Part One|Part Two| Part Three| Part Four| Part Five
Come along on the real life stroke recovery story of Mack Lowell. Witness his long journey back and the physical and mental trials he faces along the road to recovery.
(Editor’s note: Any treatment undertaken to combat a medical problem has varied results for different individuals. The experiences portrayed here are those of Mack Lowell and would be different from the experiences of other stroke patients. A conversation with your doctor is the best way to determine the appropriate course of treatment for you or a loved one.)
Part Five By: Jean Johnson for Heart1
It’s almost mid-August and Mack Lowell has beaten at least some of the odds. He made it home ahead of schedule – by mid-July. Out of the nursing home/assisted living place that he has absolutely nothing good to say about.
|Ten questions to ask your physician about stroke:
1. What is the expected recovery time, and what how do patients commonly deal with the boredom of prolonged immobility?
2. What specialists are available to help in regaining skills and function?
3. Are there dietary and exercise programs that might help?
4. What equipment will help at home and in rehabilitation?
5. Would antidepressants be useful?
6. Is there risk of another stroke and if so, are there ways to minimize this?
7. What local, regional, national support groups are available for patients and families?
8. Are there clinical trials that might be beneficial?
9. What types of cutting-edge research is taking place in the field of stroke rehabilitation?
10. Are there any recent articles on stroke rehabilitation in leading medical journals?
And it’s worked out pretty much like he kept saying it would. “I knew I’d never get well in that place,” he said. “They wouldn’t let you do anything, like even try and get up off toilet by yourself – even if they went off and forgot about me twice – and didn’t answer when I rang the bell.”
But vehement, unequivocal bitterness about the decidedly worst experience of a lifetime bar none aside – Lowell’s managing his own bathroom duties alone these days.
“I couldn’t at first. You’re standing there balancing on one leg and holding onto the grab bar my friends put up above the toilet with your one arm, so I couldn’t pull my pants up,” he said. Lowell’s days in blue denim jeans are over for now at least, and he wears plaid flannel pajama bottoms with elastic in the waist.
“But eventually I got steady enough to let go of the bar long enough to get them up myself. I can take a shower alone too.”
When asked about how safe all these maneuvers are, Lowell responds like an old hippie would. “Ahh, you know, probably a little shaky but not too bad. So far the only times I’ve fallen is out on the ramp. I thought Michael had a hold of me so I shoved off and ended up launching out of my chair at the bottom.”
He chuckles quietly in his self-deprecating manner, while his long time friend Michael Bacher laughs uproariously and tells Lowell that even on his good pre-stroke days, his coordination was always suspect.
“Like the time in the Marine Corps parade when you were a reservist,” said Bacher. “Now, tell me Mack, who – out of at least a hundred khaki monkeys. Who was out of step?”
Grins and more chuckling. Lowell nods his head back and forth like even he can’t believe it. But even more endearing is the lack of self-criticism that spreads like an aura around Lowell. He always did give himself – and others – a wide, gentle berth. That’s why, now that he needs a hand, folks seem to be coming through for him.
One fellow that has lived on the periphery of Flagstaff for years like the rest of the friends in Lowell’s orbit just happened to need a place to stay and so has bunked with Lowell almost full time since he “got out,” as he calls it. Another friend from Lowell’s youth back in Ohio who is retired in Phoenix has come up and spent a few days, Ann Bacher is stalwart and helps him with his bills and getting into town for ongoing therapy at the hospital, and, of course, the neighbors and the rest of the crowd who have frequented Lowell’s hootch for years feather in and out.
“There’s enough of you left here for us to care about,” said Bacher with another of his maniacal laughing fits. “Just don’t go lose any more your marbles, or we’ll really hang you out for good.”
Lowell loves Bacher’s hilarity. “It’s nice to have someone treat you normal instead of weird like what can happen when people don’t know how to act around you,” Lowell said. “Michael’s always good for a few laughs, and I don’t feel like some sort of freak around him.”
Lowell takes a swig on beer and lights up a smoke. He knows he shouldn’t, but it does help so much he says. “The doctor said I could have a couple beers a day. I need them to sleep, I’m so high strung,” Lowell said. “Smoking, though. Nobody’s very happy about me smoking again, even though I try to keep it down.”
OK, so he’s smoking. To expect any different was probably unrealistic from the beginning. After all even he says he’s an addict and has been using what he calls his “nico-fixes” since he was in high school. To think he’d put the crutch down right when he needs some soothing was probably naïve. Indeed, a man can only do what a man can do.
Anyhow, Lowell with his glass half full approach to life prefers to focus on his gains in the bathroom and shower instead of getting into a head trip on his nicotine habit. Also, he’s got other things on his mind as well, like what the pros call the “activities of daily living” or ADLs.
