Reflecting on my life after my stroke 20 years ago
Grace H. Yeh (a.k.a. Nobu)
May 2016, Arcadia, California
My life changed instantly on May 18, 1996. That was the day I had a stroke, transforming me from a woman on the go to one who is disabled. That moment—which shocked me, my family and friends—while it has made me humbler, has also helped me appreciate life. As I reach the 20th anniversary of my stroke, I want to share my thoughts with my children, grandchildren, and family.
As a stroke patient, I am one of the fortunate ones, because it only damaged the mobility on the left side of my body. I have been able to write, to do some house works, and to drive. Most importantly, I did not lose my speech or memory. Through intensive physical therapy, I have gained back about 85% of my motor function.
I thank the Creator who has kept me alive and given me one of the greatest joys of life: being a grandmother, or as my grandchildren call me, “A-ma.” In the months after my stroke, I had many friends from all over the world and of different religions (Christians, Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Shintoists, etc.) who told me that they went to their church, temple, mosque, or shrine to pray for me. That made me wonder, “How many Gods are there in this world?” I was really puzzled at first, but in a short time I came to the conclusion that there is only one God, and He has many names. I continue to believe this now and will carry it for the rest of my life. Religious stories are written by men, but my faith is in the Eternal. This feeling of enlightenment came directly from my thoughts in those days after my stroke.
When I was in a UC San Francisco hospital bed, a Christian friend visited me, and without any greeting, she began preaching to me. Now, I grew up in a church, so I neither needed nor wanted to listen to her preaching, and I stopped her. I was very disappointed and annoyed by her attitude. Then she asked me which leg I had trouble with. “Left,” I answered. She started to pray for me, her voice growing louder, and she prayed for my “RIGHT” leg. I was disgusted about this kind of Christian, a true hypocrite. How can she be a good Christian? After she left, Sze-Ya told me “We need to fax HER personal god to correct her mistake.” This was the first time I laughed out loud after my stroke.
Though I was quite depressed, I still had a few sweet moments. Sometimes Sunu would wheel me out to the hospital courtyard, where Michael waited with Perri (their beautiful corgi). She would sit on my lap and gave me wet kisses. They knew I loved to see Perri and that those visits really cheered me up. Thanks to my son and daughter-in-law—they were very thoughtful and luckily they were both physicians at UCSF. They made sure I got the best care and treatments at the hospital.
When I was discharged from UCSF to fly back to Philadelphia, the United Airline’s flight crew gave me a napkin with a drawing of a beautiful Hawaiian beach to wish me a rapid recovery. They also gave us a bottle of champagne so we could celebrate my discharge from the rehabilitation hospital. I have kept this napkin in my dresser for the last 20 years. When we landed in Philadelphia, an ambulance was waiting for me at the airport to take me to Moss Rehab Hospital.
Moss Rehab Hospital is a part of the Albert Einstein Medical Center where Sze-Ya was the chair of the Ob/Gyn Department. He requested a private room that was very roomy. Carol came to put pictures of our family and corgis on the wall to accompany me. I started therapy, which would continue for the next 3 weeks. Sze-Ya visited me two to three times a day to cheer me up during his breaks from work. Every evening he spent time with me after work and ordered take out food to have dinner with me. Sometimes Carol came with delicious homemade food and accompanied me in the evening. She told me funny stories of life with our new corgi, Annie. She brought Annie to the hospital garden to play with me on weekends. Every evening when Sze-Ya and Carol left, I was always in tears; I was so lonely in the hospital bed. One of the nights after Sze-Ya left, I started to cry out very loud until I felt I had no tears or energy left. It was the first time I felt calm, so I started to pray, asking God to help me overcome this hurdle. I decided I would accept the challenge of my fate and do my best.
My lovely daughter Carol gave up her summer job and came back home to stay with us. Every morning she made sure that I got to Moss Rehab for my therapy classes on time. She also drove to Pittsburgh to pick up our new family dog, Annie. It was a great joy to have Annie. Carol took on the role of caretaker for me while also taking Annie to obedience classes. She took American Sign Language classes at a local college and also took care of the house, like grocery shopping and preparing dinners every day for all of us. Through my illness, I was grateful for my children.
I also appreciate my brothers who made a special trip to see me in Philadelphia. They traveled from western Canada and California just for me. I truly treasure the love and caring they always show me. I am grateful to have such wonderful siblings.
Throughout these years, I have been fortunate to have a loving husband with unconditional love and support. He has always been my best cheerleader, making me feel good about life. When I was in the UCSF hospital, he stayed in the room with me, slept on an uncomfortable couch at night—he never left me. Everyday he told me “I love you”—words that always warm my heart. In our over 50 years of marriage, he has never changed a bit. I am most grateful to have him in my life.
My best friends Betty and Peter Tongloau were with us in San Francisco when I had stroke. They rushed to my hotel room to help me and walked with me while I was getting in the ambulance to the hospital. I vividly remember seeing them through the ambulance’s small window. They visited me many times while I was in the UCSF hospital. After I returned to Philadelphia, they made special trips to visit me every time they visited Betty’s mother in New Jersey. I really appreciate their encouragement and love throughout the past 20 years.
I would also like to thank a group of friends in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. Their friendship has been priceless. They were so kind, they often prepared cooked dishes for me. The very first time after I came home from hospital, we all went out to Chinatown in the evening. Everyone took turns pushing my wheelchair—that was one of my fondest memories. Dr. Sam Weng tirelessly helped me with acupuncture and medical advice. Dr. Zwu-shin Lin issued friendly challenges to me to make good progress with my therapy, and his jokes often made me laugh.
