BRENTWOOD – It happens in an instant. You have a job, but you can no longer do it. Your car is in the garage, but you can't drive it. Your sweater is in the closet, but you can't walk across the room to get it. Your spouse is at your side, and you can't even say, “I love you.” You've had a stroke, and in an instant, you've been robbed of the life you knew.
Dr. Ted King of Brentwood, founder of Access Sports Medicine and Orthopaedics of Exeter, was a prominent local orthopedic and hand surgeon until March 23, 2003, when, without warning, he had a stroke at the age of 56. Athletic and fit, King bore none of the known risk factors.
After a week in the intensive care unit and a month of in-patient rehab, King was back home, but far from back to normal. For the next seven months, King and his wife, Margie, made daily treks to Portsmouth for neuro-day rehabilitation. There, King worked with physical, occupational and speech therapists on a long, painful road to an unknown place, certain neither of how much physical recovery he could make nor of what he would now make of his life.
No longer eligible for rehab, King spent the next year at home, swimming to build strength and seeking acupuncture and cranial-sacral therapy for pain caused by relentless muscle spasms. He says, “It's been nothing like I expected. I thought it would be quicker to get past the stroke, to recover.”
A year ago, the Kings discovered SteppingStones, a community-based, post-rehabilitation day program of The Krempels Brain Injury Foundation, located in Portsmouth. King says, “I make an analogy to a board game. When I had my stroke, I lost the pieces I needed to play the game, like mobility and a job. I've been spending my life since then getting the pieces back and SteppingStones has helped me to retrieve some of those pieces.”
SteppingStones was created in 2000 to improve the lives of people with brain injuries, whether from stroke, trauma or tumor. Like King, once people have exhausted their medical eligibility after brain injuries, they are most often left to cope with significant limitations, struggling to play the game without all of the pieces.
David Krempels conceived of his foundation after surviving his own traumatic brain injury in a 1992 motor vehicle accident. He saw fellow survivors with few recreational opportunities, having difficulty keeping and making friends and with a dearth of work, educational or volunteer options.
SteppingStones emerged as a member-driven “clubhouse,” which, unlike similar programs, does not focus on employment, but encourages all activities that increase independence and quality of life. In five years, the program has grown from six members with a handful of caregivers, interns and one paid staff, to 140 members, 40 caregivers, 100 interns, 100 community volunteers and three paid staff.
Margie King says that the physical pain experienced as a result of a brain injury is rivaled by the pain of the isolation that exists in the aftermath of such a trauma. She says, “SteppingStones is a place where people who have been separated from their former lives by brain injury can come together in a real fraternity. They support each other, really cheer each other on. There's mutual admiration. The rest of the world doesn't get it. But at SteppingStones, the members are accepted.”
SteppingStones' seasonal programs alternate between Spring/Fall skill exploration and acquisition activities staffed largely by interns from various UNH social and rehabilitation service programs, and Winter/Summer enrichment programs staffed by community volunteers who offer activities in such areas as the visual arts and writing.
The program is open to members on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Members select from a “menu” of activities on any given day. On Wednesdays through the winter, for example, more than a dozen sessions are offered, from computer classes, to yoga, to gardening, to dancing. An average of 35 members attend each day, coming from as far as Boston and the White Mountains to take advantage of SteppingStone's unique philosophy: “You are not who you were, be who you are!”
Will DeGrauw, SteppingStone's program director, says, “Our members learn to accept challenges and to harness the strengths they have. They have demonstrated that survivors of brain injuries never plateau. Here, there is a collaborative sharing of humanness as members help each other to re-engage in society.”
DeGrauw says the reciprocal nature of the program extends to the dozens of UNH interns and volunteer instructors, who say they easily get as much from the members as they give to them.
Last week, Ted King spent the third anniversary of the date of his stroke skiing at Loon Mountain with the White Mountain Adaptive Snow Sports School. There he tackled Sarsaparilla, a novice slope, “with a reasonable degree of success.” King continues to attend SteppingStones and has begun working as a visiting lecturer in the Department of Occupational Therapy at UNH. King, who says he's had to “re-invent” himself, offers a final analogy: “SteppingStones is like an incubator for newborns. When you go in, you need that support to survive. But when you come out, you're capable of going it on your own.”