Young runner for the circle
Aging our way
Work & Play
Passion for the Climb
Life of the Mind
Arts & Culture
New, Noted & Quoted
Get to Know
About the Scene
Alumni Bulletin Board
Marriages & More
Update Member Profile
Passion for the Climb
My post-stroke boot camp: steps to independence
By Bob Otterbourg ’51
I live in what’s known as the Stroke Belt, a region in the southeastern United States that has a considerably higher incidence of stroke than other parts of the country. In early March, I became another statistic for the cardiovascular-disease database.
After writing several advice books on career changing and thriving in retirement, freelance writer Bob Otterbourg has had to focus on adjustments to his own life in recent months. (photo by Ken Otterbourg)
Unlike many stroke victims, I exercised every day. I am not a smoker or drinker, and I rarely eat fried food. I have eaten at McDonald’s only once in my life. I believe my stroke resulted from stress, following several months of intensive personal care for my wife, Susan. She died six hours after I had my stroke.
I hadn’t realized how emotionally involved I was with Susan’s cancer. I handled many of the household chores as I watched her health decline until she became bedridden. My internist warned me to take better care of myself. I thought I was being “Mr. Cool.”
On March 6, while someone was tending to my wife of 54 years, my daughter, Laura, and I went out to lunch, ran some errands, and had an overall relaxing day. At 9:30 that night, I started getting ready for bed. I kissed my wife goodnight. I thought I was putting on my pajamas, but I soon realized I was on the floor. I called for Laura, who was in the living room adjacent to the bedroom, and she called for an ambulance.
At Duke University Hospital in Durham, N.C., I underwent numerous tests, including an MRI that showed bleeding in my brain. I now know I experienced a thalamic stroke on the right side of my brain. I lost the use of and feeling in my left arm and leg. However, I was still able to process information and speak fairly well, and I had control of my right-side motor skills.
I was transferred from the intensive care unit to the regular medical floor of the hospital after six days. I was interviewed by the medical management team from the Durham Rehabilitation Institute (DRI). To become a rehab patient, I was told I would have to undergo a rigorous regimen of at least two types of skilled therapies and be able to tolerate at least three hours a day of active participation. I had to agree to the terms before the DRI would accept me.
I have three therapists. Occupational therapy consists of practical points of day-to-day living, including dressing, grooming, and personal care. Physical therapy deals with strengthening muscles and teaching the patient how to regain balance and sit correctly.
Because my speech and language were not affected, my speech therapist and I have been focusing on my concentration, ability to put thoughts on paper, and expressing ideas cogently. This article is a product of that. I dictated part of it and wrote part of it longhand. My therapist typed it into the computer.
The entire therapy process is a kind of boot camp. At times, I find it rather arduous because I am working on functions that I was once able to perform automatically. Now I have to focus on learning how to turn in bed, put on my clothes, and attend to tasks that were routine for me only a few months ago.
In the first weeks of the program, I realized the importance of setting goals. I feel somewhat like the baby who wins the adulation of parents when he or she turns over or sits up for the first time. I remember when Laura was about 4 months old and how excited Susan and I were when she began to crawl to us.
You would think that the death of my wife would make my recovery more difficult. But I went into mourning when I first heard that Susan had terminal cancer in March 2010. I knew that our anniversary on April 14 would be our last and that our trip to the North Carolina coast we loved would be our final one. By the time she died, I already had done my grieving.
Thanks to my therapists, my balance and my attention span have been improving, and I can do more things with less assistance.
Although I am impatient to get better, I do take pleasure in small gains. Before she died, Susan picked out my apartment in a retirement community. I am determined to get there, hopefully early next year. Six months after my stroke, I’m starting to walk. Even though I am only taking baby steps, it’s a start. Simply put, I’m considering having a T-shirt made: Strokes are not for sissies.
— The original version of this essay appeared in the June 2011
Kiplinger’s Retirement Report
. Printed with permission.
Read more essays from our Passion for the Climb series, or see how you can submit your own essay, at