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Stroke: Pedro regained a life!

May 18, 2010


Back in the 1960’s Pedro, a 65-year-old widower, had a stroke that paralysed his face and half of his body and left him unable to speak. His family was told that their father had no hope of recovery and would have to go into an institution. After a  4 week rehab he was still helpless and needed to be lifted on and off the lavatory and showered. ‘Fortunately, he was a little man, 118 lb, and we could manage him,’ George his son, says..

George knew nothing about rehabilitation, and his ignorance turned out to be a godsend, because he succeeded by breaking all its rules. ‘I decided that instead of teaching my father to walk, I was going to teach him first to crawl. We got knee-pads for him. At first we held him on all fours, but his arms and legs didn’t hold him very well, so it was a struggle.’  Supporting  himself somewhat, George got him to crawl with his weak shoulder and arm supported by a wall. ‘That crawling beside the wall went on for months. The only model I had was how babies learn. So we played games on the floor, with me rolling marbles and him having to catch them. Everything we tried involved turning normal life experiences into exercises”

Washing up, crawling, standing then walking

“We turned washing up into an exercise. He’d hold a pot with his good hand and make his weak hand – it had little control and made jerking movements – go round and round, 15 minutes clockwise, 15 minutes anticlockwise.’ The circumference of the pot kept his hand contained. The regime took many hours every day, but gradually Pedro went from crawling to moving on his knees, to standing, to walking. Speech slowly came back.

Complete recovery and RE-ORGANISATION OF THE BRAIN

At the end of a year his recovery was complete enough for Pedro to start full-time teaching again at City College in New York, working there until he retired at 70. Then he got another teaching job at San Francisco State, remarried, and kept working, hiking and traveling. He was active for seven more years after his stroke. On a visit to friends in Bogotá, Colombia, he went climbing high in the mountains. At 9,000 feet he had a heart attack and died shortly after. He was 72.

In those days, before brain scans, post-mortems were routine because they were one way doctors could learn about brain diseases. Ninety-seven per cent of the nerves that ran from Pedro’s cerebral cortex to the spine had been destroyed by his stroke – catastrophic damage that had caused his paralysis. Pedro’s other son, Paul, now a surgeon knew that meant that somehow his brain had totally re-organised itself with the work his father had done with his brother  George.

A career change was born for Paul. He turned his attention to treating strokes, focusing on late rehabilitation, helping people overcome major neurological problems years after they had begun, and developing computer video games to train stroke patients to move their arms again.

George was a doctor. This is the story of the Bach-y-Rita family in the 1960’s as recounted in “The Brain that Changes Itself”, by Norman Doidge. A great read….

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