Stroke: The Patient Experience

By Kindred Healthcare
Stroke: The Patient ExperienceJill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D., is a Harvard-trained and published neuroanatomist. Her research specialty was in the postmortem investigation of the human brain as it relates to schizophrenia and severe mental illnesses. She is also an artist, author, and stroke survivor.

In 1996, Dr. Taylor experienced a severe hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of her brain that left her unable to speak, move, or remember her life from before. Her book on her experience, “My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey,” was a New York Times bestseller. Although it took her eight years to recover her physical function and thinking ability, she is quick to note that she is still regaining abilities she had prior to her stroke.

Dr. Taylor explains that the person she was died at the time of the stroke. Her new “right-brain” self cares more about humanity as a whole, and less about her own personal success. One thing that didn’t change, however, was her love of the human brain. She views, she estimates, hundreds of thousands of real brain images each year, and, as an artist, she recreates the brain in stained glass and limestone. Her work is beautiful and, she notes, anatomically correct.

As she discusses her life after her stroke, Dr. Taylor remembers having to relearn anatomy for a teaching position. While she could sculpt the brain accurately shortly after her stroke she could not label it. With the loss of the left hemisphere, she had lost the part that captured the details and she had to regain that knowledge. Her emphasis isn’t on the loss of her abilities or memories, though. It is on the understanding she has on what is needed, at the most basic level, for any relearning to occur.

The amygdala, she notes, takes in all information but really has only question, which is “Am I safe?” If the answer is “No,” then the hippocampus cannot focus on learning or retaining information. This basic question of personal safety is at the heart of what she sees as critical for healthcare professionals who treat stroke patients to understand. “We are feeling creatures who think. Not rational creatures who feel,” Dr. Taylor emphasizes. When a person has a stroke and is in the hospital, the amygdala is on high alert.

Dr. Taylor remembers how hard it was to process the simplest requests after her stroke and reminds the audience that it also is critical for healthcare providers to not set time limits for their patient’s recovery or attribute success to other factors. In the hospital, when she first tried to process the simple request to squeeze her therapist’s hand, she couldn’t do it at first, or even understand what was being asked of her. She did feel the therapist’s disappointment as she left the room, however, and her brain continued to try and process the request. Twelve hours later, when her brain had finally managed to understand the request and she was able to squeeze the therapist’s hand, it was put down to reflex and not her determination and efforts. That message of failure can undermine recovery efforts.

The healthcare provider, she says, must be calm, and bring that calm energy into the patient’s room, using appropriate touch and working to build a relationship and sense of trust. They must remember that the patient is not a stroke victim – he or she is a stroke survivor – and should work to create a safe place for that patient’s recovery. The message from the stroke survivor is simple, Dr. Taylor notes, “I am in here. Come and find me.”