An Incredible Brain

About Sharad Tekalkote

Sharad was an extrovert, a voracious reader and outstanding speaker. He has lived life to the fullest, very much adored by many friends and colleagues till the stroke came crashing down. At the "young" age of 44 years, he got a devastating stroke which robbed him of his speech and it rendered his right arm and leg useless. At this point he was thinking of suicide! How could one live through this? But there was one thing which prevented him from thinking of a suicide, that was his son. How could he be a role model with such negative thoughts? Then it gave him new perspective to live his whole life allover again.
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The Stroke

That Thursday morning lacked the usual workday frenzy as my boss was on holiday. He was in Ahmedabad for ‘Navratri’. I left home, at 10 am, and parked my car near Jayadeva Hospital on Bannerghatta Road to board a bus to Whitefield. I got busy on the mobile phone as the bus ride was a long one. I alighted at the Whitefield Convention Centre, to visit the IT Convention and meet a good friend Shaukat, who is Assistant Director of IT in the Andhra Pradesh government.

My boss called me and I spoke to him for half an hour. I decided to go around the stalls when I realized I was suddenly speechless. Not because of the wares on display! It was a helpless kind of speechlessness. The phone kept ringing; my wife Archana’s number kept flashing on the screen and I kept disconnecting her calls. I made my way to the Andhra Pradesh IT kiosk and requested a gentleman there, using gestures, to help me call my wife. He offered me water and urged me to relax. But by now, I was frantic. It was as if words were tripping on my tongue but staying there — frozen.

What was the matter? Was my voice box in trouble? I never imagined that I was having, what was later diagnosed as a brain stroke. My limbs were functioning and I was able to walk back to the bus stop to board a bus back home. The conductor took my fare but I couldn’t tell him where I wanted to go! At that very moment, my phone rang again. It was Archana. The bus was empty so I grunted loudly and gestured to the conductor for help. He took the phone call. Archana told him that I was very ill. He peered at me and there I was – seemingly hale and hearty! He called out to the driver who realized that something was wrong. He drove fast, halted for barely 30 seconds at every stop and tried hard to veer through the traffic-clogged streets of Bangalore while my brain bled away, quietly and furiously.

What was I trying to do? I was desperately trying to make a plan. By now, it was clear that I could not speak. I looked out of the window. We were at the Central Silk Board Junction on Hosur Road. How much more time, I wondered, willing the bus to move faster. I looked at my wristwatch. It was 2 pm. I looked at the man seated next to me. He was dressed in white. I remember that trivial detail, oh so clearly. I called Archana.

She tried to make sense of the sounds I was making. The man in white looked up at me in dismay and grabbed the phone. He spoke to Archana. He helped me off the bus at Jayadeva Hospital and escorted me to the car, where Archana was waiting. Archana later said she looked up to thank him but he was nowhere. Was he real? Was he an angel? We will never know.

Archana had spoken to her cousin, Kalpana Janardhan, a doctor at Apollo Hospital on Bannerghatta Road. My wife drove like a woman in a hurry, sometimes on the wrong side of road, honking and ignoring irate motorists along the way. We reached Apollo Hospital after what seemed like eternity. The doctor and staff were waiting, stretchers and all. Seeing me alighting from the car, Kalpana asked if I was really the patient! Archana and Tabassum, a family friend who had accompanied us, gave a smile. I was forced onto the stretcher and carried inside.

Now let me tell you something that you already know. The world is not all sunshine and rainbows. It is a tough place which can bring you to your knees and keep you there. Life is all about taking a fair few hits. Yet it is not about how hard you are hit; it is about how you keep moving forward. This is how winning is done. There I was that Wednesday morning, believing I was invincible. After all, didn’t my lifestyle tick all the boxes – two hours at the gym, 40 laps in the pool every day, and weekends devoted to the martial arts? A Black belt in Tai Chi, Ninjitsu, Lian Gong Shi Ba Fa and Dao Yin Yang Sheng Gong felled by a stroke? You must be kidding.

Blackness. Then, a fog. When it cleared, I saw myself in a hospital gown in a room with stark white walls. My bed was raised and a pillow that was angled at my neck made my head throb. I reached out for a magazine that someone had left on the side table. The words were a jumbled mess. I could not read. I struggled. I choked. Learning to read, all over again, is by far the hardest thing I’ve had to do. I did not know if those brain cells had died, but I had no recollection that reading was something I had ever done before. Poornima, my speech therapist and my taskmaster, coaxed me to read. My brain refused to help. My eyes blurred with the effort of concentration. The letters danced in a rowdy manner, scorched by that magazine and its maze of words. For eight months, I struggled to call out to Archana and Dev, their names stubbornly stayed stuck on my tongue. Even ‘amma’ sounded like a guttural cry when it escaped the confines of my mouth.

Although I struggled along with my reading, my brain, I was told by the experts, was now a work in progress – very slow progress. The right side of my body was numb because of the stroke. I could barely walk. I used crutches after the brain surgery. I leaned on my crutches, afraid to take a single step without them, certain that I will fall. Slowly, I would feel the strength return to my right leg. My right hand was useless – I could not turn the pages of Dev’s number book, nor could I grip a pencil to trace the English alphabet in the books that Archana brought me. I trained my left hand to grip a pencil. I also trained myself to use the bathroom without assistance. A task as simple as tying my shoe laces now took me 20 minutes and there were days, when I fell back on the bed in exhaustion, the laces a tangled heap. The numbness would sometimes yield a feeling of pins and needles – all sharp sensations that run furiously along the right side of my body. Slowly, after nine months of flexing and fixing, I regained the use of my right hand. I began to talk.

