Sunday, January 19, 2014

Memories of my first Stroke Camp - Monica

By Monica Vest Wheeler

This is the third in a series of articles written by Monica Vest Wheeler. If you missed the other two at the end of December 2013, now is a good time to get caught up. Just look for her name at the end of the title.   

The concept of Retreat & Refresh Stroke Camp was a whole new experience when I attended my first camp in June 2008. Though I clumsily offered my services as a volunteer, I spent more time people-watching and listening than lending a hand.

I watched this group of individuals, each with their own story and background, meld into a group that quickly found collective joy, support and encouragement. 

When I first talked to executive director and founder Marylee Nunley weeks earlier, she had explained that everybody wants to tell their story, because stroke is the most dramatic trauma many of these families had ever experienced. Why? Because it changed them and the course of their lives forever. Most say it’s “bigger” than cancer or heart disease with its memory, cognitive, speech or paralysis challenges.

Marylee said the biggest task is often having to accept the fact that the survivor won’t be the same person they were before because of abrupt shifts in physical, emotional or cognitive abilities, but “what can I do to be the best I can given the circumstances?”

“You don’t lose the person, but there are a lot of behaviors altered,” she explained. That’s hard for many people, and some may feel sorry for themselves.

“I’m so blessed to have a positive attitude and a family of origin that always turned things around. I feel like it’s my mission to give back and encourage and cheer all these people on. Besides encouraging the survivor, the caregiver is often the overlooked individual. I am blessed with a wonderful, supportive family, a positive attitude and a lot of energy. Many folks are not.”

As I watched campers and volunteers move from one activity to the next, I witnessed this overwhelming, yet not smothering, sense of family. 

A tractor pulling a trailer, affectionately called “the people mover,” took everyone on an old-fashioned tour of the grounds. As I bumped along with everyone else, I could not mistake how something so simple could create such joy … the smiles, the laughter, the hand-holding, hugs and soul-refreshing relaxation. 

The family-style meals created a real sense of community as volunteers gave the caregivers a break and offered survivors any assistance they needed in serving or cutting meat. I remembered what Marylee had told me earlier.

“If you can’t find a word, then somebody will help you. If you’re drooling and don’t have sensation on one side, if the food is there, we’ll just hand them a napkin and say, ‘Oops, let’s tidy up here.’ We all know that’s the way it is with surviving a stroke.” She said many stroke families don’t go to nice restaurants anymore because of the stigma or feeling embarrassed.

The term pampering took on a whole new meaning when I watched the other volunteers give campers massages and manicures on Saturday morning. All who indulged in the back rubs were visibly relaxed as their pace of breathing slowed to give tired and tense muscles a reprieve from constant stress. They played games, joined in crafts, and some even climbed the rock wall.

At the close of the weekend, an abundance of hugs and voices rich with appreciation and love swirled around me. Nobody wanted to leave, even though they knew this much-deserved vacation had

ended. However, its lessons learned and connections made gave these campers the fuel they needed to return to everyday life. “Retreat & Refresh” was true to its name.

I didn’t want to leave either. I was addicted. After 40-some camps, I’m still here and looking forward to embracing the love, laughter, adventure and everyone I will meet this year.


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