I came back from the dead
For weeks after a blood vessel burst in my head, the only part of my body I could move was my eyelids. In the months since then, I’ve come part of the way out of my silent helplessness. And I'll walk again if it kills me
This story was “told” to me by a man who still can t talk, can t write, can t use any of the ordinary sign language of the deaf and dumb because even now he can't move, except with the greatest difficulty. Paralysis still cuts him off from all ordinary communication. Nevertheless he managed, by painful effort over a period of weeks, to type out a complete account of his ordeal. His sister sent it to Maclean’s, and it provided a kind of first draft for this article. I was assigned to get a lot more detail from him. and then do a rewrite of the whole.
At Lancaster Veterans Hospital I found my man
propped up in bed. a portable typewriter at his side and an alphabet card near his left hand. For three days we worked on the story. I asked the questions, he spelled out the answers on his card. In the evening I would leave him with a dozen or so typewritten queries and he would have the answers typed and ready the next morning. Awkward as this interview technique was. Cormier proved to be as articulate as anyone I've ever interviewed. His wife and three children came to visit him one Sunday morning. Work ceased almost entirely as he watched the boys frolic around his bed, picnicking
on orange pop and potato chips. Ivan's face may be paralyzed, but delight shone from his eyes that afternoon. He wants desperately to go home for good, but realizes that if he is to recover further use of his limbs he must have the therapy that only the hospital can provide.
When 1 left he was hard at work on a humor article that recalled happier days. How Not to Catch a Mackerel, it was called. When I began to suggest possible markets he stopped me. “First,” he spelled out. “I have to learn how to write."
He is a remarkable man.
EARLY ONE BRIGHT February Sunday in 1959. a few weeks before my thirty-ninth birthday, a paralytic stroke shattered my world. One moment I was a well man stealing a few extra minutes in bed while my wife took the baby downstairs for breakfast. The next moment I was a helpless cripple, paralyzed from head to toe. robbed of the power of speech, almost dead.
It was. in effect, the end of my life — the end of my existence as a normal man with a growing family in a small New Brunswick city.
Yet today, still in hospital and with no hope of ever regaining full use of my limbs or my vocal cords, I know no bitterness. Every morning I give thanks for being alive. Little things I used to pay no attention to seem so precious now — the greenness of the grass, the smell of fresh air. the warmth of the sun. I have ended one life and begun another and it’s just possible that, with God’s help, I can make my next thirty-nine years richer by far than the first thirty-nine. I’ve learned a great deal in the past eighteen months — about myself, about my fellow-man, about life. I’ve discovered that faith can move mountains. And I know that if I don't give up, if I keep hoping and trying and praying, I will walk again with my wife and three children at my side — and that will be the happiest moment of my life.
I am telling my story in the hope that it will help other stroke victims. It really begins on a Tuesday, two weeks before Christmas of 1958. Our home then was Edmundston. my birthplace, on the Quebec side of New Brunswick. I was deputy registrar of deeds and was studying by correspondence toward a law degree. That Tuesday. I remember, 1 had finished lunch and was getting ready to go back to the office.
Jessie Ann, my wife, was
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I came back from the dead continued from page 15
“I could hear gurgling sounds. After a while S realized it was who was making them”
tucking the baby — Max is three now — into his crib for his afternoon nap.
Suddenly I felt stabbing pains in my chest. I didn’t know what had happened. I sunk my head between my knees and the pain eased a little. But my
breathing became increasingly difficult, so Jessie Ann called a doctor. He examined me briefly and told me to stop by his office in the morning for a complete checkup.
That night 1 fell perfectly normal
again. But I was concerned enough about my condition—1 thought it was my heart —to see the doctor the next morning. Before he had time to suggest it, I asked for a cardiogram. It showed my heart to be in splendid condition and the doctor
told me to stop worrying. Except for a slight weakness in my eyes, he said, I was in good shape for a man of thirtyeight. He prescribed a visit to the optometrist.
In the next few weeks I experienced a series of sensations that may have been warnings of trouble ahead or may have been nothing at all—the doctors don’t know for sure. Once I was gripped by a sudden drowsiness; I had to be helped from the dinner table. I had dizzy spells; I blamed my new glasses. The pains in my chest returned but left as suddenly as they came. Most of these incidents I shrugged off—I was just too healthy to get sick.
