On February 12, Philip Staebner was eating scrambled eggs for breakfast with his wife, Mary Lou. As Mary Lou described it, he began to have “problems swallowing and his face fell to the left. Every scoop that went in, it went out.” Mary Lou called 911. She knew her husband was having another stroke.
Strokes occur when blood flow to the brain is interrupted, or when a blood vessel bursts and floods the space around the brain. In either case, brain cells die. Depending on the severity, strokes can cause paralysis or weakness, often localized on one side of the body, as well as problems with emotion, concentration, memory, understanding and speech.
The Staebners had been attending Fairfax County’s Helping Hand Stroke Club since Philip Staebner had his first stroke, several years before. Although everyone in the support group had already had first or second-hand experience with a stroke, group leader Constance Bell continually reviewed the warning signs. 25 percent of people who experience a stroke will have another within five years.
Bell is a speech/language pathologist for the Fairfax County Health Department. She has been facilitating these group meetings since 1990. “I have seen the members of the group mentor new people who have just had a stroke accident in the family,” Bell said. “I’ve seen how the existing members reach out to newcomers and have an impact on their lives in terms of hope and encouragement for recovery. That’s the biggest thing they do.”
On Wednesday, May 3, the Staebners, Bell, and Peggy Turnbow were sitting in a classroom at Hollin Hall Senior Center. The Mount Vernon support group meets here every first and third Wednesday of the month.
Philip Staebner had been out of the nursing home for one month. He sat in a wheelchair, his eyes shut or half-shut. At Mary Lou’s urging, he demonstrated how he’d been taught to train his hand, which wants to bunch itself in a claw at his chest. He arduously spread his fingers and placed them on the crown of his nearly bald head. Then he ran his hand over his head to the base of his skull, as if he were running his fingers through his hair. Mary Lou told him to do it several more times, explaining to him and to the group that his physical therapist wants him to practice it more often.
Mary Lou is her husband’s only care-giver. A professional would cost $18 an hour, there is no family living nearby to help and Philip still wants to do many things for himself. Turnbow understands Mary Lou Staebner’s position. Turnbow cared for her husband Thurman for six years, during which he had two strokes. Thurman Turnbow died in 2003, but Peggy continues to come twice a week. “I just feel like we’re family,” Turnbow explains. Bell and Mary Lou Staebner agree.
“People who haven’t been through it really don’t understand the totality of the caregiving,” said Turnbow. “It’s 24 hours around the clock and you really need help and assistance because you really get worn out, you get completely worn out.”
“What are you doing so you don’t get worn out?” Bell asked Mary Lou Staebner. “Nothing,” she replied, exasperation creeping into her voice. “I’m getting worn out!”
Bell suggested the Staebners become involved in an activity program for stroke victims, but Mary Lou Staebner rejected the idea. “This is what he wants to do,” she said, gesturing at her husband, who sat impassively. “He wants to sleep. Would you square dance if they wanted you to square dance Philip?”
“No,” Philip replied, his eyes closed. Bell then told Philip that instead of square dancing, there might be lectures about guns and trains, two of Philip’s strongest interests.
“I don’t care about it anymore,” Philip replied tiredly.
“But it will help you remember when you did care about it,” Turnbow answered.
THURMAN TURNBOW loved to work. He taught college during the day and worked evenings and weekends as a printer at the “Washington Post.” After he retired from University, he taught printing at a high school. Then he started selling cars for Brown Motors. “Are ever going to stay home?” Peggy Turnbow remembers asking him.
Despite a minor stroke three years earlier, in 2000 Thurman Turnbow was still walking the Turnbow’s German Shepherd, Caesar, every morning. One morning, he was late. Peggy began looking for him anxiously out the window. Suddenly, Caesar bounded up against the glass. Heeding the message, Peggy rushed outside. She saw her husband lying on the corner of Parker’s Lane. Thurman Turnbow later said that as he was crossing the street he felt as if a two by four hit him in the back. Unable to walk any further, he held onto the leash while the dog pulled him across the busy road. Lying on the sidewalk, Thurman told Caesar to go home and get his wife.
The ambulance arrived within minutes, but Thurman was left with his hearing, speech and movement impaired. Peggy struggled to take care of him alone. One night, Thurman walked outside into a thunderstorm and refused to come in. Peggy had to call 911. Another night, he fell on the steps. Unable to move him, his wife brought a blanket to cover him, and he slept on the landing. After this experience, Thurman’s neurologist told Peggy, “Let’s talk about a safe placement.” Both Turnbows resisted this option. But “things began to close in,” said Peggy. “I realized the doctor was right … and it just went down, down.”
Despite these setbacks, Thurman retained his sense of humor, especially at the stroke group meetings. “He used to just come in and tease me,” said Bell. “He was an asset to the group because of his personality. He brought a lot of laughter and encouragement to the other men.”
But the laughter stopped. “He lost his sense of humor when he went into the nursing home,” said Peggy..Thurman refused to sell his house, so Peggy had to remain behind, although she went to see him every day. “He’d always say at the end of the day, ‘Take me home.’ And that was very upsetting. It always made his good will and his happiness just drain … he didn’t smile and he was unhappy and I think he blamed me for putting him in the nursing home.”
“When he became incapacitated he couldn’t accept it,” Peggy Turnbow said. “Finally he told me quite honestly. I’m sick and tired of being sick. And he just wouldn’t cooperate with anyone.”
TURNBOW believes her husband gave up not because the stroke broke his body but because it broke his will. “I believe that he could have helped himself. Maybe he would never have completely recuperated, but certainly he could have walked and stayed out of the nursing home where he was bathed, diapered, carried, fed. He was totally dependant. He couldn’t get up and go to the bathroom himself … it robbed him of his will to work toward an improvement in his health. It got to the point where if I didn’t feed him he didn’t want to eat. I had to be at the nursing home to feed him at least two meals a day ... and after a while he wouldn’t chew for me … I saw that step by step by step decline.”
But amidst this despair, there was an exception. All his life, Thurman had taken pleasure in boating. When he became too feeble to board a small boat, Peggy would take him on cruises. “Even though he had difficulty in walking, and he had to walk with a walker and walk with a cane … when we were on board the ship he would hand me the cane like, ‘I don’t need that,’ and he would walk like himself, like he had no impediment,” said Peggy. “When my husband was happy … he was so in charge ... If I could have bottled that and given it to him one dose every morning, I’m sure he would have improved.” But there was no medicine for Thurman Turnbow’s despair. He lived for one year in the nursing home, and died in the hospital where he had been taken because he had stopped eating.
Her husband’s struggle changed Peggy’s life. “You learn a lot through these illnesses,” she said. “I learned how to take care of him and how to support him. 24 hours. I tried to get help but he wouldn’t cooperate with the help …That was a big part of my life for six years: caretaking and learning how to do it.” Much of this learning occurred in the stroke group, and the lessons transcended the technical aspects of caretaking. “I learned that we have to enjoy each day … Make sure that every day is a good day for you. No matter what your responsibilities are you have to enjoy each day because you never know,” Turnbow said.
Three years after her loss, Peggy Turnbow brings her own poetry to share with the stroke group. “There’s so much you can learn just being here with the group, just by sharing,” she added. “I couldn’t think of not being here with the group.”