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David Talbot writes about his recovery from a stroke

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David Talbot posted this on Facebook today:

I suppose I must be waking from my post-stroke slumber, because I'm feeling like connecting again with the outside world. And what a strange and momentous time to be coming back to life! More on our mad circus of a country in a future post -- but for now I want to keep this personal.

They don't tell you that having a stroke can be a liberating experience for some fortunate people...including me. I seem to have emerged from my brain trauma in a miraculously happier, even blissful and giddy state at times. I take life's daily blows more in stride, and feel its highs more acutely. I put things in perspective and take a longer view. I've become somehow more patient and attentive to others. Hey, I'm no saint -- but I have to say that my stroke has made me a better person, less temperamental and driven, more in the moment and in touch with those I love. (They say so too.)

My wife Camille, who has been joined at the hip with me throughout my recovery and rehab drama, and I have developed a sick sense of humor to get us through it all. She's a writer too - in fact she interrupted her own wonderful book in progress for Viking Penguin on the globe-trotting, bohemian marriage of Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson (she was a kickass American frontier woman turned artist) -- to care for me these past months. (Fortunately she'll be going back to work soon.)

Anyway, during all the stress and drudgery of rehab and doctor appointments, Camille and I entertain each other by coming up with book titles for today's modern stroke victims -- such as "Different Strokes for Different Folks." We also ponder writing a cheery book modeled on those upbeat hospital booklets they hand out to you -- we'd call it, "Congratulations...You're Having a Stroke!"

But in all seriousness, this medical catastrophe has in some very real way been a cursed blessing for me -- just what the doctor ordered. It derailed my life in some essential way that I'm still trying to make sense of.

I wake up every morning with two simultaneous realizations in my head...1/ Damn, I've had a stroke...and my vision is still screwed up, and so is my speech and sense of balance...and 2/ Damn, I'm still alive, and I can think and read and walk (slowly) and give love! The second thought soon overwhelms the first and continues to through most of the day.

I just watched a re-reun of the Ken Burns documentary on the Roosevelts. (And yes, I greatly admire some of his work -- I must say that in my new magnanimous mood, because I was so critical of his Vietnam series.) Anyway, narrator Peter Coyote tells the story of how FDR first returned to his office in Manhattan after being stricken by polio. He needed the assistance of his driver to walk on crutches into the lobby of the big office building, but he still stumbled and fell awkwardly on the lobby floor, as a crowd of people looked on. How did Roosevelt react to this public debacle? He broke into loud laughter, and simply asked for people's help to get back up.

That's how I want to navigate whatever is left of my life -- laughing off the calamities that have befallen me (after all, they're built into life) and learning to depend on the kindness of others. If you carry your burden more lightly, I've found that it's also easier on those around you, especially the ones you love and who care the most about you.

My two cents for the day...or maybe three (my stroke has made me a bit long-winded).

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Thanks for this and I really hope he recovers to the highest degree possible.

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"a sick sense of humor to get us through it all"  I try to look for the positive things in life to sustain me but sometimes, That's what does, thus far.

Best wishes to  the most respected Mr. Talbot and his family in his ongoing recovery and finding Joy in life.

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  • 2 weeks later...

David Talbot posted this on Facebook yesterday:

Between Heaven and Hell: Tales From the Stroke Ward
(Pictured: That's me outside the ward, much improved but still wearing a crooked smile)
Before my ocean of feelings about my stroke – and the five weeks I spent in a stroke ward --- begin to evaporate (as even the most overwhelming experiences can and do), I want to record some observations about my sojourn at San Francisco’s Davies Hospital and the care I received there from its staff. My hospitalization still haunts me and terrifies me -- and makes me believe in people’s depthless capacity for love and compassion. When I tell stories about my weird and wonderful ordeal to friends and family, my heart begins to race, and I even worry about having another stroke. But I need to convey some sense of the experience, and how it changed my life forever -- and to pay tribute to the circle of complete strangers who for five intense weeks became my family.

Btw, I’ll return to this subject now and then in future posts -- sorry, it’s going to take some time to process and I’m never just going to “move on.” I don’t want to. I want to always hold on to what I went though, and what I’ve become. Of course, you keep changing after a stroke, and who knows who I’ll be in another five months? But for now, I still have a strange sense of floating outside myself. I’m in my wounded, slowly healing body, but I’m not. I’m alive, but not fully.