“Cooking’s too complicated,” Lowell said. He realizes that although his memory is sharp and he can still follow his beloved news programs, that part of his brain was damaged by the stroke.
“I’m going for dinners I can microwave. And the oven too. Pizzas, Mexican food. I always liked those things anyway.” Granola, chunks of cheese, goodies the crowd brings over, and one of his favorites, salmon dip and tortilla chips fills out the rest of the bill, keeping almost as much meat on his bones as the lanky Lowell ever did.
And then there’s getting dressed. He can get into his pants in the morning, he says. “But shirts are more difficult.” Apparently the part of his brain that controls spatial perception has still not returned enough to help him figure out which hole of the garment his head goes into. “I imagine when it gets cold, though, that I’ll mange to get a shirt on in some manner or another,” Lowell said. “When someone stops by, they’ll probably help me straighten it out.”
‘When someone stops by?’ The last we heard Lowell needed someone around full time.
“Well, you know,” he said, “people have things they need to get done. And I’m good here alone as long as I take it slow and think things out before I try to move. That’s the main thing, like the therapists said, I’m impetuous. The stroke did that to me. I just up and go before I realize what I’m doing. That’s when I get in trouble, so I try to watch that.”
Now we’re chuckling – sort of... When pressed he admits he’s spent a few nights and some days alone.
Good thing Lowell is an old hippie-hiker and earned his chops in the Grand Canyon, the Bitterroots, the Wind Rivers, and just about every wilderness area in the American West not to mention Everest base camp in Nepal. Now the man’s got the grit to hang in there. A far cry from the safety standards of middle America certainly, but apparently within the limits of what Flagstaff’s old counterculture crowd deems relatively acceptable.
OK. We guess.
And since we’re dithering about, we also wondered if while Lowell’s doing his thing at home alone, if the music’s come back at all.
“Oh yeah, for sure,” Lowell said as though there’d never been any doubt. “I listened to some Pearl Jam the other day. It was great. It helps you get all your aggression out. My favorites these days are The White Stripes, though.” He goes on to explain how another new rocker group called Modest Mouse has one song in particular that resonates with him – a line that goes something to the effect of: Am I dead or just sleeping?
So Lowell’s got the hard rock screamers pumping loud again. (He always was in the camp that full volume guitar licks on his state-of-the-art sound system is the only way really hear first class rock ‘n’ roll.)
That said, we wondered about Clapton.
“Well no, haven’t had old Eric on in a while, but I heard he’s got a new album coming out,” Lowell said. “And there’s the Dylan special coming up on PBS later this month. That should be good for a nostalgia hit.”
Bottom line, then – music’s back on at Mack Lowell’s hootch. And even if his arm sticks out of the neck of his shirt some mornings, he’s more up to speed on the latest happenings than many of his baby boomer counterparts.
“And it’s so great to be home,” he said. “The monsoons have started and we’re getting some outstanding lightning shows. The views of The Peaks are excellent from my place, especially the sunsets and sunrises. Also now that I have the ramp my friends built, I go out on the flat part at the top and catch the stars. Jupiter’s glittering up there right now, actually.”
Speaking of Lowell’s friends, they’ve come through in spades once again. While his 12x50 trailer used to be roomy enough for the hardy bachelor, now that he’s navigating from a wheelchair, space has become an issue. “Yeah,” Lowell said, “it’s a real cruncher in here trying to jockey my wheelchair around for every last little thing like making a pot of coffee.”
The universe may be a tough task master when it comes to insisting Lowell’s mobility be carefully circumscribed these days, but if the man wants more space, the answer has been a resounding ‘yes.’
“My closest neighbors here have a friend with a bigger trailer – 14x70 – that’s been sitting empty out on some land some where. Anyhow, the owners said I could have it if I could get it moved,” Lowell said. “Anyway, I ended up selling my boat for enough cash to cover getting the trailer over here and set up. It’s a real nice raft with a rowing frame and gear boxes and things. My therapist bought it. She does a lot of backcountry – hiking and rafting – and it shows when she works with me. The others are always so worried I’ll fall, but she says, ‘go for it’ and I really feel like I make progress with her.” All in all then, Lowell says things aren’t too bad. The gentleman would say that. Let the rest of us fret and worry our way through the day. Mack Lowell never did. And now even though he’s operating with a whole side of his body paralyzed, he still doesn’t. Ask him about it though, and you’ll get the equivalent of a Buddhist master’s reply to a koan.
“It seems like your attitude is pretty good,” we at Body1 observed. “Any tips for the rest of us?”
“Who me?” Lowell asked as he chuckled, rolled his eyes, and ran his good hand through his shock of stiff white hair that looked like it’d been styled by one of Northern Arizona’s brisker winds. “Hey, Michael, while you’re up, grab me another beer.”