Two years ago, Steven Lowe was cutting the grass at his home when he became one of the roughly 800,000 people who suffer a stroke each year.
In Lowe's case, it was particularly serious.
“I had what they call a spontaneous dissection stroke. The carotid artery in the back of my neck just broke while I was cutting the grass. I collapsed on the ground, and couldn't even crawl into my house. I laid there for an hour, crying for help, until my neighbor heard me. They say I'm lucky to be alive, because evidently a lot of people who have that type of stroke don't live; it has a higher fatality rate, but I did get help and got to the hospital.”
He spent the next six weeks at Forsyth Hospital in the Whittaker Rehabilitation Facility, where he learned to walk again. His therapist said it took the strength of three grown men to help him stand up, because he could not put any weight on his legs.
Now, Lowe is now forming a stroke supporters group and the first meeting, which is open to stroke survivors and those who support them, will be held at First Presbyterian Church in Mount Airy on March 3 at 7 pm., in the fellowship hall, and the first Monday of each month at 7 p.m. thereafter.
He wants the group to help others experience what he's encountered since suffering the stroke.
Living in a small town has “incredible benefits” Lowe said. “This entire town has rallied to support me. I jokingly say I have about 10,000 therapists, but there is so much truth in that. Once people found out I had a stroke, everyone started coming up to me and giving me advice and encouragement.”
Lowe is a member of First Presbyterian Church in Mount Airy, as well as a member of the Kiwanis Club of Mount Airy — in fact, he was voted Kiwanian of the Year this year. He also volunteers at least once a month for the Friends Feeding Friends meal at First Baptist Church. “I even have people on the other side of the line, when I am serving food, trying to help, saying 'This is what my grandpa did.'”
His family is a huge part of his recovery, giving him plenty of love and support along the way, including his wife Annette, his daughter Emily, age 16, and his daughter Kayla, age 19, who is a student at Appalachian State University. “They have all been amazing. I've put them through the hardest time in their lives…I want to try, but sometimes I forget, or make mistakes and do something wrong….my brain just doesn't work like it used to.”
Lowe gave several examples of things he forgets, small things that most people take for granted — at crosswalks, he sometimes forgets to look both ways for oncoming traffic, and has to push himself to remember not to step out into the road. He said he sometimes forgets to turn off the stove, or turn it on when he is trying to cook. He said that he has left his dogs outside so many times, they are now reluctant to go outside.
Jill Tucker, a therapist who lives in Mount Airy, has been a “huge source of support” for Lowe, and she is helping him in her own personal time. With Tucker's help, Lowe was able to participate in Mount Airy Parks and Recreation's Rosy Cheeks 5K in December, finishing with a time of 50 minutes.
After Lowe came home from the hospital, Ralph Cooke and Bob Planer stopped by his house, introduced themselves and literally helped Lowe out of his chair, so he could walk with them. Lowe said they are a great example of the help he receives from the community. Cooke told Lowe that the longer he stayed in his chair, the more comfortable he would get, which meant it would be harder and harder to get out of the chair again.
“I couldn't walk as far as they could at the time, maybe only ten steps, then I went back to my chair, but he said, 'That's fine, then do ten steps, then do 11 the next day, and the next day do 12, just one more step each day, and if you keep doing it, you are going to teach your brain how to do it again.'”
Another supporter of Lowe's is Felton Godwin, who took him to Reeves Community Center when he was still in a wheelchair, and helped him in the pool, then walked back and forth with him. Two years later, Godwin is still helping: driving Lowe to his classes, picking him up and taking him home from Reeves, taking him on hikes. “Felton has been my guardian angel…if you only knew how many hours he has spent helping me. He does everything.”
Lowe said that a major key to his recovery was putting together a therapy plan, and before coming up with the plan he felt like a “fish out of water.”
“I had all the encouragement I could have, all the love and care I could have, but I didn't have the knowledge, so I made a plan, and that helped me so much.”
Lowe said he had always wanted to participate in a 5K, even before the stroke, so part of his plan involved relearning what he once was able to do as well as learning new skills. “I haven't been able to teach myself to run again, but with the Rosy Cheeks 5K, I walked it and made my goal of less than an hour; I will keep practicing and trying.”
