KPCC Radio Interview

Support Groups Help Stroke Survivors with Recovery Process

Susan Valot -August 27, 2008

Every 45 seconds, someone in the United States experiences a stroke. Most victims survive, but recovery can be tough. That's why some stroke survivors rely on support groups. In the second part of her series on stroke recovery, KPCC's Susan Valot visited a support group at UCLA.

Susan Valot: A giant wooden table fills a conference room at the university's Semel Institute. People filter in on a Tuesday afternoon. They're stroke survivors. Some are in wheelchairs, but others show no obvious signs that they've had a stroke. Reams Freedman of the Stroke Association of Southern California leads the group.

Reams Freedman: Welcome. Person: Hi.

Freedman: Please come in.

Valot: Freedman is a licensed family therapist. He's 66, but was 10 years younger when he suffered a severe stroke of his own. Freedman says stroke hits you from all directions – physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Freedman: There are many effects that a person or a family doesn't discover until sometime after the event. What we're trying to do here is give people information they need up front, sooner, rather than later.

Valot: Freedman says sometimes, stroke survivors feel abandoned by the system, as they transition from being cared for in a hospital or rehab center, to taking charge of their own recovery. It can be an abrupt transition. For weeks, you're surrounded by a team of doctors and nurses... and then suddenly, you're home, alone.

Freedman: A medical model can only do so much. There's a point six months down the line in which recovery occurs more in a social or community model, in which individuals look at: what can I do for myself? What can we do together? What information do others have? What experience do others have that can help?

Valot: Sheila Braslau of Santa Monica provides some of that experience at the UCLA stroke recovery group. She suffered her stroke 12 years ago. She's 73 now... a stroke survivor, she says, not a victim. But Braslau says recovery is frustrating.

Sheila Braslau: It's so damn slow. And I thought, when I had the big stroke, I thought, oh, this one will take a year or two to get rid of. And now I know that I'll die with the stroke, but not of the stroke.

Valot: Braslau says there's comfort in the camaraderie of the support group. The group understands the changes in emotion after a stroke, and the struggles to keep your old friends who may not know how to treat you.

Braslau: There are some people who make progress immediately. But they all want to help the other person, because they've been there and done that, and that's what we have in common.

Valot: In the middle of the support group meeting, a man wheels a younger woman into the room. She suffered a stroke very recently. She doesn't say much. Every once in awhile, she breaks down into quiet sobs. Freedman tries to comfort her.

Freedman: Right now, it may be hard to feel hopeful, but you're going to have a chance to meet other people in this room who've been where you are, and I hope that's helpful for you. Would anybody share with...?

Valot: From across the room, Lenny Hess, an 88-year-old survivor, jumps in with encouragement.

Lenny Hess: And I want to tell you the people in this room all have the same story to tell you. Don't, don't worry. You're going to be fine.

Woman: OK.

Hess: You're going to be strong, and you're going to live with us and be happy with us. And you're going to help us. Each of us will help you, and you have to help us.

Valot: Stroke survivor, and group leader, Reams Freedman says his stroke had a silver lining... once he got past feeling like his life was over.

Freedman: I'm closer to being the person I always wanted to be today than I was before the stroke, but it took some processing to get to that point.

Valot: And Freedman hopes support groups like the Tuesday afternoon group he leads at UCLA will help others reach that point, too.

Freedman: OK, we're down to the end. Thank you all.


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