How Social Networks Improve Recovery from Stroke, Stroke Survivor Turns the Research into Art

By Munz, Michele | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), January 31, 2016 | Go to article overview

How Social Networks Improve Recovery from Stroke, Stroke Survivor Turns the Research into Art


Munz, Michele, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


When patients come Dr. Amar Dhand's office for their first follow- up appointment after having stroke, the neurologist tells them what they need to do to get better: Stop smoking, eat a Mediterranean diet, exercise and drink in moderation.

Dhand says it's preposterous, however, to think his authoritarian speech is enough to make what can be dramatic lifestyle changes in a person's life. Not when family and friends surrounding a person spend their daily lives smoking, going out to eat or sitting on the couch.

"These things have dramatic influence on a person's behavior, and it hasn't been very well described or utilized in patients' lives," said the neurologist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

So Dhand has begun studying his stroke patients' social networks. He is charting how circles of friends, colleagues, family members and even acquaintances change after a stroke; and how this evolving network impacts recovery. He is wondering, how can the power of these social influences be used to improve care?

To visualize his research, Dhand stuck dozens of Post-it Notes in groups of three to his office wall. The notes contained dot-to-dot diagrams of a patient's social network pre-stroke, three months after and six months after a stroke.

"Every day I walk in, I'm reminded that a person is not just a patient but an individual engulfed in a web of social relationships," he said.

Soon, stroke patient Lindsay Obermeyer was sitting in front of the doctor for her follow-up appointment. The textile artist and college professor was impatient with her recovery and yearning to get back to her busy, challenging life.

They began talking about Dhand's research. A bit mortified by the Post-It notes, Obermeyer visualized the circular mandala as a more beautiful representation of the web-like designs. It was the start of an art display that not only fulfills Obermeyer's role as an artist and Dhand's role as a doctor; but also their desires to be educators.

"One circle at a time, one stitch at time, I can get people to understand this heart disease epidemic," said Obermeyer, 49, "and how some basic changes in your life can make a massive difference."

OLD CHEERLEADING SQUAD

Two years ago, Obermeyer had an ischemic stroke, the most common type of stroke when blood supply to the brain becomes blocked. She first started having double vision. When she woke up the next day, her face drooped on one side, her left arm fell when she tried to raise it and her speech slurred. Her daughter called 911. Because Obermeyer, of St. Louis, got to the hospital quickly after the warning signs, doctors were able to give her a clot-busting drug and medication to help prevent nerve damage, she said. Though still very weak, she walked out of the hospital two days later.

She regained her strength by climbing stairs in her home, knitting scarves until one turned out even and crocheting doilies until they didn't ruffle like a potato chip. Though she tires more easily, Obermeyer is nearly back to her pre-stroke self.

Many aren't so lucky. More than 795,000 people in the U.S. suffer a stroke each year, and about 130,000 die. It is the leading cause of serious long-term disability. At her stroke rehabilitation group, Obermeyer said she was the only one who walked in on her own and talked easily.

Her recovery was still challenging. Obermeyer was a single mom living with her adopted daughter. She had just moved back to St. Louis six months before having her stroke and had lost many of the connections she had growing up. Despite hating to ask for help, she shared her needs on Facebook. Responses came from near and far.

"People who I thought would help, did not, and people who I did not expect to help me at all, did," she said.

Members of her old high school cheerleading squad took turns driving her to doctor and physical therapy appointments. …

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