Then came that Sunday in February. I was lying in bed, thinking that in a few minutes I would have to get up to have breakfast and take the family to Mass. There were frost patterns on the windows, comfortable home - voices downstairs. Just two more delicious minutes in bed and I’d get up . . . The bedroom jerked upside down. The furniture assumed grotesque proportions. The bed swayed sickeningly. For a split second I thought the roof had fallen in, that maybe we’d been hit by a bomb.
I could hear gurgling sounds. But it was a few seconds before I realized I was making them. I wasn't nauseated, but my insides were churning, trying in vain to vomit. I called for help and passed out.
For the next two weeks I was in coma. Yet consciousness must have returned occasionally because I have distinct recollections — almost like dreams — of watching the doctor moving over me in the bedroom, of hearing him tell my wife that he wasn't sure exactly what was wrong but I should be taken to hospital. And I can remember the faces of the people who peered at me curiously as I was wheeled in my stretcher along the hospital corridor. All the time I was asking myself: What's happened'! What's going on? When will 1 wake up from this nightmare?
Through misty eyes I could make out the figure of a priest administering the last rites. I'm dying, I thought to myself, hut it doesn't matter. I was too weak to care, too tired to be bothered.
I was in an ambulance again. I didn’t know it then, but I was being taken to Presque Isle in Maine, sixty-odd miles from Edmundston. From there 1 was to be fiown to Montreal by the RCAF. I remember how the immigration officer at the border took a quick look inside and waved us on. At Presque Isle I was wheeled aboard and settled on a makeshift bed just aft of the loading door.
1 heard the engines being revved—a familiar and vaguely comforting sound after my eight years as an RCAF mechanic. Out of the corner of my eye I could see my nurse, perched on a pile of blankets, watching me with apprehension. My tongue kept getting caught between my teeth. It was paralyzed and I kept chewing on it. But I couldn't tell the nurse to put something between my teeth.
It seemed an endless flight. Finally, Montreal . # . the mournful wailing of the siren . . . traffic lights . . . street noises . . . the reception room of what I know now to be the Montreal Neurological Institute, where a team of. doc-
tors was standing by to fight for my life.
For the next few days I was not conscious of time-
A doctor was saying. “This will hurt a little bit, but it’s a matter of life or death.” (Because my breathing apparatus was defective. I learned later, my windpipe was punctured and a tracheotomy tube inserted.) I slept some more.
One day I woke up to find my wife at my bedside. What must she have thought? Bottles hung at my head and feet. Needles were stuck into my arms and legs. A suction machine was working frantically to drain the mucus from my breathing,tube. Another tube hung from my nose—a long, rubbery-tasting thing they used for getting food into my stomach" I wanted to tell her not to worry, that I wasn’t as bad as I looked, that I still loved her, that my mind hadn’t been affected by the stroke.
E couldn’t say anything. I could only look at her and hope she understood.
E had entered a strange and frightening world of complete helplessness. My arms and legs hung like weights, refusing to obey the commands my brain gave them. I had no control of my tongue or larynx; when I tried to talk I sounded like a drunken Donald Duck. I couldn’t nod my head. The only parts of my body I could move were my eyelids.
Communication is everything
The most frustrating part was my inability to communicate. From the very beginning f had understood everything that was said to me. But how could I tell them this? I wanted to scream, "But can't you see my mind is all right? Can’t you see that I understand you?” There were moments in those early days when 1 was afraid that perhaps no one would ever realize that I was sane, that I would spend the rest of my life being treated as an idiot. From this I came to realize something: Communication is everything in this world. Without it., we would all go mad.
I should point out that at no time during my illness was I in any serious pain, even though I had normal sensation throughout my body. But I was often extremely uncomfortable, a result of being unable to change my position in bed. Partly to ease my discomfort and partly to prevent bedsores and promote circulation, I was turned every hour. I came to look forward to being turned, the way a small boy looks forward to Christmas.
When you're in hospital, Hat on your back, for a long time, small changes in routine can become events of great importance. There was the electroencephalograph test, for example, usually referred to simply as an EEC. It's quite complicated and I don’t pretend to understand it completely; it’s used to detect and measure areas of damage to the brain by evaluating the tiny electrical vibrations the brain gives off. At any rate, it provided an exciting—relatively speaking—break in the monotony. My head was shaved in seventeen places and electrodes were glued to the skin. Tiny wires led from the electrodes to an electrical computer, which relays the information to a stylograph mounted over a revolving sheet of paper. 1 was put into a lead-lined cubicle and a blindingly bright light was suspended over my eyes.
