February 28, 2017

10th Birthday !!

This marks a huge milestone in my life. Holy crap, I’ve managed to survive a full decade since my “incident.”!  I know, amazing isn’t it?  Hell, I’m stunned, what, with my, “like me or hate me”, “I don’t give a damn”, attitude and all.  Here I am,

For those who know me and my “situation” I ask your patience as this #10 is a pretty big deal (to me, at least!) and  for those first timers,  if you’ve got a few minutes,  here’s the latest posting of “Andy’s Story.”  

 For those of you who didn’t know, today (or tomorrow) is my Birthday. Sort of….

TEN years ago today, tomorrow or sometime in between (doctors weren’t sure exactly when) will mark the 10th anniversary of my surviving a massive Hemorrhagic Cerebral Vascular Accident, commonly known as a STROKE!  Mine was the burst kind which accounts for about 13 percent of all strokes http://bit.ly/1M1Qaog

While in rehab, I learned that stroke survivors often refer to the anniversaries of the day they survived the stroke as a second or “stroke” birthday.

Now for the story of “MY STROKE BIRTHDAY””: Quite simply, I’m no inspiration by any means, but if you’ve come this far, go ahead and read what I call my “story”. Pardon some of the “overly” descriptive (and maybe a bit gross) narration.

On February 28, 2007, I was living in New Jersey, renting a bedroom in the home of the family of my long time best friend Kevin’s (who’d passed away) wife, Diana and their kids, the eldest being my Godson Joseph and his sister Emmalee.

It began, to the best of my recollection (I had a stroke ya know!) with me waking in the middle of the night to find myself on the floor, unable to get up or back into bed and yet having to urinate badly. In whatever state I was in, I recall finding an empty water bottle and trying to pee into it. I also recall relieving myself into a sweatshirt I found on the floor. Continuing to think maybe I was drunk (I drank a good bit in those days and have been sober for the past 9 years) I tried, but couldn’t manage to find the strength to pull myself up onto the bed. 

I’m guessing I fell asleep on the floor at this point because what I recall next was being coherent enough to realize something bad was happening and was able find my cell phone with which I called my ex-wife Jo (she always was and still is my best friend and the love of my life) even though she was living 1,100 miles away in St. Louis. I tried telling her what was happening, she just kept telling me I was having a stroke and basically told me to stay where I was (like I had a choice) A few minutes later Joseph was crashing into the bedroom yelling at me for not letting anyone know what was happening and that Jo had called Diana, his mom, and told him to check on me.

 I had Joe help me onto the bed and he went to call the Rescue Squad while I for some reason remembered that I had to work later in the day and called my boss telling him I was waiting on the ambulance to arrive and wouldn’t be in to work. To which I recall him saying “feel better”. 

The ambulance arrived and they carried me out of the house and into the driveway where I distinctly remember an EMT saying they were going to put me on a stretcher and that they wouldn’t drop me. The next thing I knew I was sitting on my ass with nothing but driveway asphalt under me. I guess they dropped me. I was coherent enough to recall this.

They transported me to St. Clare’s Hospital in Denville, NJ where the doctors said I was in the midst of having a stroke. They spoke of “drilling a coil into my skull to drain the bleeding” to which I remember saying I’d like a second opinion. Next, the team of doctors kept asking me if I’d been shot as there was a small hole showing up in my skull on the scan. I told them that I thought I’d remember that! They continued telling me based on the scans they were looking at that I should be DEAD.  (Very reassuring)  As they continued evaluating me, they notified me that they were not equipped to care for me at this facility and asked me if I wanted to go to Morristown Memorial or Overlook Hospital in Summit, which were/are both nationally accredited Stroke Trauma Centers. I remember thinking, I’m having a STROKE and they’re asking ME where I want to go? I picked Overlook.

In the meantime Diana had contacted my sister Linda in Springfield, who in turn had called Jo to tell her it was serious. I found out later that she and my daughter Andrea immediately found a flight out to be with me.

A different ambulance transported me to the Neuro Intensive Care Unit at Overlook Hospital in Summit. There another team of neurosurgeons and neurologists determined that I’d suffered a massive right side brain hemorrhage which I soon learned had basically paralyzed my left side.

I would spend the next seven days in this NICU at Overlook (which I later learned was one of the top stroke trauma centers on the east coast) while more assessments were made about my possible future and recovery. Among the numerous opinions offered were that I’d be terribly physically impaired and unable to walk independently for the rest of my life and would need to be placed in a skilled nursing facility for at least the next 5 years. Not good news at all.

While I was at Overlook, Jo and Andrea arrived from St. Louis. The tears and crying were almost too much. I recall trying to stand with the help of 2 nurses and a walker which proved futile. I progressed to where I could sit up and eat and stand for a few seconds with the help of the nurses. 