This hybrid existence gives me a different perspective on my life – and all my life-long passions (love, family, friendship, politics, journalism, music, film, food, the grand human parade, this mortal coil and whatever looms beyond, if anything). Everything is less intense these days, I see things in more proportion and with greater balance. And everything is MORE intense. My emotions can be as volatile and unpredictable as a high-mountain summer storm.

This weekend, I completely surprised myself by bursting into tears while visiting the location where my son Joe has begun directing his first feature film. Then as I began crying uncontrollably, I started laughing at the same time. My jumbled brain literally didn’t know whether to laugh or cry—or do both. I was simply amazed to still be alive and to be witnessing this major moment in my son’s life, surrounded by a special group of young women and men with whom he’s been pursuing this dream for the last five years.

Anyway, I’ve gotten off track… I tend to do that nowadays. This post is supposed to focus on the social experience of my hospitalization. Of course modern hospitals are like Lysol-washed factories. They have 24-hour shifts and work rules and protocols and workplace grievances and human grudges and bitchiness. When the fog began to lift in my storm-racked brain, I began to get a sense of the grinding routine on the stroke ward – and how its staff of strange angels often lifted me high on their wings, while bestowing the same special grace on ten or twenty other patients.

Davies Hospital, which occupies a small campus tucked away on the edge of San Francisco’s Castro District, has something of a legendary reputation, as one of the main treatment centers for the AIDS epidemic that ravaged our city – a plague that brought out the city’s true glory and resilience and human solidarity. The stroke ward staff, and the hospital in general, still has glimmers of this brave past.

The deliriously diverse makeup of the dedicated medical staff is the most powerful answer to the tight, walled world of Trumpism you can imagine. The doctors and nurses and technicians and support staff come from all around the world. They’re from Guatemala, Brazil, China, the Philippines, Ethiopia, Russia, Germany, Tasmania and beyond. They're lesbian, gay, straight and none of the above. And they all treated me as a human being worth their time and care.

They sat on my bed and told me scandalous jokes. They gossiped about the stroke ward and the holiday parties that were being planned – and asked my advice whether they should go to Palm Springs for Christmas, even though they had mixed feelings about the guest list.. They shared outrageous stories about hospital life -- like the patient who was equipped with a bowel bag but couldn’t help from eating a smuggled-in bean burrito – with explosive consequences. (The haz mat team took days to clean his room –forced to swab even the intricate crevices in the TV that was suspended high above his bed – talk about going projectile).

They expanded my traditional Western medical treatment, with all its latest pharmacology and intrusive devices, by offering me an array of alternative care, from acupuncture to Reiki massage. One especially creative male nurse adorned the center of my body with gemstones. (It felt warm and comforting.) A neurosurgeon who happened to come into my room at the time was stunned by the tableaux that greeted him – it looked like I was being prepared for human sacrifice.

Among my numerous disabilities after my stroke was my urinary dysfunction. My inability to piss forced the nurses to catheterize me three or four times a day. This procedure is of course not something to look forward to, but as the dread time would draw near, I would dearly pray that I would get one of the more adept nurses on shift. The gay nurses tended to be best at wielding a catheter. “Honey, I know my way around a penis,” one of my favorite nurses assured me. “The trick is to use lots of lube.”

As the days and weeks wore on, despite the nurses’ ungrudging xxxistance, I began to worry more and more about my equipment failure. My worst fear was that when I was finally discharged from the hospital, I still wouldn’t be able to, well, discharge. And as the date drew near, in fact, the nursing staff began to prepare me for this unhappy possibility by trying to train my wife and me how to do the procedure. But I proved inept because my right arm and hand were partially paralyzed. Poor Camille seemed amazingly game to learn the task.

I’m delighted to announce (you can’t imagine HOW delighted) that just days before I was due to be released, the floodgates opened and the golden fluid flowed. When at long last I pissed on my own, the nursing staff – who had the sweet but sort of annoying habit of asking me how it went each time I visited the bathroom – broke into loud cheers in my room. For the rest of the day, doctors and nurses filed into my room to congratulate me. The blessed event occurred ten days before Christmas, and it was the best present I’ve ever had. Truly.

I spent Thanksgiving on an eerily quiet ward, gorging on ice chips and whatever was flowing through my feeding tube (pureed turkey)? I did not get out of the hospital until December 22. But the holiday season was made much more festive for me when my wife and sister Margaret (who had flown in from the East Coast, where she writes for The New Yorker, to be with me) brought some sparkling Christmas lights to decorate my hospital room. I had requested lavender lights instead of the traditional red and green (boring), and the twinkling display never failed to cheer up the harried staff when they stopped by on their rounds. My male nurse from Brazil was a larger-than-life, boisterous presence, and he insisted on re-stringing the lights and re-arranging the bouquets that kept arriving, in order to make the room more fabulous. He succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. Later, when I was getting ready to leave, he demanded that I gift the lavender lights to him, and I couldn’t imagine a better home for them.

