My Stroke Experience

Charles Van Deursen and one of the semi tractor-trailers  that he drove.

In 2010 I suffered a cerebellum stroke while driving a semi like this one with a full load (40 tons), 60 mph down hill, on a two laned road with no shoulders, and a short but wide bridge about a half of a mile at the bottom.

Just prior to this moment I was musing the thought of how I much I was enjoying the fact that I would be finishing up my 3,500 mile week almost a day early for a welcomed change. Usually my wife and I would exchange our sad "goodbyes" as I left on Sunday afternoons to return the following Saturday mornings to discipline our children's week long accumulation of misbehavior, sleep one night in my own bed, only to resume the weekly routine the next day.

I was always trying not to dwell on the fact that this was not my career of choice. I had already worked as an elementary general music teacher for over thirteen years in South Florida. Then after enduring three hurricanes (two of them within a month and one whose eye passed right over our house) and struggling financially from a poor business decision, we decided to sell everything and move to Georgia where I thought life would be much more simple, but there were no positions available for a music teacher. So after a couple of months of applying for employment at every available business, but to no avail, I entered a truck driving school and began a new career three weeks later. I had been driving for a couple of years and had long given up hope of ever teaching again. Now I'm about to be heading home; as soon as I drop this twenty-five tons of product at the yard.

But then strangely, as I looked through my windshield, my vision went sideways. The sky was now to my right and the road to my left. Curiously it stayed that way for a few seconds then it turned completely upside down. So now I'm looking down at the sky and up at the road and thought, "Oh boy this isn't good." But before I could attempt to stop the tractor trailer, everything appeared to be spinning like watching clothes spin in a dryer with a jet engine and so I effectively went blind. Now I KNOW that I'm in trouble. I had just left a small town on GA Hwy 121 so I thought, "At least the road is clear and I'll be the only one to die." Then what I assumed would be my last thought was the realization that, "Wow, in less than 5 minutes I'm going to be standing before Jesus, I sure hope this isn't going to hurt!" I yelled out loud, "Dear Jesus, You've got to help me!"

I had never pulled my emergency brakes before while driving fast so I didn't know what that would be like especially for a recently blinded man, so I just shifted into neutral and began braking like I do when I go down a steep grade, all the while trying to hold the steering wheel in such as way as to sense if I was still on the road or not. Then after a brief period it appeared that I wasn't moving any more. The peaceful serenity outside my head in contrast to the raging whirlwind within made me wonder if I might be dead, but I could hear the diesel engine and I was quite sure that they do not allow engine idling beyond the pearly gates. I mean certainly heaven is more environmentally sensitive than New Jersey.

So I engaged my brakes and my fingers sought blindly for my flip phone where I knew that the third button from the left was the speed dial button to my sweet wife. When she answered, I said, "You've got to pray for me. Something's wrong with me; I went blind and I feel extremely nauseous." She said, "Hang up and call 911."  I countered, "But I can't see the numbers!" She insisted so I closed the phone then opened it back up to fumble with the number pad trying to feel and count the bumps until I heard a female voice say, "911, what's your emergency?" I do not remember my response. She asked me for my location. She was not very satisfied with my guess, "South Georgia?"  I was disoriented. I didn't know where I was so I felt for and yanked my GPS device off of the dash mount and began blinking repeatedly while trying to rotate it to create a strobe light effect in hopes of catching a legible glimpse of a labeled road. I managed to find a nearby intersection and soon the ambulance was there.

Amazingly, where I had come to a stop was just off of the road right on the little bridge and the rig sat only about a foot over the white line on the edge of the highway. Turning off any sooner or later I would not be relaying this story to you today and I'm sure the cause of this event would have remained a mystery.

