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Stroke Patient Finds His Condition Changes Not Only His Outlook

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John Mercier now knows the time of his first stroke. Tuesday morning, April 15, 12:15 p.m.

He was working on the septic system in his yard, lifting the 100-pound concrete slabs covering the pipes and filters. He tore his carotid artery. There wasn't any pain. He kept working.

Two days later, he was sitting on his sofa when his wife Carol noticed his face was drooping, his mouth drawn to one side. Something was wrong. The next morning, the couple headed down Ga. 124 to Gwinnett Medical Center.

Doctors told the Merciers that John had had a small stroke. After two days of tests, he awoke in his hospital room, needing to go to the bathroom. He threw back the covers, swung his feet to the side of the bed, "and after that, I don't know what happened," he said.

Mercier had a seizure and another stroke, and this one was serious.

At 67, John Mercier is the average age of those treated for stroke at Joan Glancy Rehabilitation Center. He and Carol are grateful he survived. Every year, an estimated of 350 people in Gwinnett die from strokes.

But many strokes go unreported because often people don't know they've had one. Their faces may go numb, they may be stabbed by a blinding headache, they may become unsteady on their feet. They just wait for these symptoms to pass. Uncharted territory

And they don't realize that having one stroke --- sometimes likened to an electrical storm in the brain --- means they'll probably have another. The Merciers didn't know any other stroke victims, or anyone who had to deal with the aftermath.

"You lie in bed for three weeks, and you feel like a vegetable. You rethink your entire life," said Mercier, whose wry sense of humor carries him through difficult times. "You reassess your attitude toward other people. I mean, you have a lot of time to reflect on things."

"I would say that I always had a cranky attitude and was kind of a curmudgeon," he said. Carol believes it was a defense mechanism to protect him from disappointment.

"I was never a people person," he said. "I liked my solitude. Now I would say that I like people better than I used to. I'm more forgiving. More tolerant."

A native of Atlanta who retired as a technical draftsman from Georgia Power, he studied history and philosophy at Mercer, and he read widely and deeply in those subjects. His wife and he have explored the genealogy of their families. They're now living in a subdivision two miles from the Hog Mountain home of his ancestor Harvey Burel.

He spent a month in the spring as a live-in patient at Joan Glancy, getting almost round-the-clock help from physical, occupational and recreational therapists. The stroke seemed to short-circuit the left side of his body, weakening it. He struggled to turn himself over, stand up from being seated and walk without assistance.

"All you can think about is getting out," he said. "My roommate and I used to talk about digging a tunnel. I told him we needed to get tablespoons instead of teaspoons to move things along." Major adjustments

After four weeks of therapy at Joan Glancy, John went home on May 30. Neighbors continued to visit, bringing food and cards. At first, he couldn't get up from the bed by himself, Carol remembers, so every time he moved she had to help him.

Their son, Tim, a mechanical engineer, installed grab bars in the shower, bathtub and near the toilet, so that John could steady himself. "Now he can get out of bed at night and deal with those things on his own," Carol said. "We're just thankful the stroke wasn't worse. You don't know how bad it's going to be, or for how long."

Weeks of outpatient therapy at Joan Glancy have helped Mercier learn how to get out of a chair alone. Although he has "gotten tangled up" with pieces of furniture and has fallen down, he can now walk unassisted, slowly, using a cane. It seems miraculous.

"It used to be that I'd just pick up a glass of water and drink without thinking," he said. "We all do these things without thinking. Now, I have to think about what I'm going to do, like picking up a glass or clicking off a light switch."

Mercier continues to suffer from "left neglect," which means that he inadvertently ignores the left side of his body. At home, he sometimes runs into the left side of door casings. He can't see objects in the peripheral field on his left side. Carol has to wash one side of his body when he showers.

During outpatient therapy, when he was listing to the left, he amused his therapists by telling them that his problems stemmed from the 15-pound weight he carried in his left pocket.

"But it's gotten better," he said. "In the stroke support group, you learn there are worse things that could have happened."

Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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