I can’t imagine having to spend one’s life lugging such heavy weight, but Carmel Mould of Mountain View, California wears her black brace and boot with all their inherent implications and ramifications with good grace. She is a living example of the old adage: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
The day I interviewed Carmel, she answered the door in a cheerful holiday outfit. She was in the middle of decorating her stately home for Christmas. The soft, enveloping forest-green sofa in her homey sitting room is the perfect color to go with her holiday décor. Using a cane she led Barbara Stone, our photographer for the day, and me into the room with a speed and agility that, considering her challenges, I found surprising. This was just the first of many surprises.
Carmel has been living with the fall-out from hemorrhagic stroke for nine years. She says she’s very lucky. “My son was nine at the time and had just come home from an outing with his adoptive grandmother, so there was someone there to call for help. Also, had the stroke happened just a few minutes later I would have been driving my son to a party. He and others may have been injured. At least, I was the only one hurt. In retrospect, I feel that God was looking out for me.”
Carmel explained that she had had the flu and a heavy cough. The cough caused a blood vessel in her brain to rupture resulting in a hemorrhagic stroke. This is less common than ischemic stroke, which is a lack of glucose and oxygen to the brain due to embolism or thrombosis. She is knowledgeable about stroke, its signs and its consequences, because there is significant history of stroke in her family. Both her brothers had them, one at eight and one at thirty-five. She was forty-six.
It’s been a long haul since that day nine years ago when Carmel was rushed to El Camino Hospital, where she was in the Critical Care Unit for three weeks. It took that long for the bleeding to stop. She was not expected to survive. Once the bleeding did stop and it was clear that she would live, there was the enormous challenge of relearning the basic activities of daily living or A.D.L. She had to relearn talking, walking, sitting-up, eating, getting dressed and other basics, skills we all tend to take for granted until and unless something happens to us. It was five tortured months before Carmel took her first solo steps. Her rehabilitation has been arduous and endless, but this resilient and determined lady was and is highly motivated.
“My son was my motivation. Ultimately, I think that God allowed me to survive so that I could finish raising him.” She’s clearly proud of her son and the job she’s done, giving examples of how empathetic he is with others. One wonders if that is also the result of witnessing first-hand the kind of persistence and patience that is needed to overcome physical and emotional challenges. And there were emotional challenges. Carmel says she still goes for counseling once a week and that getting counseling was one of the best things that she did for herself.
Her physical rehabilitation started at Stanford Hospital in their Acute Rehabilitation Unit. Carmel says the therapy was intense. After Stanford, she was sent to a live-in facility in Morgan Hill that has since closed. There she received occupational, physical, and speech therapy. Along with other residents, she was required to do the things she would have to do when she was able to go back home, including such activities as meal planning and preparation and getting ready for bed. Finally, the day arrived when she was pronounced ready for “life as usual.”
As soon as she returned home, Carmel was thrown back into the routine of cooking for the family and handling other homemaking and child-rearing responsibilities. However, it wasn’t really life as usual. The process of getting through each day presented new challenges to her stamina, adaptability, and creativity. Activities had to be planned for and planned out. She had to continue relearning skills. She’s had to find new ways to get tasks done while accommodating but not giving in to her handicaps, which include problems of profound weaknesses on her left side. Carmel had to find or fashion tools for the kitchen, the house, and for grooming that would facilitate handling daily chores and responsibilities.
An inability to drive any more – a necessary skill when you are raising a child in California – presented its own special problems and cramped any sense of independence Carmel might have had. She was determined to be able to drive again, and it was over one-and-a-half years before Carmel could do so. She now has a van and wheel chair to use when needed. For example, she uses the chair for mall shopping. She was proud to tell Barb and me that she was able to do all her Christmas shopping. Her gifts included one for herself: her first cashmere sweater.
Carmel’s rehabilitation didn’t stop when she returned home. It continued with Rehab Without Walls. Occupational, physical, and speech therapies were provided to her at home two-to-three times a week. She still has a therapist who works closely with her on A.D.A. It was this dedicated therapist who suggested that what Carmel needed next was exercise. This would prove to be a major turn-around.
Carmel’s therapist took her to the El Camino YMCA in Mountain View, where she began to work with Don Scheiman. Seventy-eight year-old Scheiman is a leading strength and adaptive rehabilitation trainer. He is an Active Older Adults trainer with the El Camin YMCA, Stanford Hospital’s Living Strong, Living Well program for cancer victims, and El Camino Hospital’s cardio and pulmonary rehab programs. He is also the founder of Scheiman Rebuild Fitness, recently formed to manufacture and distribute the adaptive and rehabilitative exercise appliances that he has designed for Carmel and other exercise program participants.
Thanks to Scheiman, Carmel is now confident enough to go to the gym without her cane. With Don Scheiman’s help, she was finally able to use an exercise bike. He designed a shoe plate for her, which is bolted to the bike pedal to keep her problem left knee and foot in place. Before this adaption created especially for her by Scheiman, Carmel’s weak knee would fall out leaving her unable to push the pedal.
Scheiman also fashioned a wrist brace to keep Carmel’s hand on the handle bar. He designed the pieces out of VelcroTM, PVC, and pieces of plastic. Now Carmel can use a bike, which is clearly helping her physically and just as clearly has helped to rebuild her self-esteem. “Don made it possible for me to do any exercise normal people do, not just those for people who have had strokes.”
One of the many inspirational qualities I found in Carmel is her willingness to and enthusiasm for helping other stroke victims. She is active in the Peninsula Stoke Association. She is planning a website for stroke victims that will help them to find adaptive tools for daily life such as a special hair dryer and a cutting board that has a vice for one-handed cutting.
When Carmel mentors stoke survivors, her advice is practical and provocative:
1. Never give up.
2. Accept that this is life now.
3. Take your time. Remember you really don’t have to keep up with everyone else.
4. You don’t have to give up your dreams and aspirations. You just have to find an adaptive way to fulfill them.
To me this sounds like nothing so much as a recipe for taking life’s lemons and making lemonade.
This feature article was originally published in Joann Vallo‘s The California Woman. Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.
Scheiman Rebuild Fitness
Peninsula Stroke Association
National Stroke Association, Information on Stroke Prevention
You may also be interested in these features:
Stroke of Genius, Don Scheiman’s story
Women as Mentors, Joann Vallo’s website