So many great people are sending me very reflective content to think about on the important lessons in life. If you remember I had a post on STROKES and this contribution from my mentor and friend Steve Patscot really hits the spot! Enjoy! Bob
5 Life Lessons from a Stroke (from Steve Cunahan)
September 4th was the Tuesday after the Labor Day holiday and it started like any other workday. I was up a little before 6:00 a.m. to begin preparations for my morning run. It was my routine, get up and dress in the closet so I don’t wake anyone. Nothing felt strange or different about this particular morning. After putting on my shirt and shorts I bent down to put my shoes on. Out of nowhere I felt intense head pain and dizziness like I never experienced before. It felt like someone hit me in the head with a baseball bat. I tried to steady myself, but I lost the ability to control my arms and legs and fell to the floor. Everything got fuzzy and I started to fade. I called out to my wife sleeping in the bedroom and in a strange way I realized I better yell loud because I may only get one shot at waking her up. Luckily, she came right away. I don’t remember much after that, the 911 call was made immediately. I do remember laying on the closet floor and feeling like I was watching this happen to someone else. I was aware of my surroundings, but couldn’t feel anything. I knew I had arms, legs, and a body; but didn’t know where my body started and the floor began. When the paramedics arrived I heard everything people were saying, but could only respond sporadically and with a great deal of effort. My most vivid memory of that morning is my teenage daughter standing in the kitchen crying, scared and trying to make sense of what just happened. Her 17 years never prepared her for this. I had an overwhelming feeling of guilt, what have I done?
Before September 4th I thought I had pretty much everything. I had a resume most people would dream of; military veteran, advanced degrees, an expat assignment in Europe and leadership roles at a string of some of the best companies in the world. In my latest stop I was the chief human resources officer for the largest post-acute healthcare provider in the world, with over 100,000 employees. I worked hard and our family moved often for new and better opportunities. Each time the house got bigger and things got a little more complicated. At times I was intense and had a reputation for getting things done. I liked the rush of being the boss.
At the hospital, they found I had two simultaneous strokes, one in my cerebellum and one in my right parietal lobe. I had constant dizzinesses and could not judge where my body was in space. They sent me to the Neuro ICU and the waiting began. The first 72 hours after a stroke is critical. The brain can swell and result in some pretty negative outcomes. I remember the doctor speaking to my wife about resuscitation possibilities if I had complications. One minute I was getting ready to crush a 4-mile run and the next I’m faced with not being able to breathe if the swelling in my brain continues. My whole life had literally changed in an instant. In Neuro ICU they wake you up every hour. You don’t sleep much and you have lots of time to think. You think about why you had a stroke? If you shut your eyes will you wake up? You ponder if you will be able to ever walk again or have a normal life? You continuously think about the people you love and what you could have done differently.
My constant dizziness caused nausea and I had trouble eating. Since I didn’t know where my legs were, walking was difficult and slow. Over time I learned I had cognitive impairments that made certain aspects of language and problem solving difficult. I struggled to solve simple problems and one of my biggest strengths, multi-tasking, was almost impossible. My eyes did not focus correctly and my brain struggled to make sense of certain types of visual input.
After 8 days in the hospital I was able to come home and begin my recovery. I’m still in the recovery process and I continue with outpatient therapy. Therapy can be brutal and many days after my sessions I just come home and sleep. I hate it, but I know it’s helping me. I also see a psychologist who specializes in effects of stroke on mood and personality.
My stroke has “stopped the noise” that sometimes enters into your life and has allowed me to more clearly focus and reflect. I have learned so many valuable lessons. A stroke is a life-threatening acute condition that permanently scars you both mentally and physically. As I enjoy the good days and struggle through the bad days, I believe with all my heart and soul my stroke is a fantastic gift. It has brought me to my knees and has changed both the course and content of my life, but it has shown me so much and has opened me to possibilities I never knew existed.
It has also allowed me to reflect on life in the corporate machine. I spent a good portion of my 30-year career helping others with their leadership challenges and designing process and systems to make people better. I thought I had a lot figured out. At first, you wouldn’t think having a stroke can teach you much about being a leader, but my experience would say it can teach you everything. If you are willing to stop and reflect, the gift of adversity can reveal a great deal.
