By Kristen Miller
Five years to the day Jon Ryan suffered a stroke, he and his wife, Jane, sat down in the kitchen of their Stockholm Township home with the Enterprise Dispatch to share their personal journey of recovery.
“We want to make sure people don’t go down this really long road like we did,” Jane said.
“There is a short-cut,” Jon assured.
For the Ryans, their journey began one September morning, when Jon woke up while suffering a stroke.
It had been a long night of working in the field, and Jon had fallen asleep on the couch sometime around 11 p.m.
At about 4 a.m., Jon awoke. He remembers having his right hand on his left leg, but his leg couldn’t feel his hand.
“My entire left side was immobile,” Jon said, noting he was unable to get up off the couch.
Sleeping in the bedroom down the hall, Jane awoke to a noise. It was the sound of Jon trying to yell her name, though it only came out in a quiet slur.
By that point, Jon had rolled himself off the couch and crawled into the adjoining dining room in an attempt to reach Jane in the bedroom.
When Jane came into the room, she found her husband lying on the floor, and asked him what was wrong.
“I can’t move,” Jon told her.
Jane called 911.
While on the phone with dispatch, she remembers telling the dispatcher that her 47-year-old husband was having a stroke, and thinking just how wrong that was at his age.
Nearly three-quarters of all strokes occur in people over the age of 65, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Jon was flown to Hennepin County Medical Center, where doctors administered tissue plasminogen activator (t-PA), a life-saving measure for many stroke victims if given within a window of time after the first symptoms of a stroke start (see sidebar).
“It performs magic,” Jane said of the drug that saved her husband’s life.
A stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is interrupted or reduced, which deprives the brain of oxygen and nutrients, according to the Mayo Clinic.
A stroke may be caused by a blocked artery or a leaking or burst blood vessel.
The cause of 90 percent of strokes can be determined through a test. Jon is among the remaining 10 percent, in which the cause of the stroke can’t be medically determined.
The Ryans have come to their own conclusion, and suspect stress was the root cause.
The Ryans remember how particularly bad the fall harvest season was in 2009. The fields were muddy, commodity prices weren’t good, and they had run out of storage for grain.
“Things were piling up,” Jon commented.
“It was the most stressful [season] since we were married,” Jane added. At that time, the couple had been married 18 years.
Within six days of admission, Jon was released from the hospital. Other than being given a minor evaluation to show he could walk, talk, and swallow, Jon was provided no direction going forward.
He was warned, however, by a nurse who told him stroke survivors, oftentimes, will experience anxiety and depression.
When he was released from the hospital, Jon jumped right back into farming. After all, the doctors had given him a “clean bill of health.”
With most brain injuries, recovery is a process. How long it takes depends on the severity and which part of the brain was affected.
For Jon, the stroke occurred in the right frontal lobe, affecting his short-term memory and other cognitive skills. However, Jon went on living and working as he did pre-stroke.
Prior to the stroke, Jon was anxious a constant worrier but he coped with it, Jane said. The stroke heightened that.
At first, he felt somewhat euphoric having survived and cheated death. But then he became frustrated when he struggled with daily tasks and farm functions that had once come so easily to him.
The part of the brain that was affected controlled Jon’s executive decisions his ability to problem solve and process information, according to Sue Newman, occupational therapist with Courage Kenny.
Newman explained these as invisible symptoms.
Fatigue was also a major side effect of the stroke. Jon was taking long naps during the day, which wasn’t normal for him pre-stroke.
Soon, Jon found himself in a depressive state, to the point where he told his wife he no longer wanted to live.
Depression affects more than one-third of stroke survivors in varying degrees, according to the National Stroke Association. Many stroke survivors experience feelings of anger, frustration, anxiety, sadness, and fear.
For Jon, he knew he wasn’t well, but didn’t know why, nor was he given direction on how to get better.
It wasn’t until three-and-one-half years after his stroke, and two stays at a mental hospital, that Jon would receive the education and therapy that he needed to recover from his brain injury.
During that time, Jon also made the decision to retire from farming (something he had been doing since he was 14); and in 2012, the Ryans sold the farm.
“It took us a crop or two,” Jane said, before Jon decided he needed to quit for his health.
“It was difficult, but I knew it had to happen for my mental state,” Jon said, noting that it became too difficult to manage the farm operation.
Though he had been to his family physician for checkups, his symptoms were a result of his stroke. It would be up to him to manage them.
So he thought.
The following year, Jon’s uncle informed him of a friend who had also suffered a stroke, but received rehabilitation at Allina Health’s Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute.
The Ryans found the education, help, and hope they were looking for.
After receiving a full evaluation with one of the center’s neurologists, Jon was told he qualified for physical, speech, and occupational therapy.
Jon spent the next three months in outpatient treatment at Abbott Northwestern Hospital’s Courage Kenny three hours, two days a week.
Both Jon and Jane admit that they were quite angry that first week, realizing they spent more than three years coping with Jon’s symptoms, which could have been long improved.
At first, Jon was skeptical because he thought the therapy seemed much too simple to actually work.
“I couldn’t figure out why it was helping, but it was,” Jon said, noting that therapy was, in a sense, a series of games.
Whether it was paddle board or a light sensory activity, it was all about improving his reaction time and overall cognition.
The therapies were targeting Jon’s weak areas so he could gain more strength and endurance, resulting in better performance, Newman explained.
After just two weeks of rehabilitation, Jon was seeing vast improvements.
Before Courage Kenny, Jon had been experiencing memory loss, confusion, difficulty with calculations, making decisions, comprehension, and word retrieval.
After rehabilitation, Jon still struggles with some of these effects at times, particularly with short-term memory and word retrieval, but he has greatly improved, Jane explained.
The couple also learned that in order for the brain to heal after a stroke or injury, it needs rest.
“No one told us why he was so tired,” Jane said.
Courage Kenny educated them on how to schedule Jon’s day in order to fit in the rest his brain needed to heal.
Now, Jon doesn’t get fatigued to the extent that he needs to take naps.
Courage Kenny also helped Jon realize that he’s not alone in his recovery, by providing lectures and support groups for stroke survivors.
Jon currently attends a support group the second Wednesday of the month at Buffalo Hospital.
The Ryans are very grateful to have found the education, help, and support they received from Courage Kenny.
“We’re not sure where we would be right now probably still in survival mode,” Jane said.
“I wouldn’t have hope in life if it wasn’t for Courage Kenny,” said Jon.
Signs of a stroke
The Mayo Clinic reports signs of a stroke may include:
• Trouble with walking. You may stumble or experience sudden dizziness, loss of balance, or loss of coordination.
• Trouble with speaking and understanding. You may experience confusion. You may slur your words or have difficulty understanding speech.
• Paralysis or numbness of the face, arm, or leg. You may develop sudden numbness, weakness, or paralysis in your face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of your body. Try to raise both your arms over your head at the same time. If one arm begins to fall, you may be having a stroke. Similarly, one side of your mouth may droop when you try to smile.
• Trouble with seeing in one or both eyes. You may suddenly have blurred or blackened vision in one or both eyes, or you may see double.
• Headache. A sudden, severe headache, which may be accompanied by vomiting, dizziness or altered consciousness.
For more information, visit www.stroke.org.