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Lessons Learned from a Teacher

Michelle Pelc is a 41 year old first grade teacher who had suffered from a seizure disorder, possibly due to a thyroid condition. On the weekend of Easter 2009, Michelle was staying at her parents home when in the middle of the night, she fell out of bed. At first she thought that maybe she was having another seizure, but her left arm, hand, and leg were numb.  The left side of her mouth also drooped a bit. Two days later, tests at the acute care hospital where she had been taken confirmed that she had suffered a stroke.

Michelle was diagnosed with having Antiphospholipid Syndrome, a disorder which causes the blood to clot faster than it should. This was most likely the cause of the stroke.

After five weeks at the acute care hospital, Michelle was transferred to Marianjoy. "I had heard good things about Marianjoy from people I knew who had been patients there,” Michelle explained recently. “When I arrived, I was in a wheelchair, unable to walk. My left arm and hand were also paralyzed and I couldn’t grip with my hand, which was really difficult because I’m left-handed. But my goal upon arriving was that I wanted to walk again.”

Michelle began a regimen of physical, occupational, and speech therapy. The first time Michelle’s therapist suggested standing her up with assistance, Michelle was terrified. “They had placed a boot on my leg to help stabilize it,” she says. “I had two therapists working with me and one was a fairly good size male. I felt more confident having him there knowing that if I started to fall, he could catch me. It was the first time I had stood since my stroke.”

Michelle’s progress began by first using a walker and eventually graduating to a four-prong cane. Michelle also had to relearn performing everyday activities including brushing her teeth, combing her hair, and getting dressed. This was especially difficult as she had to learn to use her non-dominant right hand to perform these tasks.

“My occupational therapist showed me how to maneuver through my morning routine in order to be independent,” she explains. “It was difficult at first but she gently pushed me, encouraging me along the way. She showed me how to use specific tools to accomplish these goals and soon I was able to do it on my own. We also worked on tasks that I would encounter around the house—cooking, laundry, lifting items. All things you take for granted.”

Though Michelle’s speech and cognitive abilities were only mildly affected, she exhibited some problems with executive functioning, including planning, organizing, and problem-solving. Since Michelle’s goal was to return to teaching, her speech therapist incorporated actual classrooms situations into her therapy sessions. Together they designed a hypothetical class of students in which Michelle would practice putting together lesson plans, grading papers, and tracking and averaging grades. These sessions helped Michelle work on her comprehension and word retrieval, while improving her visual perception, scanning, and concentration.

In July 2009, after eight weeks of inpatient therapy, Michelle was discharged home. She was still weak but able to walk with a cane. She would eventually begin outpatient therapy where she worked to further improve the strength in her left side.

Today, Michelle’s effort and patience have led to amazing progress. She exercises six days a week, works with a fitness trainer, and is starting to use the cane less. She has found that her left arm and hand are improving significantly. Her goal is to return to the classroom in the fall of 2010. “It has been quite an experience,” confirms Michelle. “I made many friends at Marianjoy while I was there–both the staff as well as other patients. Everyone was really wonderful. Their attitudes are positive and very encouraging. They knew just when to push and how hard to do so without being aggressive in their approach.

“You could tell the therapists enjoyed their work,” continues Michelle. “They also looked to find ways to make my therapy meaningful to my everyday life situation—like in the classroom. As I was going through my therapy I felt my progress was moving so slowly. My therapists told me just to give myself time to recover. I started to feel the word ‘time’ was a negative word! But I know now that they were right. A year later I am stronger and can see the progress and improvement. I am really looking forward to returning to teaching.”