At this point it was determined that I’d Improved to the point that I could be transferred to a long term acute care rehabilitation center. Again I was “forced” to make a choice as salesmen from the Rehab Institute at Morristown Memorial and Kessler institute pitched the merits of their facilities for my long term rehab. I really didn’t have a preference so I chose RIMM.

Upon my arrival at RIMM, I was introduced to a rehab program that included daily speech, psychological, physical and occupational therapy. I and my family and friends realized that I didn’t need speech therapy based on the fact that I was communicating just fine, but I was forced to take part in these sessions until my social worker responded to our numerous complaints. (I always ask other survivors in similar situations to be sure they’re not billed for these often “unnecessary” services)

After being at RIMM for about a week and having seen the looks of despair on the faces of Jo and Andrea and now, Linda, Diana and friends, it HIT me. 

I was sitting in a wheelchair one day while washing my face with my right hand and looked up into the mirror and saw drool in my beard and looked down to see it on my shirt when I realized, I was too young and stubborn to simply accept the fate which had been outlined for me by the medical folks.

I asked for a razor to shave off the beard and set out on my quest to get out of that place as quickly as possible and live the rest of my life as fully as possible.

While many people in the group therapy sessions spoke of spending hours praying for recovery and of being able to live with their maladies, I, who do  believe in some sort of God, told all who would listen that while I respected their praying, it was entirely up to me to recover as best as I possibly could.

From that day I’ve pretty much looked at everyday as an opportunity and a chance to get a little better, be a little nicer and help myself and others if I can.

While I worked my ass of in rehab in an effort to get released before the 6 months to a year timetable they’d laid out for me, I know that I never would have been able to achieve the results which stunned the rehab personnel without the constant encouragement from my terrific sister Linda and her daughter, my niece, Jessica (Who took the time to come and be with me at RIMM every day for my entire stay!), Daily calls from Jo, frequent visits from Diana, Joe and Em, calls from Andrea, calls and pop in visits at all hours of the day and night from my work friends, even visits from my, at the time, ex Mother In Law, Claire and Brother In Law, Tom and his wife Mo, whose son Dan, who dedicated his college radio show to his Uncle (Me) the day after I had my stroke, helped me beyond words of description.

I was fortunate to have some great doctors and nurses (who had to help me do all sorts of unspeakable things like wiping my ass, oh I said unspeakable didn't I ? LOL) at RIMM and Overlook. I was extremely lucky to be assigned to Tara, as my physical therapist, who when she saw the changes in my determination, worked me harder than I saw her work anyone to the point that upon my release, only FORTY ONE days after my arrival, we both were weeping openly.

When I got back home, I couldn’t have continued my rehab in the vigorous manner in which I did without more encouragement from Diana, Joe, Em, Linda and Jess as well as friends who kept me involved in everything from going out to even taking a few trips to Mets games.

I recovered to the point of being able to help in pulling up 30 plus year old carpeting and refinish the hardwood floors beneath and I was able to get through the Social Security disability process on the first try. (I did have Joe and Linda to thank for getting me to the myriad of doctor and clinic appointments and Diana's nephew, Matt, for helping me as well)

I was doing so well that I planned a trip to St. Louis during the summer of 2008 to spend some time with Jo and Andrea.  At the end of this visit as Jo was taking me to the airport for my return flight to NJ, she was crying and told me she really missed me.  I said I’d stay for a couple more weeks during which time on a Sunday afternoon as were sitting around just watching TV and  talking, Jo asked if I still loved her because she loved me, I told I would always be in love with her, she responded by asking “Do you want to get married again?”  I told her that I would, of course, as long as this wasn't out of pity for me.  I asked her time and again until she'd reassured me. 
We got remarried (our “Do OVER” ceremony performed by my brother in law Tom) on December 21, 2008 in NJ and returned here to St. Louis to live our lives together, AGAIN...We’re into our ninth year now...& they said it’d never last...LOL 

So here I sit TEN years later, with Jo, able to care for myself, getting around pretty well, independently (though I do not drive due to vision and reaction time issues) and living my life to the fullest. 

In 2011 I was lucky enough to be at the Cardinals Game 7 World Series clinching win!

In May of 2012 I was able to see my daughter marry Greg and his son Jeffrey who’ve been wonderful additions to our family!

I get to follow my beloved Mets albeit from a distance and attend a good number of St. Louis Cardinals games primarily because I love baseball but also because of the easy ballpark access & wonderful friends I’ve made at the ballpark. (& they’re really the only game in town LOL) That and I have the best wife in the world who understands that I pretty much live for baseball season and is willing to sacrifice some sleep to pick my sorry ass up from the train station after the night games that I attend.

