Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Feb. 6, 2009

One day at a time

When we entered the house, playing cards were stacked on the kitchen table, next to a jar of instant coffee, salt and pepper shakers and a small pair of scissors. A grocery list lay on the kitchen counter - popcorn, graham crax, Stollen, Palermo pizza (5 for $8.88), bananas, lettuce, bread, toilet paper, ginger snaps - next to a family member's obituary, Green Bay Packer statistics and a pile of crossword puzzles, all clipped from the Appleton (Wisconsin) Post-Crescent. The last crossword was dated "Jan. 10, 2009" at the top in Donna's handwriting. In the living room, the TV listings were folded to the Jan. 12 page.

Everything seemed almost normal.

We had celebrated the holidays with husband Art's mother Donna and returned to Kansas on Jan. 5. During our stay, 98-year-old Donna was as vibrant as ever, issuing orders about where she wanted us to hang new pictures, gabbing and laughing with family members, filling in details to old family stories and marveling at how real football games seemed on her new flat-screen TV.

Eight days later, Art's brother Tommy called to tell us that Donna had suffered a major stroke. And a couple of days after that, we were back on the road to Wisconsin.

I don't recall if I had ever been in Donna's home when she wasn't there. It seemed so quiet. But even though we had driven for 12 hours, we just dropped our things off and headed for the hospital.

We had been told Donna couldn't move her right leg or arm and that she couldn't communicate. Yet within minutes of our arrival, she acknowledged that she knew who we were and she reacted to our cold hands by gripping them tightly and saying, "Cold!" Before we left that first night, Donna had brought her right leg up to her knee and straightened it back out again, and there was a slight movement in her right wrist. "Butch" - her pet name for Art since he was a baby - came out "Book," but we knew what she meant.

Afraid she couldn't properly swallow, hospital staff reduced all foods to the consistency of honey. The next day, a nurse's aide gave Donna pureed French toast. She made a face and stuck out her tongue. Cream of Wheat elicited a "blah." She has never been one to like anything even slightly resembling "gruel," as Art delicately describes it, so I don't know why she would now.

Art suggested vanilla ice cream - her favorite food of all time. She said, "yes." After it was placed in her mouth, she said, "yum!"

Tommy didn't find Donna until about nine hours after the stroke. Donna could pronounce the words "terrible" and "horrible" perfectly to describe how it was to be alone so long. Other words weren't perfect, but were understandable. "I want something to drib (drink.) I'm thirstry" or "I want dry. I want dry." All meant she was thirsty. But some words sounded like gibberish.

Donna seemed to enjoy people who visited, but she got the most animated when Art was talking to our daughters on his cell phone. When youngest daughter Katie said "hi" to her grandmother, Donna said, "Hi, honey, how are you, oh sweetheart, goodbye." When Mariya talked, Donna said, "Hello, my little darling, I'm all mixed up, oh, oh, oh, you're sweet, good, gotta go, bye, bye, bye."

Each day we visited brought something different. Some days, Donna was quite perky and seemed to make progress. Others, she was lethargic and unresponsive. It was an emotional roller-coaster for her and all of us. But it was also a learning experience.

A rehabilitation specialist came by the hospital one evening and explained what typically happens with stroke victims. He said first the leg, then the arm, then the speech come back - sort of similar to how a toddler's brain works. He talked about Donna's speech/comprehension problems and how those take longer to resolve and may not come back totally. He also discussed a condition called "homonymous hemianopsia," where a person sees only one-half the normal field of vision. In Donna's case, the effect is like covering the right half of both eyes. To illustrate, he put the words "close your eyes" on the dry-erase board in the hospital room and said that to a person affected with this condition, the words look like "clo you yes."

He said he thought Donna was making remarkable progress, adding that it typically takes three to six months to recover from a stroke and the earlier the person makes progress, the better the chances of recovery.

Two days later, we got Donna comfortably settled into a nursing home - one of the nicest I've ever seen. The atmosphere was homey, warm and interesting - not like so many homes that seem institutional, cold and boring. On her first day, the staff had Donna dressed from head to toe and wheeled her into the cozy dining room for meals. We took Donna on a "tour" of the facilities - past the fountain, the aviary filled with finches, the beautiful artwork on the walls. She seemed interested.

Since we returned home, Tommy has reported he's taken Donna on several tours of the home, she's been given the green light to eat regular foods and she's beginning to use sentences.

We are cautiously optimistic, but also realistic. After all, Donna is 98. We have no idea how far she'll come back, but she has always been feisty, strong, stubborn and independent. She will do this her way, but we're all on this ride together - taking it one day at a time.

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