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Rehab helps young stroke survivor regain her independence

Cristine Howard stroke patient

Gripping a fork in her left hand and table knife in her right, Cristine Howard concentrates on the bright orange blob in front of her.

“Pretend the putty is a juicy steak and cut it into bite-size pieces,” says Angela Hull, occupational therapist at Ascension Via Christi Rehabilitation Hospital in Wichita.

Cristine goes to work, sawing carefully into the “steak.” Her chestnut-hazel eyes focus on the plate. She summons strength and coordination from her right shoulder, arm and hand, all weakened from a stroke.

Early one Sunday last November, tingling and numbness in her right arm sent Cristine, 47, of Mulvane, to Ascension Via Christi Hospital in Wichita. She recalls she was frightened and had problems communicating. By the time she reached the Emergency Room, her symptoms had accelerated to complete right-side paralysis, severe difficulty speaking, drooping facial muscles and partial vision loss. 

Via Christi’s Acute Stroke Response Team diagnosed a severe stroke and administered tPA — a clot-busting medication. Tests showed that a blockage in a large artery in Cristine’s brain and neck caused the stroke. 

Quick, aggressive treatment made all the difference for Cristine. During 10 days of care in the Stroke Center, her symptoms greatly improved — enough to qualify her for dismissal to continue recovery with a short-term inpatient stay at Ascension Via Christi Rehabilitation Hospital.

“We look at the whole patient, treating not only the stroke and medical complications, but also the emotional and environmental needs of patients and their families to maximize functional independence,” says Kevin Rieg, MD, medical director of Ascension Via Christi Rehabilitation Hospital.

For 16 days, Cristine followed individualized rehab treatments developed by her team of speech, physical and occupational therapists to help her regain right-side function, strength and fluent speech. 

Now during weekly outpatient visits, Cristine and her therapists focus on high-level functions of daily life like balance, endurance, range of motion, eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills. She’s working toward walking without a brace or limp, and has relearned abilities the stroke affected — ones most of us take for granted. Like cutting steak.  

“If I ever get a piece of meat like this in a restaurant I’m going to ask for my money back,” jokes Cristine, during a recent session.

Therapist Angela reminds her to release tension from her shoulder.

"Rest if you need to,” Angela says, offering support. “You’re doing a great job. It is hard and it is frustrating. Meals are supposed to be pleasurable. It’s not supposed to be work to enjoy your meal.”

Cristine says she is anxious to return to the busy, healthy lifestyle she led before the stroke, when bicycling outdoors or working out to DVDs were part of her regular routine.

“I’m determined to be self-sufficient, to be able to use my body the way I could before,” Cristine says. “I like that my therapists challenge me and correct me when I cheat — when I compensate with my good side.”

The recovery process has been slow and steady, and there have been many successes throughout the journey. 

After testing and improving capabilities doing what Darla Herman-Lyon, Cristine’s physical therapist, calls “ad-lib home therapy” scrubbing floors, vacuuming, etc., the professional house keeper now is on target for her ultimate goal — to return to work in April for previous clients.  

Cristine grows stronger every day and says her hard work is paying off. Motivated by a cooking assignment in the rehab hospital’s therapy kitchen, she recently achieved her biggest accomplishment to date — preparing a full meal from scratch for family and friends.

The menu was fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, corn and chocolate pie for dessert. While it took three hours to prepare — 45 minutes alone to peel the potatoes — she says she was exhausted yet incredibly happy and proud. 

“It was the best meal I’ve ever made,” beams Cristine.

About Ascension Via Christi