May 25, 2012
Stroke survivor learns regular doctor visits are key to recognizing silent risk factors
By Susan Christensen
Health and Research News Service
This May is the first time Frank Alexander ever paid attention to stroke awareness month.
He never felt sick, so why worry?
Now he’s a stroke survivor who’s spreading the word: What you don’t know about stroke risks CAN hurt you.
“I hadn’t been to the doctor since I retired from the military on June 30, 1990,” said the 62-year-old Jackson resident. “I felt fine. But I guess things can creep up on you.”
Alexander was ambushed by three conditions that often conspire to compromise blood flow– diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol.
“It’s a combination that leads to blood vessel abnormalities that can promote abnormal clotting,” explained Dr. Alyson Jones, a stroke specialist at Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson. “He was a stroke waiting to happen – especially because his conditions were untreated. The best defense against stroke is to have your medical issues under control.”
Dr. Jones said that’s particularly important for African Americans in Mississippi, who already have a heightened risk due to their race and geographic location.
“According to the Centers for Disease Control, African Americans have nearly twice the risk of having a first stroke as whites and are more likely to die from stroke,” Dr. Jones said. “And residents of the Southeast have a higher death rate, as well.”
Alexander feels fortunate to have survived his Jan. 20 stroke, but says he initially struggled with resulting paralysis in his right arm and leg.
“I was really feeling sorry for myself,” said the former director of security for Mississippi College Law School in Jackson. But a pep talk from Methodist Rehab physical therapist Pat Cooper gave him hope. “I just tried to tell him he’s going to get there,” Cooper said. “He was one of those people striving for perfection. And he was tough on himself.”
Although he arrived at Methodist in a wheelchair, Alexander was on his feet by the time he left, bolstered by his therapy on the hospital’s weight-supporting treadmill. The system allows patients to practice walking even before they can bear their weight. And by the time he left inpatient therapy, Alexander was getting around on a walker for short distances.
He has since transferred to Methodist Outpatient Neuro Rehabilitation in Flowood, where he’s pushing hard for more independence.
“He is so determined,” said Methodist Outpatient Rehab physical therapist Jennifer Nicholson. “He says just hit him with a stick if he’s not doing things right.”
Alexander says he likes to be challenged, and all his therapists have been accommodating. “They are very tough,” he said. “When you say you can’t do it, they say: Yes, you can. Don’t ever say what you can’t do until you try.”
Nicholson said Alexander has managed to go from walker to cane, thanks in part to the help of some special therapies offered at Methodist. “We started him on Neuro-Developmental Treatment, which is all about facilitating postural control and getting into more normal movement patterns,” she said.
He also has benefitted from a system known as the Bioness L300. The device uses electrodes contained in a cuff worn just below the knee to gently stimulate the peroneal nerve. Located on the outside of the lower leg, this nerve activates the muscles that lift the foot during walking. Specially trained therapists at Methodist Rehab fine-tune the electrical stimulation to create the most effective walking pattern for each user.
Improvements to his right arm have been slower because of problems with extreme muscle tightness in his right shoulder and chest. But Dr. Jones recently treated the spasticity with an injection of Botox, which should improve his range of motion.
Meanwhile, occupational therapist Suzanne Colbert has been showing Alexander how to work around his deficits. “He is doing all his dressing, grooming and bathing now,” she said.
Next up is more proficiency in the kitchen. “He has done some catering, and one of our goals is to get him back to doing meal prep,” Colbert said. “We also want to help him incorporate some healthy eating because he has a taste for things not so good for him.”
“My daughter and wife said what did me in was eating everything I wanted,” said the former Army cook who favored jumbo cheeseburgers and country-fried steak. “Now I bake and broil, and I use lower-sodium seasonings.”
It’s all part of his strategy to keep a second stroke at bay. “I learned my lesson the hard way,” he said. “You have to take care of yourself. And no matter how good you feel, you still need to go to the doctor and get check-ups.”
Working with Suzanne Colbert, an occupational therapist at Methodist Outpatient Neurological Rehabilitation in Flowood, is helping Frank Alexander become more independent following his January stroke.
Frank Alexander said he learned an important lesson about stroke prevention the hard way. Until he had a stroke, Alexander was unaware that he had three major risk factors; diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol.