Patients Find 'Sunshine' at Stroke Club

Times Staff Writer

Seated in the patio outside a meeting room at Saddleback Community Hospital Medical Center, volunteer Helen Blum was describing the attitudes many stroke patients have when they first start attending the weekly meetings of the Laguna Hills Stroke Club.

"When people come for the first time, they're mostly very withdrawn, very bitter at the world," she observed.

But those negative attitudes tend to change after a few Wednesday afternoon club meetings.

"Now," Blum said enthusiastically with a smile, "it's like a love-in here. You watch when they come in--we kiss and hug. They even kiss and hug among themselves. It's just so gratifying to feel that warmth."

As if on cue, a man and woman walked up, and Blum, described by a fellow volunteer as "our sunshine girl," greeted the late arrivals with a hug and a hearty, "Hello! How are you today?"

Inside, program director Norman Freestone gave a nod to volunteer Fritz Starr, who had just finished playing "I Want to Be Happy" on the piano. It was time to get things under way.

Theme Song

"Fritz, I think if we'll start with 'Sunshine,' " Freestone suggested, and Starr immediately launched into a rousing rendition of "You Are My Sunshine."

Without any prompting, the 35 stroke patients seated around the room joined Freestone and his seven fellow volunteers in singing what has become the Stroke Club's unofficial theme song.

The upbeat standard is an appropriate tune for the Stroke Club, a 4-year-old support group formed as a social outlet for those learning to cope with stroke-related disabilities. The main requirement of the club's six volunteers and two junior volunteers, said Freestone, is simply a "commitment to serve."

"It's been a help to me. I don't feel sorry for myself, and I just try to get better," said Genevieve McMahon, a 20-year Leisure World resident who suffered a stroke last June. "These volunteers are exceptional; they are simply wonderful."

Frances Van Huel, who suffered a stroke 10 years ago and has been attending Stroke Club meetings for four years, was even more profuse than McMahon in her praise of the volunteers: "They are a special group of people with compassion, understanding and love, who give and share of themselves."

The Stroke Club was formed in 1981, after federal funds to Saddleback Community Hospital's day-care center program, for people suffering from the effects of strokes, Alzheimer's disease and other age-related illnesses, were eliminated.

Freestone, the retired chairman of the speech and drama department at Occidental College, said he and several other hospital volunteers got together "to see if we could do something similar to that."

Working with people who had lost the ability to speak or communicate came naturally to Freestone, who has a doctorate in clinical speech, for years ran speech and reading clinics at Occidental College and headed the language rehabilitation department at Los Angeles Rehabilitation Center.

'Sense of Belonging'

Freestone said the Stroke Club's goal is not to offer direct therapy, but "to develop a sense of belonging within this group. Once you've got that kind of identity established, then confidence comes. They begin to pull out of themselves and out of their isolated environment."

After a stroke, he said, "it's so easy to just hole up in your home and feel sorry for yourself and let the world go by. We want to get them out of the house, to quit feeling sorry for themselves and to accept life as it is."

Freestone said many of the club members had to be coaxed into attending their first meeting by spouses or friends, but, volunteer Mary Kelley says, "Before you know it, they say, 'I wouldn't miss this for anything.' "

It's easy to see why.

With the amiable Freestone as group leader, the meetings are as upbeat as the vintage tunes Fritz Starr plays on the piano.

After opening the meeting with a song, usually "You Are My Sunshine," Freestone welcomes back any members who have been away or have missed meetings because of illness. He greets newcomers and gently urges them to say a few words about themselves. He then reads a couple of jokes out of a joke book. ("I like them to laugh," he explained.)

15 Minutes of Exercise

At this particular meeting, Freestone, a Mark Twain buff, also read a passage from a Twain short story, and one of the junior volunteers read an inspirational thought for the day.

One of the highlights of every meeting is 15 minutes of light exercise, led by Kelley, a retired singer-dancer-comic from Britain who says her stage experience spanned "vaudeville, musical comedy, legit theater--everything but the circus!"

(Taking her position at the head of the room, it's obvious Kelley has lost none of her dramatic flair: "OK here we go! For those who are new: We nod our heads and sing with everything we do. 'Yes sir, that's my baby . . . .' ")

As program director, Freestone is responsible for lining up guest speakers or entertainers, from Hawaiian dancers to doctors. ("The one who talked about nasal problems," Freestone noted with a grin, "was one of the most successful we had.")

If a speaker has not been scheduled, Freestone conducts what the volunteers call "meet a member." At the recent meeting, club member Ted Kortopates, who suffered a stroke six years ago, briefly talked about his illness. Then, at Freestone's urging, Kortopates, a Greek immigrant who entered the United States through Ellis Island, talked at length about his life and career in the produce business. (Freestone to Kortopates: "Can you tell us about your early schooling? Tell us about the first F you got!")

Although many club members are initially reluctant to speak, Freestone's gentle leading questions tend to get them rolling. The idea, he explained, is to get them "to participate with one another, and, hopefully, it extends beyond the group when they get home."

'2-Way Street'

Freestone, who was named Leisure Worlder of the Month in March, said his motivation as a Stroke Club volunteer is the same as the reason he went into clinical work.

"It is a two-way street," he said. "There's no question we get satisfaction in helping someone and seeing progress. It's difficult to describe how you feel."

Kelley has no trouble putting it into words.

"It's a big ego trip, if you want to know," she said. "Oh, the people are so appreciative and get so much out of it, and they let us know. It's certainly no sacrifice.

"And we've seen so many improvements. We have one lady who's badly paralyzed, and she's now even driving a car. We've also had lots of progress in speech where they wouldn't even try."

Support Motivates Members

Freestone recalled the time one club member walked into the meeting without her walker for the first time, and volunteers and fellow members alike broke into applause. It's that kind of support, he said, that makes members come back each week.

Another club member had become so bitter after his stroke, Freestone said, that "he was mad at the world and he hated himself. He has learned to accept himself, and if you talk to him, he'll tell you it was the club that turned him around."

"I had a chip on my shoulder," acknowledged Don Kohl, 63, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. "I was depressed, wondering, 'why did this happen to me?' "

Kohl, of Mission Viejo, suffered a stroke 3 1/2 years ago that left him partially paralyzed on his left side. Although he was able to walk fairly normally, he said, the stroke affected his continuity of thought and his ability to communicate.

"When I came here, I couldn't talk on the telephone or order a hamburger at McDonald's without bursting into tears," said Kohl, who credits Freestone with turning his negative thinking into positive thinking.

Reluctance to Talk

Kohl admits it took all of Freestone's best gentle persuasion to get him to talk at a meeting.

"Dr. Freestone had to work on me a couple of weeks to push me up there," he recalled. "I was reluctant, but he did talk me into it. I was an Army pilot in World War II, so I told a few war stories. This exercise, I know, has helped me."

Kohl recalled that after he had his stroke, his doctor wrote him a prescription to go to a physical therapist.

"What he should have have done is sent me to a mental therapist, which is what the Stroke Club is. Once you get your head screwed on right, it's much easier to face up to your problem, and you have a better chance of recovery."

Since attending the Stroke Club meetings, he said, "I'm at peace with myself, where before, I was very up tight and depressed."

"It's a feeling of friendship," he observed. "There's an old Indian saying that a friend is a man who carries your troubles on his back. We can walk through that door, and we know we're among friends who can carry our troubles on their backs."

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