Proving ‘There is Life after Stroke’

By Dagney C. Ernest | Nov 25, 2015
Photo by: Dagney C. Ernest Belfast’s Penny Robbins, seated, and her cousin Gayle Staples stand by some of Robbins’ colorful artworks in Camden Public Library’s Picker Room.

Camden — Imagine your brain is a big box filled with marbles, every one playing a distinct part in the moment-to-moment melding of past, present and future that is human life. Then imagine someone tossing that box into the air, its lid flying open and those marbles, each with its discreet, mysterious skill set, flying out at random …

“… and you have to work with what’s left,” said Shirley Cline, who coordinates the Midcoast Stroke Support Group.

The group meets the first Wednesday of every month from 10 a.m. to noon in the upstairs Walsh History Center of the Camden Public Library. Its membership includes loved ones caring for someone with a brain injury, such as Cline; and survivors of stroke and other such brain-changers. They welcome attendees from throughout the Midcoast; in recent months, folks from Belfast to Bristol have met around the big table to share strategies, information and support.

While Cline, of Spruce Head, whose husband is recovering from his second stroke in as many years, likens brain trauma aftermath to gathering scattered marbles, survivor Carol Rohl of Warren and Camden thinks of it as the daily practice of re-assembling a jigsaw puzzle. In her poem exploring that metaphor, she writes that all the pieces are turned over white and

“As the days go by, faded colors rise

To the surface of some pieces, one by one.”

Rohl’s poetry, Ralph Cline Jr.’s woodworking and many other forms of artistic expression are featured in “There is Life after Stroke,” the November exhibit in the library’s downstairs Picker Room. The Midcoast Stroke Support Group is the library’s Artist of the Month and, despite all the challenges each member negotiates every day, organized and mounted the show on its own.

The idea was sparked a year and a half ago when Rohl and husband Gordon Bok were on a concert tour in Oregon. Bok, a well-known singer/songwriter/instrumentalist, composer and wellspring of maritime and other traditional music traditions; and Rohl, a folk musician in her own right, performed together before her stroke some 11 years ago and still do.

While on the West Coast, the couple went to visit a friend in a care facility and saw a show of art by the patients. Rohl remembered there had been art on the walls at New England Rehab in Portland when she was doing her initial therapy there, and reflected on how many of the Midcoast Stroke Support Group members produced creative works in various forms outside the therapeutic context.

“We asked [library Program Director] Ken [Gross] about it last year. The library plans the art shows way in advance, but November seems like the perfect month, because of Thanksgiving,” Rohl said.

Survivor Penny Robbins, who lives at Tall Pines in Belfast, is thankful for the outlet painting has become for her — and it came as a surprise to her and those she knows, because she had not done it before her series of strokes.

“It’s my reason for getting up every day; I have to be doing something,” she said.

Robbins, like Cline’s husband and many other survivors, was a busy, hard-working person before her brain injury. The Northport/Searsport native worked for a number of years in group homes for handicapped folk, becoming a supervisor.

“A lot of us were in the helping professions,” said Rohl, who played her Celtic harp in hospice settings. “We’ve been on the other side of this fence.”

It’s hard for helpers to ask for help, she added. And that applies to those caring for loved ones with brain injuries, as well. Attendance at the Midcoast Stroke Support Group is often equal between survivors and caregivers.

“People’s lives change,” said Dick Warren, whose friend Anne Cronin was an active artist before her brain injury. He mentioned putting up a poster for the art show in the Belfast post office and ending up in a conversation with someone he’d known a long time — neither man knew the other was supporting a brain injury survivor.

“He didn’t know about our situation and I didn’t know that about him,” Warren said. “So many people are affected.”

Discussion at this month’s meeting ranged from refreshment details of the show’s Nov. 8 reception to resources for caregiver respite to welcoming a first-time attendee. “Camden boy” Jamie Clark’s mother came to find out about the group and “get plugged in.” Clark was in a motorcycle accident three years ago and sustained a brain injury not as outwardly apparent as some of the survivors in the group have. He has aphasia, a brain injury language disorder that does not necessarily affect comprehension.

“He’s fine from the neck down and really seems to be Jamie on the inside. He’d like to come back to this area,” she said.

Although the “official” word is that survivors of brain injuries don’t make any gains after the first six months, all at the table agreed with Bok that “it’s bull!” Praise for the work therapists do with survivors at rehab centers was as unanimous as the shared agreement about how exhausting that work can be. Bok was so inspired watching Rohl work with her therapists at New England Rehab that he documented it in a couple of wood carvings. “Learning to Walk Again,” which is in the art show, has been turned into a bronze casting that hangs at the rehabilitation hospital.

“Your will is strong, but it’s exhausting. … Ralph can’t wait to be home and left alone,” said Cline.

Even after the initial, aggressive rehab period has ended, survivors find their energy stores limited. Rohl likens each day’s allotment to a handful of coins, a metaphor introduced by her late brother-in-law. Fellow folk musician and one-time tour mate Penny Davies wrote a poem about Rohl’s experience titled “Quarters,” which Bok has turned into a song that can be heard on his website.

Caregivers get exhausted, too. Warren spoke about the services for Alzheimer’s caregivers he was able to access while in another state, although that was not the challenge he faced. And he marveled at the paintings Cronin has been producing. Unlike Robbins, she is still able to use her dominant hand, albeit a different way than before her stroke.

“They are side by side in the show. It’s remarkable to me that you can’t identify the pre-and post-stroke paintings,” he said.

Robbins’ work, like Rohl’s poetry, is all post-stroke. Her paintings have been praised for their spatial design and exuberant use of color.

"Penny is inspiring to me; she's proof it can be done," said Rohl.

Also helping fill the walls of the Picker Room are colorful quilts by Pat Aho, who also paints; and a collage and architectural drawings by Robert Davis. Sculpture, music, poetry, works on paper and textiles — the show is lively and engaging.

“What brings us joy is what gets us through the day,” said Rohl.

When Ralph Cline Jr. had his first stroke, it was hard to imagine how he could get back to what he had been doing since he was a child — making things out of wood. He and Shirley have a small manual mill, producing everything from furniture to building sills.

“He’s used to hopping onto the tractor, operating machines, grading wood,” Shirley said.

The days of sill work are over, she said, but the couple came up with a way to do smaller projects together. The brain injury has affected Ralph’s eyesight and Shirley’s hearing is somewhat compromised, but they found if they stood close together — one right behind the other, hands in the other’s pockets, switching positions as necessary — they could accomplish such projects as making stake pockets for logging trucks.

“He was more careful than he would have been, for my sake. We did a few small projects and he was able to rethink how to do some things,” she said. “These little victories are what we celebrate.”

The group, which can swell to as many as 30 during the summer months, is always looking forward to more people joining; for more information on the Midcoast Stroke Support Group, listed with Maine’s chapter of the Brain Injury Association of America, call Rohl at 273-2090. The next meeting of the Midcoast Stroke Support Group is Wednesday, Dec. 2.

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