I work out daily, eat healthier for the most part and have lost 90 pounds since surviving my stroke( in full disclosure I’ve gained back about 40 lbs that started with some sympathy excuses to eat after Joe was killed). I try to be an advocate for Stroke survivors, (holding a weekly chat on my website), stroke research, folks with disabilities and for Public Transportation in the St. Louis area.

I even manage to "work" a few hours each week during the summer at our subdivision pool, where I can sit poolside as "the attendant" and use my laptop (I've set up Wi-Fi at the clubhouse adjacent to the pool) to enjoy all the baseball I can get, follow my Fantasy Baseball teams, mess around on social media and even make a few dollars.

 I was even able to see my sister marry the love of her life just a couple of years ago, I wish her nothing  but happiness and am thankful to have her in my life.

During baseball season over the past few years I‘ve been able to attend about 50 or so St. Louis Cardinals home games. *Thanks to Jo picking me up at the train station

 Last season as the Redbirds failed to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2010.  I was fortunate again to enjoy these games with my friends at Busch Stadium, From our pals Bud and Gail in Homers Landing to Tom, Jim, Alyssa, Kevin, Aaron, Evelyn, Tammi, Carl and Claudia and the rest of the ushers I’ve been lucky to call “Friends” going to the ballpark is fun experience that I look forward to every time.  I truly treasure the kindness and friendship they and countless others have bestowed upon me over the past few years. It’s fun sitting with my friend Stacy (a real female baseball fan) at many of these games and I look forward to another season “at the ballpark” in 2017.

The 2014 season was broken up by a phone call I received in my “sports room” on our house line (Nobody calls that number) in the early morning hours of September 3 from my friend Diana telling me that “We lost Joe”...I knew my Godson Joseph to be an adventurous 26 year old off roading enthusiast who would often head off into the woods and my first thought related to this fact as I asked “which woods was he in” to which she responded “No Andy, Joseph’s Dead” I was stunned to say the least and by this time my wife Jo had entered the room.  I responded to Jo’s questioning look by literally tossing the phone at her while rushing out of the room yelling incredulously “Diana said Joe’s dead.” 

This call put into motion a whirlwind of activity over the next 5 days.
First I had to find a flight home to NJ as Diana wanted me there to help with the arrangements.  Once I’d arranged my flight I began talking and texting with Joe’s sister Emmalee to gather as many details as possible.

According to info that I was able to gather I believe Joe had gone riding with a number of his friends in a wooded area near Route 80 in Fairfield, NJ that they had ridden in many times before and while riding his “Ruby” (an 800 lb Polaris quad, he’d recently bought and took care of better than his truck) along one of the numerous trails, he’d struck a root with the right front tire while travelling over a big (5 foot?) drain pipe which flipped him off the bike onto the ground below flat on his back with the bike following nose first directly landing on his midsection.  Now Joseph was a big boy at 6’3” and about 275 pounds.  According to the friends who found him Joe was telling them to “help get this thing off me”.  He was conscious and believed he had broken his leg.  His friends basically dragged him out of the woods into the bed of one of their trucks and took him to one of their houses where they contacted police who contacted EMTs who transported a conscious Joe to St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Paterson. 

Through all of this one of Joe’s friends had contacted Joe’s mom, Diana, who along with Joe’s sister Emmalee rushed to the hospital.

Doctors tried to stabilize him for Surgical ICU where Joe eventually died.

Diana decided to use the same funeral home that 10 years ago had handled the arrangements for her husband, Joe’s dad and my best friend, Kevin.

Diana and I along with Joe’s girlfriend Clara and Diana’s sister Patti sat down with Dori from Stellato Funeral Home in Fairfield where Dori had already done some leg work to find out that Joe could be buried next to his Dad in Gate of Heaven Cemetery in East Hanover but the cemetery needed $3500 that day to guarantee the plot.  Well quite simply none of us had that kind of money but we told Dori that we’d come up with it somehow.  We finished the arrangements and walked out with a small sense of comfort knowing that Joe would be buried next to his Dad.

In the days immediately following his death, we were all surprised, make that stunned, by the out pouring of love and support from what we now realize was a large scope of friends that Joe had made in his far too short life.  At the top of this outpouring was the organizing of a “Go Fund Me” account by Sean, one of the guys who were in the woods with Joe that day.  This effort gained so much steam that it had raised the need “cemetery” money within the account’s first 12 hours. The account eventually raised about 4 times the original goal.

The following day Diana received a call from Dori telling her that the cemetery had made a mistake and Joe couldn’t be interred next to his Dad.  Needless to say, we all felt a deep punch to the proverbial midsection.  Dori stated that the cemetery had offered some other plots in the general area of Kevin’s plot.

Now I, who have become somewhat, let’s call it “aggressive” regarding such things as my cable going out and getting a refund and other such situations decided we should take a trip to the cemetery to look at the “other” plots.  I was hell bent on making sure Diana was not going to pay that $3500 for some other location.