Here’s some of what I learned:
1. We Control Very Little
We are taught to control as many aspects of our business lives as possible. We learn through hard work, effort, and intelligence we can master almost any situation. Can’t get the result you want, just work harder. Can’t get that critical sale, just keep calling and sending emails. Sound familiar? On day four in the Neuro ICU I came to a freeing revelation; in reality I control very little. I wasn’t supposed to be the guy that had the stroke. I ate right, exercised, had a loving and nurturing family; still there I was in the hospital staring at the ceiling. I was angry, someone must have made a mistake! Many successful executives think they will win the day through smarts and long hours. Do yourself a favor and realize you can make a difference, but accept the fact you don’t necessarily control the outcome. Take the situation for what it is and plan accordingly. We don’t want to admit we are not the center of the universe; however, a brain injury quickly lets you know who’s in control. I need to work hard in therapy, but I know in the end that may not be enough for me to get my old self back, and that’s alright. The only thing I can do now is accept where I am and make the best of what has been given to me.
2. Patience Is A Virtue
Patience was never one of my strong points. If you couldn’t get your idea across within 30 seconds chances are I would check out. Get to the point and let’s get on with it. After my stroke I was angry and bitter, my thoughts focused on what I needed to do to “get back to normal.” If my physical therapist asked me to do something twice, I did it four times. That worked for a while and I quickly made tremendous progress getting command of physical movement and balance. It was another story when it came to my brain. Early in my recovery I was asked by a therapist to name all the words that began with the letter “r.” I couldn’t think of any, not one! I felt stupid, embarrassed, and powerless. I can never adequately describe the feeling of having someone ask you a simple question and you have no clue how to answer. I was the head of human resources for a 100,000 person public company and now I don’t know any words that begin with “r”! Therapy can help, but my brain needs to heal and that can take 12 months. My cognitive deficits brought me to my knees, I’ve shed too many tears trying to figure out simple concepts that previously came automatically. I’ve had to learn to always look back to see how much I have accomplished, appreciate what I still need to do and take things one day at a time.
3. Rely On And Trust Others
Part of being super confident is thinking you can do in all yourself, or at least do things better than everyone else. At 6:14 a.m. on September 4th a team of paramedics and first responders showed up at my house. That was the start of having a group of people responsible for my care. I had neurosurgeons, neurologists, cardiologists, nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, functional medicine specialists, neuro optometrists and psychologists helping me. That doesn’t even include the support of my family and friends. I took great pride in doing things myself and now someone needed to feed me, pretty humbling. As leaders we have a persona we assume at work. All too often that’s one of being in charge and in control. I quickly learned to accept and value the help of others, I had no choice.
4. Stress Has a Bigger Effect Than You Think
The role stress played in my stroke is unknown. Just prior I was faced with some pretty daunting events. On the professional side we were taking our company private and dividing it into two separate entities, each with sales of 3-4 billion dollars. I was playing a key role and acutely felt the pressure. With the organization change, I had made the decision to transition out of my role and into the next phase of my career. Personally, my oldest son had started college and I deeply missed his presence. There was definitely a lot on my plate. I tend to deal with stress internally, it signals me to work harder. I exercised five times a week and did guided meditation sessions to cope. Reflecting back I think the stress was just too much. I should have asked for help, but my overly confident and somewhat insecure self would have none of it.
5. Let People Love You
This lesson was one of the most difficult. After my stroke I was truly amazed by the outpouring of support I received. I still keep the messages and they remind me that people care about me. I will never forget the heartfelt messages from a company board member and our face-to-face meeting during my recovery. He displayed unbelievable compassion and support. I remember the hug I received from one of my co-workers, it wasn’t your normal obligatory embrace. I could feel her concern through her simple gesture. I didn’t know how to react when she started to cry. I had a group of friends drive 10 hours just to spend a few hours reassuring me and letting me know they care. My family has been so wonderful through this process. They have always been there for me and at times I have taken those closest to me for granted. Our love for each other should never be taken for granted and it needs to be nurtured. My busy life got in the way, there was never time. Why hadn’t I seen this sooner? People really do care about you and you need to put time into relationships. I know it sounds funny talking about love in the context of leadership, but it’s so critical to developing compassion, empathy, and understanding. So many people tried to help me, family, friends, and co-workers. I never picked up on their outreach. I thought it was a sign of weakness.
My stroke has taken away so many things that defined me. They’re gone, the victim of a rogue blood clot that wiped out the brain tissue where they made their home. My stroke is a gift that has forced me to look at life differently. Every day I need to get up, work hard and appreciate just being here. I don’t know what my new 100% will look like, but I’m so looking forward to the journey.