By the time the ambulance came to get me I had begun to lose control of my limbs. The paramedic climbed up the side of my cab and told me that he needed me to get myself out because he was unable to carry me down to the ground. Get back! I yelled, suddenly aware that I was about to vomit a belly full of orange Gatorade in his direction. He heroically opened the door and swung back barely escaping a spontaneous shower. "That helped a little," I sighed, but it didn't relieve my extreme nausea and profuse perspiration. He repeated, "You need to come down out of the cab." Unable to catch a satisfying breath of air, I argued, "I can't stand up, but I'll try to slide off the seat." He called another paramedic to assist him. I shimmied my body to the opening of the doorway and once I felt his hand on my leg I just fell desperately helpless into their heroic grasps. Once on the gurney stretcher I was compelled to try to stop the spinning in my head by turning my head as sharply to the left as possible. Even an owl would have been impressed. They sped me to the hospital, but I don't remember anything of what took place for the next a couple of days.

On the third or fourth day I awoke to find several therapists standing around my bed. They said that they were there to help me learn to walk again. I found their statement surprisingly humorous. "What do you mean?  I can't walk?" Not intending to be rude, but I thought, "I'll show you I CAN walk. I mean what's wrong with these people, really?" They advised me to slow down and be cautious. I appreciated their concern, but it also irritated me. Once I was on my feet. They steadied me and told me to try to take a step. In disgust, I leaned a little forward and prepared to take a step only my leg didn't move. Then an avalanche of horror overwhelmed me. And anger over my newly acquired disability made me demand another try. They cautioned me to take my time. Slowly my leg and foot began to move a few inches. Their jubilant excitement interrupted my concentration. "Really people!" I screamed in my head, "Calm down!" Then once I could support my weight on that foot, I slowly brought my other foot forward. Again, another eruption of joy. "Come on. I'm not a toddler," I thought. But then the room was filled with beams of wonder and multiple "aahhhs" as I began to take more steps with their gentle guidance, until after four or five steps I was walking as well as I had ever walked. Then I spun around to the sound of their spontaneous gasps. They began a ruckus of statements like, "It's a miracle! That's amazing! Look at that! It's a miracle!" While I was thinking, "What's the big deal?" I can walk. So what?" Reading my puzzled expression they kept saying, "Don't you realize...? You're not supposed to be able to do that. It's a miracle."

Now let's try your arms. So like a rock star I proudly strutted back to the side of the bed, turned around and closed my eyes and with some assistance stretched my arms out on either side. I heard the instruction to touch my nose. So I began. The celebration that I expected was null. I mused, "Did I just go deaf or are they all bipolar?" I opened my eyes and was horrified to watch my extended hand reaching in directions other than toward my nose, but then, the more I tried, gradually the more control I regained. Suddenly a thought hit me like a brick against my head. "What about my music playing? Previously, I was confident that I could walk and discovered that I couldn't. What if I think I can play, but can't."

I began playing air guitar and air piano, with imaginary instruments. All the way home I tried to visualize chord and note fingerings so that I could play them on the passenger side arm rest. My wife asked me what I was doing. I told her that we needed to get home right away and the first thing I'm going to do is play something on the piano, but as unexpectedly as the corner we turned toward home, my optimistic anticipation raced down to a muddy bog. "What if I'll discover that I can't...? I quickly threw the dreadful thought out the window. When we arrived home, I made a beeline to the bench and tried to play. Equal to my earlier experience, my fingers' fine motor skills did not respond very well at first, and it took a little longer to clear up, but eventually, like cleaning out the cobwebs of my ability, my agile dexterity returned and I continued playing various tunes for nearly two hours. Finally, my slightly exasperated wife had reached her fill of my triumphant noise and requested that I take a break. Admitting that all this activity was exhausting, I agreed to let it rest for a bit.

Up to a year later titles of songs would continuously come to my mind that I had forgotten that I knew. So each time, like discovering another hidden gift under the Christmas tree, I would immediately rush to my instrument to find out if I could still play it. Most of the time I could, but each one shared a laborious, but glorious return.

Later one of my doctors said that he believes that one reason that I was able to recover so quickly was because of my many years of music making. He said that part of my brain is dead, but that another part has taken over for it. I lamented, "It must be that part that I hadn't been using all this time." No one knows why I suffered the stroke or why I was able to heal so quickly, but I like to attribute my quick healing to the One that said, " am the God that healeth thee." Exodus 15:26 (KJV).

You will be amazed at the miracle of my survival, and the fact that I did not harm anyone or damage anything. Please read my story below.