By Kim Walter
FRONT ROYAL -- Upon hearing about a local stroke support group, 41-year-old Pat Bowman wasn't sure if he'd want to participate.
He'd already been through some recovery and therapy after suffering from a stroke at age 39. The stroke altered his physical and communication abilities.
"It definitely happened, and I am changed," he said Tuesday evening. "But coming to a support group meant I would have to say 'I had a stroke.' Part of me was still in denial."
However, over the past several months Bowman has attended the monthly support group meetings. He said he feels his participation has enabled him to keep learning about his condition and, most importantly, keep improving.
"Each time I am motivated to keep going," he said. "Each time I learn something new."
Bowman is one of up to 30 people from Warren County and surrounding localities who meet the first Monday of every month at the Warren Memorial Hospital Outpatient Center. The group includes both stroke survivors and their caregivers.
According to the American Stroke Association website, stroke is a disease that affects the arteries leading to and within the brain. It is the No. 4 cause of death and a leading cause of disability in the country.
A stroke occurs when a blood vessel that carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain is either blocked by a clot or bursts. When that happens, part of the brain can't get the blood it needs, so brain cells die.
The support group strives to provide a safe setting to foster the special comradeship based on shared experience of those impacted by stroke. Guest speakers also come to offer education on prevention, lowering risk factors and life after stroke.
Several group activities are planned throughout the year, like cookouts and holiday parties to provide group members with additional socializing and emotional support.
Bill Grandy, 66, of Front Royal, sits on both sides of the fence in the support group. He suffered a stroke at age 61, and while he feels like he's close to his old self, he's now in the caregiver role for his wife who suffered a stroke several years later.
"Stroke is tough on the people who go through them, and the people who put their all into making sure they're taken care of," he said.
One of the toughest things for Grandy was how his friends and family treated him after the stroke. He said they either "backed away in fear" or overcompensated, speaking and acting toward him in a way that wasn't necessary.
Peggy Lee, 62, of Front Royal, agreed. She said she often struggles to remind herself that she can't do certain things like she used to before having a stroke at age 58.
"In my head, I am the same person," she said. "I always try and do things that maybe I shouldn't, because I like to be independent. But it's hard to know my limits."
Lee misses working most of all. She said some days can become quite depressing when she realizes that she has nothing to do.
Michelle Davies, group coordinator and occupational therapist at Warren Rehab Services, said depression is high among stroke survivors. Even after extensive rehab, therapy is often a necessity to help survivors and their caregivers cope.
"Stroke is different for every single person who experiences it," she said. "But our support group accepts anyone and everyone who is ready to move forward and accept themselves."
Jerri Scantlin was 45 and living in Texas at the time of her stroke. She relocated to an area just outside of Strasburg earlier this year to be closer to family.
While in Texas, Scantlin found a support group that "was the most important thing" to her. When she moved to the area, though, she quickly ran into a problem.
"I couldn't find anything here," she said. "Even though I had been in a support group for a while, I still wanted to continue. I still need it even though it's been a few years."
After learning that a stroke support group in Winchester had disbanded, she came across an ad for the group in Front Royal. She plans to keep participating in order to learn more about what she can expect further down the road. She also has concerns about her college-aged daughter having a stroke, since it runs in her family and seems to happen at younger and younger ages.
Bowman, a former data analyst for the Air Force, said he was a little surprised to see how many survivors came from such "small communities."
"I worked with numbers so I couldn't help but be a little shocked by the percentage of residents what have come to this support group," he said. "But it just proves to me even more that I'm not alone. No one has to be alone in this."
The group experienced both serious and joyful moments Tuesday evening during their meeting. They empathized with one another, but also cheered and applauded when group members shared successes.
"This is something I look forward to every month," Lee said. "I love these people. They've helped me learn to redefine myself."
For more information on stroke, go to www.strokeassociation.org. To learn more about the stroke support group, contact Davies at 540-635-0730 or email@example.com.
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org