massive stroke at the age of 56. It was a long road to get where he is today. His strength and willpower is inspiring. Our friends and family were always there for us. We were blessed with talented therapists that guided, pushed, and encouraged him. We belong to a couple stroke support groups and strongly feel that being part of these groups have been a large part of his recovery. We have learned from others and hopefully have helped others also. I am hopeful that by participating in this blog and sharing our story we can reach a larger community of survivors and families.
The last Monday of every month is a committee meeting at my school. Our committee meets to discuss children that are struggling and develop interventions and different ways to support them in school. Little did I know, on that February 22, 2016, that my family would be the ones that would be struggling and needing support. As I was in the middle of the meeting my phone rang. I saw it was my husband and was surprised he would be calling since he knew I had a meeting that afternoon. I stepped out of the meeting to answer the call and was shocked to hear a woman ask for me and then have her tell me that my husband, Rich, was on the way to the hospital with what looked like a stroke. The next couple hours are a blur. Somehow my brother drove me to the hospital which was about an hour away, I called family, and managed to get to the hospital without falling apart. The doctors and nurses were wonderful. They explained that my husband, who was only 56 years old, had suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke. His entire left side was affected. Luckily his speech and language was intact. He would need to stay in the ICU to be monitored for a few days. Then we could plan for rehab.
The next 3 days my daughter and I traveled to the hospital each day. I had no idea what to expect. What would his recovery look like? How long would it take? What would he be able to do? It was all so overwhelming. As a special education teacher I am flexible, but am goal-oriented and have a specific daily lesson plan that I control. How was I going to deal with this? Could I be strong enough? It was all out of my control.
I had to try to control and manage what I could. I got a notebook and started writing down everything I needed to ask and then recorded all the answers I received. My small notebook turned into a complex 3 ring binder with many dividers. There was no way to remember all the medical tests, doctors, dates, notes, and insurance information. I needed to have it all written down. This helped me tremendously and I recommend that people do this too. It eliminated the stress of remembering facts and things to do.
Rich’s stroke was on a Monday. That Friday he was transferred to Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation. We felt a sense of anticipation because it seemed like now he could start the process of therapy and recovery. I felt he was in a safe, positive place and I went back to work. My daughter was living at home and working in New York City. She was able to take a few days off to be there during the day with him. I would leave school and go the rehab and stay til 8:00 every night. My daughter and I would eat dinner at the rehab with my husband. Then go home scoop Haggen Daz ice cream, eat sour cream and cheddar potato chips, and drink wine. Not the healthiest diet, but it worked. We relied on each other to get through these days. When my daughter went back to work, we had good friends that would stop by the rehab during the day to visit and make sure he was okay. This gave me such comfort. It gave me strength.
Friends and family were an enormous part of this time. My son and his girlfriend came down from Boston as soon as he got to Kessler. We had friends visiting several times a week. Sometimes childhood friends of Rich’s came and they would reminisce and laugh. Other times, he would have friends come to watch the Rangers game. We had good friends come every Wednesday and eat dinner with us at rehab. Other dear friends came and played endless games of Rummikub with us. Rich’s brother came every other day and hung out watching sports, helping him write his March Madness pool, and just being his “big brother”. My brother and sister in law would come and bring our Goddaughter who loved to get ice cream and sit on Uncle Rich’s lap in his wheelchair. We were surrounded by support. This gave us all such strength.
Being supported and feeling like I had a soft place to fall with friends and family was also extended by my work family. My friends at work provided us with meals 2-3 days a week. We would come home from the rehab to find dinner, snacks, flowers, or a bottle of wine all the time. My friends at work would help me with paperwork when I was overwhelmed. They would take turns stopping in to see how I was and would find joy in the accomplishments Rich was having. When after three weeks he was finally able to move a finger on his left hand they shared in my joy. When he developed blood clots in his leg they prayed with me. They gave me strength when I thought I had no more.
People wanted to help us, spend time with Rich, and do whatever they could to do support us. I know we are blessed because we have heard so many stories from other people that have family and friends disappear after strokes. Our friends and family did the opposite. They asked what can we do. And we told them. If someone asked if I needed something I told them the truth. If we did need something we asked for it. We told people when good times to visit would be. We asked if we needed help with an errand. This communication took the guesswork out of what we needed and what would help Rich the most. It empowered us all and gave me the strength to continue.
Those early days in the hospital and then the months in rehab were a stressful time of course. But one day at a time was my mantra. When I look back I am amazed at how well we all survived as a couple, a family, and as a community of friends. I tried to write everything down to keep focused and organized. I accepted, and asked for help, from friends and family and was rewarded by the support and love from all.
My advice is try to stay organized and try to enjoy the small moments and be thankful for the people that surround you……. “You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have”.