Yes, the words sometimes stalled; sometimes they lost direction and sounded confusing. It took effort and concentration to put a simple thought into words. I still have trouble remembering details. I struggle with numbers and discovered that I can no longer multitask –an ability that I was inordinately proud of before the stroke. Perhaps, I will struggle with some of these challenges all my life. Some of my struggles are obvious to others while some are not. Although I am thankful that the stroke has changed but not paralyzed me, it takes me a long while to accept that I am no longer the person I was. I sink into depression and consider ending my life. Medication and therapy pulls me through. It is eight months since I woke up in that hospital room. I am emotionally spent. When the darkness lifts, I realize I am
lucky to be alive.

Recovery, however you translate it, is not something you achieve on your own. My recovery was supported by everyone around me. Family and friends dealt with me with the firm belief that I would recover completely, regardless of whether it would
take me a year, three years or a lifetime. They showed me, in words and deeds, that my quest to re-learn was achievable. I make this point because I have heard doctors say to stroke survivors, ‘If you do not get your abilities back in about six months after the stroke, then you will never get them back’. Believe me, doctors can be wrong. My improvement continues two years after the stroke. The brain has a wonderful ability to recover lost function.

Only if we keep the faith.
For several months after the surgery, I was banned from using a mobile phone. Archana would take my mobile phone to her office and answer the calls that came for me. Gradually, the ban lifted and I began answering the phone myself. It was a very exciting thing to push the green button and say hello because regaining speech meant regaining confidence. The effort of saying five words together exhausted me, but word by word, I put together a conversation with patient friends. I celebrated my progress every day. I stayed focused on how well I was doing. I shared my triumphs with Archana and Santosh, my brother. No matter how small the progress, I was inspired to continue. It would have been really easy to feel remorse and regret for what had happened to me. There were days when I cried bitter tears over my “misfortune” but my joy at having cheated death was so strong that it made me soldier on.

Recovery is a long term process. Prior to the stroke, I reveled in describing myself as an independent man. Having spent three years in Hyderabad and a few in Mumbai, I was smug about my emotional strength. Now I felt a keen need for support and kindness. I know it can be extremely frustrating for a healthy person to communicate with someone who has had a stroke, especially if the stroke survivor cannot carry on a conversation with visitors. But I want to appeal to friends and families of stroke survivors: keep talking and keep listening to your loved one. It aids recovery more than you can ever know.

I am often asked, ‘How long did it take you to recover?’ My reply, ‘From what?’ If you define recovery as regaining one’s old self then I am only partially recovered. I limp; the fingers of my right hand can stay open for brief periods of time only. The time taken to physically recover from the brain surgery is miniscule compared to time taken to rebuild my mind.

We are all capable of doing extraordinary things—so much more than we give ourselves credit for. Set your mind to what you want to accomplish and don’t let negative thoughts stop you. Life changes within the blink of an eye. Cherish what you have, tell people close to you that you love them, realize what is truly important. Treat everyone with kindness because you do not know what battles they are fighting.
Dr Vikram Huded says, “Since stroke is a painless condition with multiple symptoms, many people don’t reach the hospital in time. People should recognize the symptoms and rush the patient to a stroke-ready hospital.” A stroke-ready hospital is one which can perform IV thrombolysis and endovascular thrombectomy, and has surgical backup 24×7. A majority of stroke patients go to local nursing homes and lose a lot of time before reaching a stroke-ready hospital. “They also need rehabilitation and speech therapy early,” he says!

If anything, my recovery has taught me that we are all capable of extraordinary things – so much more than we give ourselves credit for. I had decided that I will not let my stroke define me. Instead, I will let it encourage me to go beyond my wildest dreams and live life to its fullest. Not as a stroke victim, but as a stroke SURVIVOR. I have never felt as alive as I do now, and I know this is the beginning of a long, hard but rewarding journey.

I hope to be able to give back to the many people who have helped me and my family on our journey to recovery. My hope is to be able to give hope to those facing similar challenges.

I am doing great. I work at keeping good health. I find pleasure in life from my daily routine and my relationships. My stroke is still with me, in every step I take, but I have learned that my happiness depends on my attitude and my willingness to connect with those who cross my path during my journey as a stroke survivor.

Please listen to my story, and take action today to avoid a stroke, a heart attack, even obesity and diabetes. Reduce your risk and take care of yourself. Do it for yourself and for everybody you love. If, from my story, you learn that no matter how bad things look, with some hard work and a lot of determination, they will get better, I will feel vindicated. People will not give up on you as long as we do not give up on ourselves. With a broken body and a clouded mind, if I am able to spark my spirit from within, so can you. This is about overcoming adversity. It is about growing a ‘can-do’ attitude. It is about never quitting.

I’ve learned to be an ‘overcomer’. I’ve learned how strong I truly am. I’ve learned that I need to be my own advocate. I’ve learned to trust myself. I choose to focus on what I have accomplished rather than on the challenge that I was dealt. I would have preferred not having the stroke, but that was not my choice. How I respond to the challenge is my choice. I choose to respond like many others in my situation, with determination and courage.

When I felt well enough to venture out on my own, a friend invited me for lunch. One of the first questions he asked me was, what I had learnt from the stroke. I had thought about it before, but no one had asked me the question in such a clear and direct manner. I had learnt many things, I told him. While lying on my back in hospital, I had not thought I would make it. Just like in the movies, my life, until then, flashed before my eyes. I thought to myself, ‘Is this it? Will I not see tomorrow?’ Life is short, so do the things that are important to you. God put you here for a reason; find it and get on with your life. My faith has helped me put one foot in front of the other, literally, and I hope to be able to encourage others who are on the uphill climb. I will continue to learn from this experience. I wish everyone good health and a great recovery. Just remember that you can do it.



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