Peer support results in lasting friendship for stroke patients

Jeff Schmidt and Tom Johnson are close in age with unique personalities combining wit and optimism. Their other common denominator is being stroke survivors who bonded during their recovery at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital.

Tom is 57 years old and enjoys a rewarding, but physically demanding job in maintenance for the National Resources District in York, Neb. On March 19, Tom experienced two intense dizzy spells during work.  He shook it off and disregarded the gradual weakening of his left hand and arm. By the day’s end, Tom’s left foot was dragging; identical to what his mother experienced during her stroke. “But, I was in total denial and never told my coworkers what was happening,” said Tom. The next morning, Tom was in the emergency room at Annie Jeffrey Health Center in his hometown of Osceola where doctors diagnosed his clot stroke.

During their stroke recovery, Jeff Schmidt (left) and Tom Johnson played a light-hearted prank on their therapists to add humor to their Body Weight Support Treadmill therapy.

During their stroke recovery, Jeff Schmidt (left) and Tom Johnson played a light-hearted prank on their therapists to add humor to their Body Weight Support Treadmill therapy.

Jeff, 55, a successful self-employed entrepreneur, lives a busy life with his wife, Anne and teenage son, Jerome, in Lincoln, Neb. Despite a recent Type 2 diabetic diagnosis, Jeff considered himself healthy. He’d never experienced an overnight hospital stay. “I thought I was invincible,” said Jeff, who ignored small stroke warning signs prior to his attack on March 25. Early that morning, Jeff didn’t feel right and within hours was slurring his speech. An MRI at Bergan Mercy Medical Center in Omaha revealed a stroke had paralyzed the left side of Jeff’s body.

Tom and Jeff transferred to Madonna just a few days apart. They struck up a conversation during dinner and realized their strokes were similar. The two men had adjoining rooms and became fast friends. “We kind of played off each other with humor,” said Tom. Their friendship evolved through exchanging laughs, feelings and gauging each other’s progress. “It helped so much to have a friend to bounce things off of,” said Tom.

Amy Goldman, stroke program manager, lists fostering peer support as a key component of Madonna’s Stroke Rehabilitation Program. “Stroke survivors and caregivers describe an overwhelming sense of hope and encouragement from sharing their stories and supporting each other,” said Amy. Experiencing a common circumstance or predicament can be a powerful component of healing. “He’s like a brother to me now,” said Jeff, referring to his relationship
with Tom.

Therapy sessions for Tom and Jeff included technology like the Proprio 4000, E-Stimulation, FES bike and the Body Weight Support Treadmill (BWST). Both men developed a love/hate relationship with the BWST. Their results were fantastic, but wearing the harness felt  uncomfortable. To liven things up, Tom and Jeff, and another stroke patient, Greg, played a prank on the therapy team. One evening, the trio wrapped the BWST with “wet paint” tape and adorned it with caution signs. It didn’t take the therapists long to figure out the culprits and everyone had a good laugh. “It was a stress reliever for us, but the staff needed it, too, as they deal with stressful situations every day,” said Jeff.

Having a stroke changed Tom’s outlook on life. “When your body starts giving you warning signs, pay attention and don’t take life for granted!”

Jeff’s priorities shifted too. “Mundane things don’t matter as much now.” Both men can walk independently with a cane. They’re making plans to keep in touch. “It’s amazing the camaraderie you form here,” said Tom.


Peer support and recovery

By: Amy Goldman, PT, DPT
Madonna Stroke Program Manager

Peer support and socialization can have an influential impact on recovery after a life-changing injury or illness. Patients benefit from understanding that they’re not alone during a devastating experience.

For patients and their families, peer support:

  • Provides opportunities to share concerns with someone who has experienced a similar injury or illness
  • Gives hope to those recovering that they can cope with life after injury or illness
  • Offers the opportunity to share current information and knowledge of available resources
  • Offers support and caring while listening to survivor and caregiver concerns

For healthcare professionals, peer support:

  • Adds a unique dimension to the traditional healthcare team
  • Provides a communication link with patients
  • Helps clarify the needs of patients and their caregivers

Each stroke survivor is faced with a unique set of disabilities and losses, and each copes with them in his or her own way. The acceptance and emotional support a peer visitor or stroke support group offers can often be the key to uncovering the hidden strengths in many stroke survivors and their caregivers. Peer support allows individuals to share similar stories while learning to live with the changes and accept their “new normal.” Visits with a stroke peer visitor or other survivors at a local stroke support group gives survivors and their caregivers a chance to share concerns and support one another. New goals and friendships are started, renewing hope and encouraging independence.

Choosing a stroke rehabilitation program that encourages peer support as an essential component in the rehabilitation process is important to the stroke survivor’s recovery. At Madonna, we offer weekly peer visits from former patients (stroke survivors) who listen, encourage and offer support and hope to current patients and their families affected by stroke. In addition to peer visitors, it is very common for current stroke patients and their family members to develop connections and offer support and encouragement to one another while developing long-lasting friendships.

For more information on peer support or stroke support resources:

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1 Comment

  1. Kathy Hartmann

     /  June 4, 2013

    I was at Madonna in Late March/early April and met these men. We ate many meals together and worked out side by side in rehab. They gave me so much inspiration to keep going day to day. It is so good to see them doing so much better and walking with a cane now. Madonna is a place where miracles happen everyday.


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