Second Chance, Second Glance: A Profile on Robert Riley’s Remarkable Recovery and New Perspective after a Stroke
By: Amanda Fowler, Former Marianjoy Patient and Scholarship Winner
On a sunny winter day, in a Marianjoy conference room, Robert Riley, age 53, explains his new lease on life. He is all smiles and enthusiasm, the picture of good health—you’d never guess that less than two years ago, he suffered a massive stroke.
At age 51, Robert had a busy life, juggling a demanding job with spending time with his daughter. He had worked as a general manager for a national car rental firm at an airport for thirty years, managing 1900 cars in the fleet and 80 employees. He had to travel to Philadelphia from Chicago so often that he bought a second home there, flying back and forth every Friday and Monday. “I was one of those people who didn’t take off a lot. I never missed a flight,” he says. Having little time to cook or exercise, he was a self-proclaimed “fast-food junkie.” “I drove everywhere, even to the corner store,” he adds. At the time, though, he didn’t consider his lifestyle stressful. He also had a high blood pressure in general, in addition to a family history of stroke.
March 28, 2010, started as a normal Sunday morning for Robert with attending church. When he got home, though, he wasn’t feeling well, and he stumbled and fell. Still, he wasn’t alarmed, and continued his day as usual. Later in the evening, he and his six-year-old daughter, Laila, fell asleep on the couch. Around 2:00 AM, he awoke and discovered he could not lift his left arm or leg. Feeling he would be sick, he made his way to the bathroom, but passed out on the floor. Laila tugged at him, trying to wake him, and eventually succeeded. Robert decided to drive himself and Laila to the nearest hospital.
“While driving, my left hand slid off the wheel. I realized I was having a stroke,” he says. Once Robert and Laila arrived at the hospital parking lot, someone saw him struggling and helped him inside. Robert was in and out of consciousness in the hours that followed, and his memory of his time in the acute care clinic is foggy—not at all uncommon for victims of stroke or brain injury. Meanwhile, the hospital administered several medications and ran a battery of tests, confirming by the next morning that Robert had indeed had a stroke.
“My first thought when I woke up was, ‘God, if you give me a chance and get me through this, I promise I’ll get it right this time,’” Robert says. He hoped (and expected) he’d be in and out of intensive care quickly, but he actually had to stay for five days. He describes his left side as having felt tingly and unable to move. At one point, he got out of bed to go to the bathroom, and he fell. “I had nothing left,” he says. In addition to physical weakness, Robert had some cognitive challenges, too. An hour later, he was told he’d had multiple strokes. “I remember thinking, ‘How could I have a stroke? I’m too young,’” he says.
His next step was rehabilitation, and the hospital staff mentioned Marianjoy. He hadn’t heard of it before, but he remembers reading about it on the internet. “Everything I read was good! I kind of got excited the more I read about it,” he says. He talked to his friend, Tony, too, who had also suffered a stroke and thus understood what Robert was facing. Doing some research of his own, Tony’s investigation reflected Robert’s. “Seemed like everybody knew somebody who had been to Marianjoy,” says Robert. He remembers Tony’s advice: “You’re going to a good place. Listen to them, do what they tell you. You’ll be okay. You’ll beat this.”
Robert arrived very late at night at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital. Despite the hour, he immediately felt welcome and peaceful. He recalls: “The first words from one of the staff when I arrived were, ‘Hi Robert. We’ve been waiting for you!’” As a manager himself, one of the first things he noticed was an award on the second floor nurses’ station for customer service. “That’s what I would strive for with my employees when I was a manager,” he says. “You can really see it at Marianjoy. From the housekeeping staff to the physicians, everyone takes the time to greet you and say hello. That says a lot.”
Despite the peace and comfort Robert felt at Marianjoy, he was eager to get home. The doctors “told me I’d be here about thirty days. I said, ‘No, I gotta be at work on Monday!’” he says, laughing. Robert, his doctors, and his therapists focused hard on his recovery. Although he no longer had cognitive challenges, he received speech therapy to help with his difficulty swallowing (he was on a liquid diet for awhile). He also received physical and occupational therapies. “Everyone was really cautious,” he says. “For example, because every person is different, they didn’t come right out and say I’d never walk again…and they also never said I wouldn’t. I think they handled it well.” His therapists asked him what he liked to do, and he told them he really enjoyed country line-dancing. They added that to a list of goals for Robert to reach with his therapy. “I felt like I had everything on my side—everyone wanting to help me,” Robert says. “I felt like all I had to do was commit to it.”