Our good friends, Dr. and Mrs. Chung Wu, came to visit me many times from New Jersey, not only bringing delicious homemade food, but most importantly sharing their philosophy of life with me and introducing me to the practices of daily meditation and Chi-Gong to regain balance. I have followed Dr. Wu’s advice for the rest of my life. They are my teachers, and I am forever grateful for their wisdom and kindness.
When I was in Moss Rehab Hospital, our friend Dr. Dick Paul called me often from Los Angeles to tell me that many of our good friends were waiting for my recovery to travel to Europe. In 2002 we went to Sicily together for 10 days and spent a memorable Easter with the Tuccis in Como, Italy. That was truly an unforgettable trip. In 2006, we took a tour to Northern California with the Pauls, Tuccis, and Yazawas. During this trip, we also spent a few days at the Pauls’ lake house near San Luis Obispo.
When I was in Moss Rehab Hospital, I had a few unique memories worth mentioning. All the therapists were very nice and kind to me, helping me to do different movements for daily activities, such as sitting at the dining table. My private physiatrist Dr. Ann Idiculla (we all called her “Dr. I”) gave me excellent, compassionate care with her abundant knowledge and introduced me to Dr. Alberto Esquenazi, the director of the “Gait Lab,” which uses computers to evaluate patients’ muscle function. He is my hero. Although he has an artificial arm, he works exactly like everyone else. He gave me Botox injections with his artificial hand. I admire him, and he is my inspiration. Through him, I became orthopedist Dr. Mary Ann Keenan’s patient. She did skillful operations on my left leg to give me back some muscle function. This surgery and another 3 weeks of physical therapy helped me to walk better. For the first time, I was able to straighten my toes. (The stroke made all my left toes crooked.) I started to walk on the treadmill 0.5 mile to 1.5 miles a day. It truly helped me to regain strength to go on many trips and join Sze-Ya at many conferences, since he never went out of town without me.
With my disability we traveled often for our great passion: music. We participated in opera tours and went to the Schubertiade in Europe and many U.S. concerts including some at the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall in New York City and the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont. We enjoyed a life full of great music that sometimes I felt that I was no different than the others.
2003 was one of the most memorable years of my life. In April, we joined our friends Frank and Violet Luh for 3 weeks to tour France. Sze-Ya did all the driving and Frank made the tour arrangements including historic sights, accommodations and dining in Michelin star-rated restaurants. We had a unique opportunity to stay at our dear friends Dr. & Mrs. Michel Tournaire’s summer house in Brittany for a week. During this time we went to Le Mont Saint-Michel cathedral. We had nice weather, and we could drive all the way to the parking lot near the cathedral. It was a memorable trip. And the best event of that year was the wedding of Carol and Matt in November in Baltimore. All five of my brothers and some members of the Yeh family came to the wedding. They came from Western Canada, Germany, Ohio, and California. The best moment in the wedding ceremony was when all my brothers and Sze-Ya formed a male chorus to sing a Taiwanese song to the new couple. I was at the piano accompanying them. It was the sweetest moment for me.
In 2005, Sze-Ya and I moved back to Arcadia, California. At that time, our granddaughter Teresa was only one month old. We wished we could stay on the East Coast to see her more often. We left behind many good friends in Pennsylvania and drove west with Annie. My brother David and many cousins were all in Southern California, so it was not an entirely new and strange place for us—although we still went through some adjustments to relearn Taiwanese culture. We started to get involved in North American Taiwanese Medical Association (NATMA) activities and met many new friends there, some of whom continue to be close friends today. Sze-Ya and I joined the NATMA medical missions to Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, during which we were both actively involved in patient care.
In 2009, Sze-Ya organized a religious study group among Taiwanese to promote interfaith dialogue, the Taiwanese-American Religious Study Association (TARSA). We are grateful for the strong support we have received from the Taiwanese community. Through our monthly meetings, we made several close friends and had opportunities to meet leaders of different religious groups in Southern California. Now we are in TARSA’s 8th year—this organization and its activities has turned out to be the most fruitful events of our retired life.
I am very fortunate to become a patient of the Rancho Los Amigos Rehabilitation Center through a Taiwanese second generation physician’s help. Through this connection I received the best care and referrals to the best physical therapist in the area, Ms. Arlene Yang. She has helped me improve my daily life functions. Now I have weekly physical therapy sessions, and I feel that I am still making progress, even 20 years after my stroke. These are my biggest accomplishments since moving back to California.
My only regret is that all my grandchildren were born after my stroke. None of them have ever seen me walking like a normal person; this also includes my son-in-law Matt. Despite this one regret, I have focused everyday on the joys of life and the love and pride I have for my children and their families.
Now, Sze-Ya and I are stepping into the sunset of our life journey. We have walked together hand-in-hand and together, we will face the challenges ahead. Our love will not fade. He is my life-long, loving partner. I also have family and many good friends’ support. Right after my stroke, I was an angry “Why Me?” but now I say “Why Not Me?” instead, because I am full of love and have been loved. I have the most abundant joy in me, facing an unknown future. I thank all my family members and friends near and far for all their support, seen and unseen. They remain in my heart; I cherish them all.
I am the most fortunate wife, mother, and grandmother. My conclusion is: I have to believe in myself and to accept the reality of life with determination and confidence. We have been able to overcome all difficulties of our life. We have to realize that NO ONE is perfect; we should always try to do our best and to enjoy our life. Time has passed by faster than we thought. Life is short—we should treasure every day. We should focus on what makes our lives happier and more meaningful.
P.S. To all the family and friends: Being disabled really has not been that bad. There are some privileges, such as finding parking spots more easily. In California, the blue placard will even get us discounted or free parking. When I take flights, I get to board before other passengers.