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Millennium Team:

Physical, Emotional Hope after Stroke

Dan Nowak had three separate strokes - in 1996, 1997 and 2002. His neurological deficits included right-sided hemiparesis and aphasia. His strokes also left him with poor short-term memory and the inability to recall what his life was like prior to the strokes.

Before his first stroke, Nowak was a top salesman for a tool company; he was an impatient, goal-driven man. He never imagined having to be dependent on others, let alone depending on Social Security disability checks as a source of income. Yet through all of his adversity, Nowak's strong drive and desire for success remained alive. He had hope.

Motivated by being told by his doctor he was about as good as he was going to get, Nowak began reading about stroke and started a physical training program at the YMCA. He was determined to prove his doctor wrong and realized it was time to take control of his own recovery. After working with an inspirational personal trainer, Nowak was able to lift heavier weights.

He also began to pray and feels that God answered his prayers. After 18 months, he regained movement in his right side and was able to speak. He had regained gross motor skills but continued to struggle with fine motor skills. While struggling with his physical deficits, he discovered patience, gratitude and a sense of humor. His hope did not fade.

Recognizing the difference his weight training and exercise program had made, Nowak wanted to help other stroke survivors regain their lives as he had done. His idea - hard work, a great network of friends and family, and the YMCA - made this a reality. After consulting with his brother and others, Nowak formed the Millennium Team, a not-for-profit organization composed of personal trainers, an aquatics director and a massage therapist. Some stroke survivors participating in this program have become personal trainers and assist with the training and mentoring of other stroke survivors.

Interaction, Training Bring Health and Emotional Benefits

The Millennium Team specializes in post-stroke recovery, but they do much more. Stroke survivors find themselves in the weight room of the YMCA - a bit different from the environment of a hospital room, a rehab center or even their homes.

Given the severity of some stroke survivors' neurological deficits, the thought of socialization can be intimidating, even frightening. Kirk Douglas wrote about how self conscious he was after his stroke in his book My Stroke of Luck and how socializing helped him overcome negative feelings. Initially getting out in public might heighten negative feelings, but participating in an exercise program actually helps to "normalize" the neurological deficits. The Millennium team provides a safe environment in which others treat the survivor's disability as if it is no big deal; and working with the Millennium Team is a time to see new faces and make new friends.

The Millennium Team also can be a real boost to family members and caregivers. Family members can work out at the YMCA while the stroke survivor is training with the Millennium Team. They can also use this time to run an errand or go for a cup of coffee. Family members enjoy talking with other families and see the Millennium Team as a source of support. The progress of the stroke survivor also helps them to maintain hope.

Having a stroke can be crippling, both physically and mentally, that depression is common. Participation in Millennium Team activities combats depression. As stroke survivors engage in physical activity, endorphins are released that are helpful in fighting depression. In the weight room of the YMCA, participants see other stroke survivors further along in the recovery process and maintain their own hope recovery.

Hope, Faith, Exercise and Doing for Others

Nowak's journey after a stroke is one that health care providers would like to see happen for all stroke patients. He has a successful business and helps others to achieve their goals. He has been able to use his energy - and his frustration - to improve his own functional ability. The exercise, his faith and his work with others provide him with hope for the future, in spite of the life changes he experienced.

Nowak finds his inspiration in helping others. One of the best ways to feel value is to continue to help others. While there is very little that can be done about the circumstances life has dealt us, it is important to take time to enjoy the moment with another.

For more information on how to set up a Millennium Team in your own community, contact the Millennium Team by mail at P.O. Box 30013, Winston-Salem, NC 27130, or through its Web site.

The Comprehensive Stroke Center at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center is partnering with The Millennium Team and the YMCA of Northwest North Carolina to offer additional resources for stroke patients being discharged from the hospital.

By: Sharon Pettiford, R.N., MSN, stroke coordinator, Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center

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No Team Nearby? Take Charge of Your Recovery

Those who don't have a Millennium Team or a job can sustain their exercise goals by establishing routines and setting weekly goals.

Remember to:

  • Write down what you have done each week.
  • Rejoice each week in what you have accomplished.
  • Exercise with another person to help keep both of you motivated.
  • Set a goal each week.
  • Keep going: the effort is worth it.
  • Check out the gym. Most have trainers and might have one that specializes in working with the elderly or stroke clients.
  • Take a few moments each day to sit quietly and pray or meditate, or enjoy a favorite hymn. If you can't sing the hymn or say the words to a prayer, ask someone to get a recording for you. Someone from a nearby church will be glad to do this for you.
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