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

My Stroke Experience

In 2010 I suffered a cerebellum stroke while driving a semi like this one with a full load, 60 mph down hill, on a two-lane 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 weeklong accumulation of misbehavior, sleep one night in my own bed, only to resume the weekly routine the next day.

I was alway 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 the dryer and 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 up to speed so I didn't know what that would be like for a blind 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 to sense if I was still on the road. Then after a few minutes 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 sure that they don't allow those past the pearly gates. So I engaged my brakes and 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 fumbled with the number pad trying to feel and count until I heard, "911, what's your emergency?" 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 to create a strobe light effect in hopes of catching a legible glimpse of the labeled road. I managed to find a nearby intersection and within minutes the ambulance was there.

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

By the time the ambulance came to get me I had lost the 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. Again, he repeated, "You need to come down out of the cab." Unable to catch a satisfying breath, I argued, "I can't stand up, but I'll try to slide off the seat." He called another paramedic to assist him. I shifted my body to the opening of the doorway and once I felt his hand on my leg I just fell desperately helpless into their determined grasp. 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 any thing 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. 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 “ahh’’s 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. 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 strutted back to the side of the bed and turned around. And closed my eyes. The celebration that I expected was null. Thinking, “Did I just go deaf or are they all bi-polar?” 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, the more control I regained. Suddenly a thought hit me like a brick. "What about my music? 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 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, the dexterity returned and I played for 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 come to my mind that I had forgotten that I knew. So like a 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.

One of my doctors said that he believes that one reason that I was able to recover so quickly was because of my 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 until now.” No one knows why I suffered the stroke or why I was able to heal so quickly, but I attribute my quick healing to the One that said,”…I am the God that healeth thee.” Exodus 15:26 (KJV).