Another source of encouragement and support for Lowe is Reeves Community Center. “The staff, the members, the people who work at the pool, they are amazing. Every time I go to Reeves someone helps me to use the weights, because I have trouble gripping them.”
Catrina Alexander, director of Reeves, said that Lowe inspires everyone there: “We all have what we perceive as barriers, and have excuses, but when we see someone like Steven, he is a huge inspiration for us…he is such a sweetheart, and beyond that, an incredible inspiration for everyone. A wonderful person.”
Lowe spends time in the pool at Reeves Community Center, trying to teach himself to swim again. He also plays pickle ball at Reeves, which is helping him with balance and mobility, and also with achieving his goal of playing racquetball and tennis again.
“You can teach your brain new things, but it is harder and slower than anything I've ever experienced. I still don't have use of my left upper hand and my left arm. I can move it a little bit, but it is very heavy, like it has a 50-pound weight on it. I can't lift my hand over my head, and that's one of the problems I have with learning to swim again.”
Even with physical limitations, Lowe will not stop trying to achieve his goals. He has been swimming for almost two years, and the strength he is gaining is helping him in other areas. Just last week, he said he was able to use his left hand to wash his head, which he described as a “huge milestone.”
Lowe said that even though he is now actively trying to achieve goals, he went through a low point, when, last October, two major things happened: he lost his job, by policy, since he had not been able to return to work, and the same week, he was told by his therapist that they could no longer help him since he was in the “maintenance stages,” and could not bill his insurance for that type of therapy.
“They had to cut me loose, both of them, and that was a hard climb. After all that happened, I did start losing hope; I literally became hopeless. I thought it was as good as it was going to get. I can deal with physical limitations, but now my wife is scrambling, working extra jobs and I couldn't help my daughter learn to drive when she turned 16. I couldn't help my family like I used to — I had to sit there and watch my family work twice as hard as I ever had to, so that's when I started to lose hope.”
Instead of wallowing in self-pity, he decided to deal with his feelings of hopelessness by turning to others, not to receive help, but to give it.
Lowe was is active in his church, First Presbyterian, and helps with Friends Feeding Friends. He also began working with Barbara Hutchens, who had a stroke in December, meeting her at the Reeves Center pool where he is helping her learn to walk again.
“Seeing her reminds me of where I've come from. She just wants to learn to walk again so she can help her church and when she sees me, I can walk really good now, and walk over a mile a day, it gives her hope.”
He then thought about starting the support group. “If I can help other people I don't get into my pity pot. It helps me recover, helping others. When they say, 'I just can't do it, I just want to give up and quit,' I can help them, because I've hit those times.”
“The physical part is the easiest. The emotional and mental recovery is hardest, and there is nothing worse than having no hope. The stroke support group gives me hope that I can help someone, and then they can help someone. If we have ten people there, those ten can help ten others, then those 20 can help 20 others, and just think about the power in that.”
Lowe said he has come up with an agenda for the first meeting with the help of fellow stroke survivor and friend Ralph Cooke, and wants to eventually have a resource library, full of books and other materials, for stroke survivors and supporters to check out at no cost. He plans to conduct discussion about effective therapies, question and answer sessions, caregivers support, and ideas for recovery, in addition to offering love and support.
Just like he received from others in Mount Airy.
“This town is just infectious. Whatever I have given up, I've gained ten-fold in encouragement and friendship and caring. I've never been in a place where people don't know you, but they really, really want to help you. This is a wonderful place. The same way I feel at church, loved and cared for, I feel that everywhere I go and that is Mount Airy … That's part of the reason I want to do this support group, to say 'thank you.' If there are people out there who need help, who are at that point where they feel helpless and don't know what to do, they need this, they need hope, and I want to help. I want to be the answer…the more people encourage me the more I want to help others.”
For more information on the stroke support group, contact Lowe at firstname.lastname@example.org or 704-661-0540. Lowe would like anyone who plans to attend to RSVP so he has an idea of how many people to expect.
Reach Jessica Johnson at 719-1933 or on Twitter @MountAiryJess.