A voice over a microphone commanded, "Close your eyes. Keep them closed until you're told to open them." I did as I was instructed, opening and closing my eyes while the light Hashed on and
off in varying sequences. When I was wheeled back to my room, it was with something new to occupy my mind.
Then there was my bath. The Neurological Institute has a crane to assist paralytics in and out of the bath. To keep me from drowning, they corked off the tracheotomy tube in my throat, then wheeled me into the special bathroom. I was rolled into a sling, hooked to the crane, hoisted out of bed, and lowered into the bathtub. After being thoroughly laundered, I was returned to bed via the aerial route. So smoothly
was the operation carried out that I was asked to repeat the performance later the same day for the benefit of a group of visiting American nurses. I obliged— my first taste of showbusiness.
By now I had a rough idea of the nature of my illness. As far as the doctors could learn, 1 had a congenital aneurysm in the basilar artery near the brain—that is. there was a weak spot in the wall of the artery not unlike a blister on an inner tube. When the aneurysm gave way that Sunday morning, it released a Hood of blood that tore away
brain tissue, destroying nerve connections and short-circuiting the communication system between the brain and the various muscles. Fortunately for me, the cerebral cortex — the thinking part of the brain — escaped. Strokes, as everyone knows, are not uncommon among older people, but occur rarely in people my age.
In March 1959 I was judged to be out of danger. I had learned to nod my head and move the fingers of my left hand a little. Sometimes I had trouble untangling my little finger. It used to
infuriate me. I was emotionally upset at times and had not yet accepted my state of helplessness. I kept thinking: what a terrible waste of precious time. I was haunted by thoughts of what I could be doing if I were outside.
But I made progress. On February 27, 1960, a year after I had entered hospital, I ate my lunch by myself — a painful business that took close to three quarters of an hour and involved a good deal of spilling. A week later I managed to hold and drink a cup of tea, a thrilling accomplishment.
I was moved out of my single room into the Sir Herbert Holt Ward with twelve other patients and a television set. It was wonderful how they tried to encourage me. Most were walking patients and every time they passed my bed they offered a word of encouragement. One of my wardmates was a man named Pigeon, who had been paralyzed by a car accident. “You’ll be on your feet again soon,” he told me one day — wonderful words coming from a man who had gone through so much. It was important to me to know that someone else had endured what I was going through, that he understood.
Hockey on TV wore me out
Until now my only visitors had been my wife and my sister, Maxine, who came down from Ottawa whenever she could get away and read to me. In the Sir Herbert Holt Ward I was allowed as many visitors as I wished within reason. What a difference their presence made to my morale! I made up my mind I would beat this terrible thing. I asked God to stay by my side; I would need courage and perseverance in the days ahead.
One night I was given permission to watch the National Hockey League playoffs on television. I could stand it for only twenty minutes. The excitement exhausted me.
I had survived the crucial stage and my condition called for therapy. For this I was transferred to a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, the Queen Mary in Montreal. Just being among other veterans — even if I couldn’t talk to them — and hearing them exchange war stories gave me a comfortable feeling. But the worst wasn’t over yet. In fact, my three-month stay at the Queen
Mary was the most hellish period of my whole illness.
Realizing how much I missed my children and New Brunswick, Jessie Ann got in touch with the ©VA authorities and arranged for a transfer to the ©VA hospital at Lancaster, N.B., a suburb of Saint John. July 14 was j§y raoying day. I was hoisted through a window into the railway coach and we were on our way. As we crossed the St. Lawrence over Victoria Bridge, dusk was settling over the landscape. How marvelous it all seemed after so many endless hours spent staring at blank hospital walls! The next morning we were hooting our way through the New Brunswick countryside. The train crossed over the Reversing Falls bridge and I caught a glimpse of the building that was going to be my new home. It looked beautiful. A lump formed in my throat. I was still alive and I was going home. I wanted to cry. I knew the worst part of my ordeal was over.
With the help of a Canadian Legion representative at Lancaster, Jessie Ann found a modest apartment in Saint John where she moved with the children. For the first time since that dreadful Sunday morning I felt together with my family. Now she could visit me three times a week. On Sunday afternoons she brings the three boys — Philip, who’s ten, Michael, seven, and Max, three.
The boys, of course, are full of questions about my illness. The first thing Philip wanted to know was, “Why did God do that to Daddy?” To which my wife answered as best she could: “God could have taken Daddy away, but he didn’t so we’re very lucky.” That’s my reaction, too. God chose to spare me. He had a purpose. I must fulfill that purpose.