Now we arrived at the cemetery and entered the office with me asking for a plot map to see which plots were open around Kevin.  When the woman asked me if I was looking for someone in particular I said I knew where I was going and was looking for plots around a certain decedent.  When the woman asked who and I responded, she turned to some other women in the office and said it’s “Joseph’s” (last name withheld) family at which time they asked if we would go down the hall and speak with their counselor for a few minutes.

I immediately figured I’d done something wrong but we followed them down the hall where we sat down in an office to speak with “Mike”.  After introductions, Mike took out a composition book to check on “notes” regarding our “situation”.  He asked for the contract from the funeral home to which we responded that we hadn’t received it since the plot was in limbo.  He said that we should have it since Diana’s account for Joseph was marked “Paid in Full”.  We looked at each other not understanding.  Now, Emmalee’s phone rang and one of the ladies from the office beckoned Mike into the hall.

We sat there in stunned silence until Mike returned with the woman who stated that she was the superintendent of the cemetery.  At this point Mike said that if we were willing to work with them he had some really good news.  We figured we had nothing to lose so we nodded as he explained that Joe could now be buried next to his Dad but that there would be some restrictions.  First off there could be no double vault which was fine. Secondly there could be no headstone or flat marker installed due to the fact that the plot was actually not supposed to be sold as it was too close to the road for the grass cutting equipment to get around and they didn’t want anyone else trying to get a plot that close to the road.  Now we figured we could somehow add Joseph to his Dad’s headstone in some manner so that wouldn’t be a huge deal breaker.  Next came the part that caused some jaw dropping.  I asked if the price was the same and Mike responded that it was FREE.  Stunned I then asked if we’d only have to pay to open the plot to which Mike said this was also FREE.  

We were completely dumbfounded as the superintendant interjected that the Archdiocese had learned of our situation and had instructed the NJ Director of Catholic Cemeteries to “make it right for this family”.   We sat stunned until Mike said he’d take us out to the spot with the cemetery’s head groundskeeper to explain in detail the reasons for the exceptions we’d agreed to.   BTW it turns out that the call Emmalee received was from Dori telling her of the information we were receiving. 

Meanwhile back at the house donations of food began piling up as well as generous donations from Joe’s co-workers.  Some of his friends even came by the house to landscape and clean the gutters (a terrific, much needed and thoughtful gift)

Diana, Em, Clara along with myself (as Joe would say “the God Fahhthah), his godmother, Diana’s sister, Vicky as well as Diana’s brother Stephen and sister Patti received literally hundreds of visitors to the viewing prior to the Mass and police guided procession of what I counted as nearly 100 cars to the cemetery which included an impromptu stop at Joe’s work building, where a thoughtful Dori (who was driving the hearse) placed a single rose at the sign in front of the building near the flag pole which held the flag at half staff, indicating the mourning of Joe. . 

As the sun gleamed off of his black and chrome casket I placed my hand atop it and did the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life……I said goodbye to a man I’ve known since birth through his maturity into a wonderful young man, son, brother, boyfriend, Godson and……FRIEND.
Rest in Peace Joseph.  

The repast, back at the house seemed like a never ending line of people bringing food and drink.  After the last visitors had left we estimated that there was still enough food for 2 or 3 more days of meals.  What wonderful friends Joe had made.

In addition to those leftovers, members at the YMCA where Diana works set up a schedule where 1 of them would provide a complete meal every night for I don’t recall how long.  What wonderful friends Diana has made…

 I was able to return to NJ in October to help Diana with his affairs and insurance claims and while I knew Diana was tough as nails since Kevin had died 10 years earlier, in the time since Joe’s death I’d seen she and Em become two of the toughest, strongest, loving, caring and genuine women...No make that “PEOPLE” I’ve been lucky enough to know, love and call family.. While the grieving will never, their strength provides a beacon to all they encounter.

Sorry that this seems like a long obituary for Joseph, but……damn I loved him and think of him and miss him everyday

My last ten years have been filled with ups and downs, Big and small.

I look forward to every day and feel that all in all my LIFE is pretty damn good and I should spread the word that life after stroke can be fulfilling and "FUN" Just thinking that I  may have missed it all makes me appreciate every day more than ever.

So if you’ve persevered through this long winded story, I really appreciate it and ask you to Pardon me once more while I wish myself a
Happy 10th Stroke Birthday!”

Looking forward once again to Opening Day and a season of Fantasy Baseball too...
Oh and as always 

LET’S GO METS! & why not?  “Go Cards”

& To My Wonderful Wife... “Jo, I Love You More Than You Will Ever Know”, Thank you for always being my partner & my “Best Friend”  !!

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