However, recovery didn’t come easily. “The first day was my hardest,” he recalls. His occupational therapist asked him to roll something with his arm, and when he could not, he grew very discouraged. “I wondered if I’d be in that wheelchair forever,” he says, clearly reflecting on a dark moment. “I thought my life was over.” Fortunately, he had a good support system with his friends: many sent him encouraging messages, and Tony called him with a pep talk. Also, his daughter was a constant source of motivation: “She was only six at the time, and she was so concerned. I accepted the fact that my leg might not be 100%, but I wanted to learn everything I could. I would look at her picture and say, ‘I’m going to beat this. I’m going to push today to get better for her.’” He says that when she would visit him in the hospital, he encouraged her to sit in his wheelchair, so that she would be familiar with it, not afraid of it. His therapist taught him techniques on how to maneuver it, and he became good at it. He also learned how to use tools with his wheelchair in the Daily Living Apartment , something he says was extremely helpful to adjusting to life in his new condition. (The Daily Living Apartment is a mock-apartment in Marianjoy where therapists teach patients how to perform necessary living tasks with accommodations/new techniques.) He says his being able to control the wheelchair himself gave him a big sense of independence.
Another source of support for Robert in his recovery was his faith. “Faith is instrumental,” he says. “I’ve always prayed, so I didn’t feel like I was just asking for a favor. Quite naturally, when everything went on, I felt like ‘this is going to fit in. I’m going to thank God for me being here.’”
Eventually, Robert’s thirty days of inpatient therapy came to an end. Although his left leg still had not recovered fully, he was able to maneuver with a walker, which he used at home, along with a plastic leg brace. His swallowing challenges were resolved, and he had developed other skills, too. “One of the biggest things I got out of Marianjoy was an easy way to open my pills,” he says. “I was struggling with it. It was all those little things that really helped.” He also appreciated the comprehensive post-inpatient plan: “That was something else about Marianjoy,” he says, with admiration. “They wanted to know my conditions at home.” His outpatient therapist recommended getting an E-stim at home. (An E-stim is a rehabilitative device that stimulates muscle contractions by sending electrical currents through electrodes placed on the skin.) The apartment complex where he was living at the time, Brittany Springs, actually was well-equipped for Robert’s recovery. The landlord told Robert not to worry, that they’d be happy to install a lift for him—and they even had a gym. “I felt like I was in the right place at the right time,” he says. “I would just sit on the bike and ride it for hours.” At first, he just pushed a little bit with his leg, and every day, he made more and more progress. He also regained almost full control of his left arm.
At the beginning of June, Robert was discharged from occupational therapy but still continued to exercise on his own. Two to three days after discharge, he felt much stronger. Soon after, when he got up off of the couch, his left leg moved like it did pre-stroke. He was elated, especially when it happened again, and he called his doctor, who advised him to keep using it, but to be careful and use a walker. “I thought, ‘Lord, if you help me walk again, I will give back,’” he says. By the end of June, he had full use of his leg back.
Robert went back to work part-time in July, easing himself back up to full-time. However, it just didn’t feel the same as it did before. He realized the big house he had worked so hard for felt empty, and although he appreciated the people in his company, his job just didn’t feel right. His company offered some people a buy-out, and he took it. “Now, everything is in perspective,” he says, with the authority of hard-earned wisdom. “You have to put your health first. It’s hard to walk away after thirty years. But when you’re this passionate about something, it’s ok.” He stopped working the first week of April 2011, took a little time to travel, and has volunteered at Marianjoy every week since then.
Robert is making the most of his volunteering experience—and loving it. “I feel like this is where I should be,” he says. He works with patients staying on the same level he was on, transporting them to and from therapy and chatting about their shared experiences. He also volunteers in guest services and enjoys the opportunity to talk with patients, their families, and therapists. He said that he learned from his own doctors and therapists how to be cautious and encourage patients in the right way. One of his favorite experiences in volunteering is when a patient approached him and showed him she could take a few steps with her walker. “She told me I’d encouraged her,” he says, beaming. “I walked right up to her and gave her a big hug. That’s what I want to be a part of!”
It seems Robert’s persistence has truly paid off. He says he’s recovered 99 percent, and that his only limitation is that his left leg gets a little tired sometimes, especially on stairs. His medications also make him tired sometimes. He doesn’t fret it, though—instead, “I thank God for every day,” he says. “It really did change my life.”
“If there is one thing I learned from my entire experience, it would be patience,” he says. “I lived in the corporate world of rushing to and from work, running through airport terminals to catch flights, and working as hard as I could, as much as I could. In the corporate world, you are surrounded by concrete plans for the future and deadlines that must be met. But here’s the reality: When you have a stroke and you’re sitting in a wheelchair wondering if you’ll ever walk again, there is no deadline for when that will happen. It takes time. It takes perseverance and faith. And it takes patience.”