I suppose the most wonderful day of my life was the first time I was allowed to go home. Jessie Ann had shown me the floor plan and described the apartment down to the last detail. But it was infinitely nicer than I’d ever dreamed it would be. Just having shoes put on my feet was a thrill. Last Easter I spent six hours on a reclining chair at home celebrating my fortieth birthday while Philip celebrated his tenth. I was happy beyond description. The kids tried so hard to keep me amused — and I must have seemed so different from the father they used to know.
Back in hospital I settled down to work in earnest. From here on, I knew, it was up to me—me and my physio teachers. Between us we had to re-educate the muscles that had atrophied through diisuse. My program was—and is—a rigorous one. Three mornings a week my hands are bathed in warm wax, a sort of heat treatment. After the bath I do arm exercises with wall pulleys. Every afternoon I am given leg exercises on a .special table with an overhead frame and crossbars; while the therapist works on the resuscitation of my leg muscles, my arms and hands are given limbering exercises. This is followed by a standing period—I am strapped against a vertical hoard, tilted backward slightly, for an hour. Usually I play checkers or chess at the same time.
My speech therapy is something else again. Try as I do, I’m still self-conscious about the way I talk. Every afternoon my speech therapist works with me. It’s the explosive consonants like P that bother me most. I just can’t get my tongue around them. The number of times I’ve tried to recite Peter, Peter, Pumpkin-Eater I can’t count. And I have trouble with F sounds, too. Because of a lack of diaphragm control, I talk better lying down than sitting up.
But, gradually, everything is coming, la’s slow, painfully slow. I tell my children it’s like a tree—it grows so slowly you can’t see it, but it does grow. I plan little surprises for Jessie. One day I waited until she was in the room, then reached up a hand to turn on the light. More recently I managed to stand by myself without the retaining straps for almost ten minutes—a major triumph. When I arrived at Lancaster my fingers were almost rigid. Now I can clench my left fist and my therapist can close my right one. The doctors say that once I get back control of my right hand nothing can stop my progress.
Despite the fact that the right side of my face is paralyzed, I usually look untlatteringly normal. But 1 have trouble smiling. To acknowledge something only mildly amusing, I have to laugh—which probably leads some people to think I’m out of my mind. It does make me a good audience for my wardmates' jokes, though.
Trying to talk for long periods tires me, and it’s probably pretty hard on the listener as well. Realizing how desperately I wanted to communicate, my wife bought me an alphabet card a few days after my arrival at Lancaster. It turned out to be a blessing. At that lime I could scarcely speak. By using a pointer to spell out words on the card, I could express myself clearly for the first time since my stroke. No one who hasn’t experienced a loss of all communicative faculties can understand what a relief this was.
For recreation and as part of my therapy, I weave wool doilies and scarves and other items—not a very manly occupation, perhaps, but excellent for my hands. I have learned to use a typewriter — the Occupational Therapy Department lent me a portable — and I spend a great deal of time pecking away with my one good finger, putting down random thoughts and recollections of past experiences. I read voluminously — magazines, books, newspapers, everything. My radio, of course, is a boon companion. I’m becoming quite an expert on world affairs.
My physician, Dr. Richard Lee, says that I will soon be able to go home for a week at a time. Even so, it will probably be a long time before 1 say goodbye to the hospital for good—maybe never. In some ways I’m as healthy now
as I’ve ever been, but I will need therapy for a long time to come if I am to regain the use of my limbs. My first concern when I get home will be to find a way of earning a living. I want independence so badly. I’m looking forward to the time when I can call the DVA people— they’ve paid for all my expenses so far —and tell them I can now support my family and they can take my name off their relief rolls. What would have happened to my family without DVA assistance, I just don’t know.
If my story has any message, it is that .
one must never lose hope, never give way to discourggement. However helpless he may appear, a stroke victim is not an insensitive piece of wood. If anything he is more acutely sensitive than he was when he was normal. He does not want pity; he wants encouragement and understanding. Speak to him as though he were perfectly normal, not in tones used in talking to a five-yearold.
If I spend the rest of my life trying. I’ll never be able to make up the huge debt of gratitude I owe to all the people
who have shhelping me in doctors, orderlie. fives. For instance Lancaster, Oscar M has been one of the t>. worth living after all ti.
And, of course, there's \ wife. What a hell she has In Without her love I don’t think have made it.
And every day I thank God for giving, me the strength to get through my ordeal. I have so much to live for. ★