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‘Tomorrow might be better’

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image From left, Bob Ewing, Bruce Smith, Dr. Oliver Hackett and Doug Gatchell attend the stroke support group sponsored by South Bay Hospital . Photo Lia Martin

The abilities that are lost depend on where in the brain the damage occurred and the extent of that damage.


Bruce Smith is a quiet guy, with a special kind of glow that has you wondering about his life. He is sitting in a room waiting for the program that was designed for him and others, who come to share their experiences so they can have the heart and courage to go on. It is the monthly meeting of the stroke support group.

Smith had a cerebral hemorrhage when he was only 51 years old. It put him in a coma for a month, and he didn’t even see it coming.

According to Smith, his kind of stroke is very rare. Cerebral hemorrhage impacts only 50 percent of people that have a stroke. Smith had an arteriovenous malformation, or AVM, which made his cerebral hemorrhage even more rare, by 10 percent. 

“There was absolutely no warning. It came out of the blue,” Smith said. “I was getting ready to go to work in the morning. The next minute, I was in a coma.”

Smith said it was a gradual process to wake up from a coma and very, very difficult to start his long, slow climb back to a normal life. For three months, he was in the hospital, where he started his rehabilitation. It has now been 14 years since his stroke.

Before his stroke, he was living in Sacramento, Calif., and worked as an economist with the California Department of Finance. Smith loved his job and his life. Though he was single, he was active and in good health, renovating his house.He played softball and worked 10 to 11 hours at his job every day.

After the stroke, he said, there was a question he asked himself over and over.

“I couldn’t get an answer to the ‘Why me?’ question,” Smith said, remembering back to the early days toward recovery. “It happened, so deal with it!” he told himself. “The only alternative was to curl up and die.”

For a while, he admitted, that is what he wanted to do. He wanted to die. It was a hard time, but when he made his decision to fight back and live, he called the next morning his “Rebirth Day.”

Eight months after the stroke, he went back to his job and found he couldn’t continue the project he had started before his stroke. He just couldn’t understand the complexity of the economic model he had been working on because, he said, he lost a lot mentally. It had impacted him in much the same way as a traumatic brain injury, he said. So he retired.

California was too expensive, so he researched other places to live and bought a little trailer in Sarasota. Later, he found Sun City Center, where he could own his own house and drive a golf cart to get around. Shopping and services were nearby. Smith had finally found the typical lifestyle of a Floridian that he could handle!

Smith says he owes his recovery to his body, which was strong and resilient enough to heal itself. He considers himself lucky. Looking back, he is appreciative of the life he had but still wishes he could have finished his career and retired as a healthy man with  more options.

He attends the support group every month and anything else where he can learn how to help himself. Smith is still working hard to come back from the card life dealt him. Twelve other people joined him at the stroke support group that day. They are of every age, from every walk of life, and their stroke is unique to them.

Strokes are scary. Learning to live again and face the challenges after a stroke is a daunting experience. Every stroke is different. The abilities that are lost depend on where in the brain the damage occurred and the extent of that damage. Recovery can be full, or partial. No one really knows.

According to the National Stroke Association, 10 percent of stroke survivors recover almost completely, with 25 percent recovering with minor impairments. Up to 40 percent will experience moderate to severe impairments requiring special care, and 10 percent require care in a long-term-care facility or a nursing home. Fifteen percent die shortly after the stroke.

At the March meeting, the group was able to ask questions of Paul Melancon, South Bay Hospital director of rehabilitation services, and Carol Miller, who is the clinical nutrition manager at South Bay Hospital.

They were able to share their knowledge and even learned a couple of pointers from members of the group.

That day was a sharing of history, of tips, and a kindling of the kind of hope that occurs when people get together after having gone through a similar experience. 

And like Bruce Smith said, “I am never going to get everything back, but who knows, tomorrow might be better.”

The Stroke Support Group sponsored by South Bay Hospital meets at the Sun City Center Chamber of Commerce from 2 to 3 p.m. on the first Wednesday of the month in the side meeting room. The facilitator of the group is Margaret Kenney.  No reservations are necessary to attend the meeting.

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