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Stroke-recovery leader puts emphasis on awareness

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Strokes are a major cause of death in the United States, but hope remains for those who survive them, the Stroke Comeback Center’s executive director told the Vienna Business Association May 12.

“A full and productive life is certainly possible after stroke,” Suzanne Coyle told the group during a luncheon at American Legion Post 180.

Coyle joined the non-profit Stroke Comeback Center in 2008 and became its executive director two years ago. She addressed the business group during National Stroke Awareness Month and noted Vienna had been designated a “Stroke Smart Town.”

Strokes come in two basic varieties: ischemic, which involve blood-flow blockage in the brain, and hemorrhagic, in which blood leaks in the brain or between the brain and skull. People sometimes also suffer a transient ischemic attack (TIA), a mini-stroke that often foreshadows a bigger one to come.


Strokes occur once every 46 seconds in the U.S. and happen to people of all ages and health conditions, Coyle said. The center’s average client is 60 years old and more than half are under age 65, she said.

People can guard against strokes with a healthy diet, regular exercise and tobacco-free lifestyle, she said.

A common result of strokes is aphasia, a language disorder that affects about 2 million Americans, including action-movie actor Bruce Willis, who was diagnosed with the condition recently, and former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was shot in the head during a 2011 assassination attempt.

“It’s not a loss of intelligence,” said Coyle, who likened the condition to the confusion one would experience upon being dropped into a foreign country where one did not speak the language.

How strokes affect survivors depends on which side of the brain was injured. The left half of the brain controls the right half of the body and typically is linked to logic and language; the right half controls the left side of the body and is associated with creativity, Coyle said.

Stroke survivors – not “victims,” a term Coyle reserves for those who do not survive – can recover, although that process never ends. Coyle cited the neuroplasticity theory, under which people’s brains recover via active stimulation.

Insurance typically covers only a few months’ worth of therapy, “and that’s where we come in,” she said.

Intake meetings cost $75 and there are other program costs, but the center does not turn people away for lack of ability to pay, Coyle said. Donations help keep the center’s fees affordable, as strokes are “financially devastating,” she added.

The center began in Oakton in 2005 with 12 patients and in 2009 moved to 145 Park St., S.E., in Vienna. The group also operates a facility in Rockville. As of January this year, the organization served more than 120 weekly participants and offered in excess of 60 weekly classes.
The Stroke Comeback Center is launching “Thrive” classes, which combine fitness, art, music and yoga “for a nice, well-rounded recovery,” Coyle said.

The center’s programs are designed to serve more than just those who have suffered strokes.

“Stroke impacts not just survivors, but the whole family,” Coyle said.
For more information, visit www.strokecomebackcenter.org.

• • •

Coyle emphasized a mnemonic acronym – BE FAST – to help people remember stroke signs. It stands for:

Balance: Loss of balance.
Eyes: Loss of vision in one or both eyes.
Face: The person’s face droops or looks uneven.
Arm: One arm is weak or numb.
Speech: The person has slurred speech, has trouble speaking or seems confused.
Time: Don’t waste any time if stroke symptoms manifest themselves. Call 911 immediately.

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