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Battling Stroke With Humor (and Therapy)
By: MossRehab Admin
Sep 13 2015

(Living Beyond Disabilities - March 2014) - When Shirley Shackelford lost the use of her left arm following a stroke, her immediate thought was that she would somehow fix the situation on her own.

“When you are raised on a farm, if you can’t fix it  - it doesn’t get fixed,” she says. “And so you always have to have the attitude that you can fix something.”

But, in July 2012, recovering in a hospital in Atlantic City following two strokes (one that hit while she was swimming in the ocean with her grandchildren, an even more serious one a week later), she began to realize she had met a tough adversary.

“I was in disbelief,” she says. “I literally could not believe that this was happening to me. I came upon the stroke and I realized that no matter how hard I tried to figure it out I couldn’t figure out how to make my left arm move.”

A month after the stroke, Shackelford was admitted to an inpatient unit at MossRehab in Elkins Park, Pa. Among other effects of the stroke, she had no movement in her left arm and was battling a speech impediment that made it difficult for her to modulate the tone of her voice.

“Having been a child who went through 12 years of speech therapy, I was extremely annoyed by my speech because I always took pride in the fact that I spoke very eloquently and I pronounced [words] perfectly,” she says.

During her inpatient stay, MossRehab provided extensive physical, occupational and speech therapy. Shackelford’s voice improved and her arm function began to return.

“The first time that they got me to move the arm by myself I was so shocked I cried,” she says. “I didn’t believe that it was actually me making it move. I thought it was some magic that they had done.”

While Shackelford made progress, it wasn’t without its frustrations for someone who has pushed herself hard all her life. 

“I used to look at other people who had a stroke and they said that they lost their function on their hand and I could see them using the hand as well as any able-bodied person,” she says. “I would get so jealous of them – that they had gotten that much recovery back because I was not recovering fast enough to please myself.”

Out into the World

After two weeks, Shackelford was released from the inpatient unit, but her therapy continued.

MossRehab occupational therapist Melissa Muller, OTD, OTR/L, who has been working with Shackelford since the fall of 2012, notes that when they began therapy Shackelford had some delayed cognitive function, weakness in her face that affected her smile and her left arm movement was returning, but still needed work. She didn’t seem to feel comfortable yet spending much time away from her home and husband, Muller says.

“Shirley is a pretty upbeat person in general so she never really seems depressed or down, but there is always a level of coping and adaptation when you are dealing with such a huge life change,” Muller says.

Shackelford, who is now 67, had no doubt she would return to work once she pushed through her recovery. A realtor for 32 years, she was concerned about getting back her normal speaking voice as well as function in her left arm. (She’s right-handed.)

“It’s not that I had to get back to work, it’s that I have worked hard all my life,” she says. “When I was four years old I used to be out in the field harvesting food. I can’t imagine not working. I also have so much to give. It’s impossible for me to think I am just going to sit around and not contribute any more.”

Back to Work

A year and a half later, she is back to working 40 hours per week. Her voice has returned to normal and she is using her left arm. She still has difficulty grasping with her left hand, but she and her husband (and business partner) continue to make progress by working on therapy with equipment at home in addition to visits to MossRehab. They recently returned from a cruise through the Panama Canal to Costa Rica, where, among other things, they trekked five kilometers through the jungle to view the native monkeys.

“She has made amazing progress,” says OT Muller. “Instead of looking at her arm not working the way it used to and getting down about it, she’s actually done the opposite. She has said, ‘I’m not going to let that dictate my quality of life and my activity level.’ She always says to me, ‘The only disability is a bad attitude.’”

Shackelford is part of the MossRehab Stroke Comprehensive Outpatient Rehabilitation Program (SCOR), which provides comprehensive rehab therapy for stroke survivors – even years after the onset of the disability.

She is also one of the initial members of the MossRehab Young Empowerment Stroke Support group (YESS), which provides education, support, and socialization to the younger stroke population and their caregivers.

“It’s kind of like an extended family,” she says, “because not everybody has a cheering squad at home.”

“Shirley is our comic relief,” says Muller, who founded the YESS program. “She always has something funny to add to a story that may not be so happy. People end up laughing and having a good time around her. She brings a great presence to the group and people really miss when she doesn’t show up. Stroke is a really hard, frustrating event and everybody needs to laugh sometimes.”

Avoiding the Pity Party

It has been a tough road from the hospital in New Jersey back to her home and work in Abington, Pa., but Shackelford has learned some lessons along the way.

One is to avoid feeling sorry for yourself.

“There is nothing worse than a pity party,” she says. “You don’t get any gratification from the pity party. But you get a lot of gratification from people who say, ‘Look at you. Look at what you are doing. Congratulations.’ That feels really good.”

Another lesson is that people may surprise you. As a realtor, Shackelford was concerned that not being able to drive customers around would hurt business. Instead, she finds customers happy to pick her up at her home and do the driving themselves.

“I was afraid that people were going to find out that I had a stroke and they wouldn’t want to work with me anymore, but I found out just the opposite,” she says.

Lesson three, stay positive.

“This has taught me a lot,"she says. "It has taught me that there are certain things that I can’t fix and I have to learn to accept them and work hard to fix them. But if I can’t, I can’t let that depress me. Nothing is going to depress me.” 

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