The deep, dark hours of the night are naturally the most disturbing in a hospital. The hustle and bustle has died out, and all you hear is the occasional, eerie moan from another patient’s room, some suffering soul who can’t make it through the night. It’s hard to slumber in peace because you’re awakened at regular intervals by nurses who need to “check your vitals,” to make sure you’re still alive. The graveyard shift at hospitals is sometimes staffed by heroic individuals – and sometimes by some of the sketchier personnel.

About halfway through my hospitalization, I was very fortunate to have a true shining angel appear by my bedside during the late, late shift. She often had the unenviable task of catheterizing me in the wee wee hours, which she invariably did with expert hands and a remarkable good cheer. During odd intervals like this, I often fell into conversation with the staff, asking about their background stories -- out of journalistic habit, loneliness, and a genuine curiosity to know about the men and women who held my life, and my body parts, in their hands. This particular angel, whom I never saw in a bad mood during my long weeks in the hospital, had come to San Francisco from the Philippines as a young woman. Now she was a grandmother, and she regaled me with stories about her family and about the holiday feasts she was preparing. One night she brought her homemade tapioca pudding to me because she knew I had a hard time swallowing.

Eventually it came out that this woman cared for her autistic grandson during her off hours from the hospital. While encouraging me to learn how to catheter myself, she told me that her brother had been crippled in a car accident as a young man, and had been forced to learn to catheter himself many years ago because he was paralyzed from the waist down. She told me that her buoyant spirit came from her Catholic faith, but there was something celestial even deeper in her soul.

I could go on forever about my hospital “ family.” About the beautiful young Cambodian physical therapist whose parents had escaped the mad killing fields there. She forced me to stand when I thought my swirling dizziness would make me throw up. And this miracle walker had me walking with a cane when I thought I’d never take another step.

And there was my speech therapist, the progeny of a Jewish father and Chinese mother who had met doing city politics (classic San Francisco story). She began each morning by reading to me from the daily newspapers, because she knew I was a news junkie. She encouraged me to start eating increasingly more challenging solid foods, carefully watching my throat muscles with each swallow to make sure I wouldn’t choke or aspirate. At this stage of my recovery, eating just a few morsels was so strenuous, and frankly scary, that it hardly seemed worth it. My speech therapist was another miracle worker on the stroke patient “reassembly line” who was so boundless in her radiance and determination that it was infectious. At a time when my facial paralysis made it nearly impossible to even crack a crooked smile, she made me laugh out loud about the latest Trump antics or absurdity of life.

The cast of Davies Hospital Stroke Ward celebrities is much larger, of course, but I can’t celebrate them all here. I also don’t want to unduly invade their privacy. But let me at least sing their first names to the skies, where bright stars should illuminate the galaxy for all time in their honor. I will remember their large and small acts of grace and kindness as long as I live. They not only made it possible for me to keep living, they restored my faith in the often questionable phenomenon that is the human race.

Stroke ward angels, let your names ring out forever! Glenn, Rebecca, Jason, Eliano, Nella, Sarah, Meaza, Thomas, Dr. Knapp (never knew his first name), Dr. Ng (ditto), Patty, Paolo, Larry, Jeffrey, Jane, Lisa. Please forgive me, all those whose names have escaped me. I plead mental infirmity. After all, I had a fucking stroke!

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Whew! Touching story!  I've never thought I could work in a hospital and have never been comfortable in a hospital. But you have to give thanks to these selfless people doing some things most of us would be so uncomfortable  doing, who genuinely want to be there for us at the moment we are most in need.

Great Story, David!

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Such a beautiful and touching sharing.

I am sure I will always keep part of this essay in my mind and heart , without even trying to do so.

To read something so human interaction touching, inspiring, encouraging and "funny" by David  in his current medical condition state is simply amazing to me.

What a great writer David Talbot truly is.

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I am gratified Mr. Talbots "sick sense of humor" and continued recovery persists.  From his books I never thought of him as a comedian or comedic writer but I Laughed Out Loud three times reading this at lunch today.  Thankfully I was done eating before I got to the part about the bowel bag.  Hang in there Mr. T.  Keep us posted, people (besides me) care.

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