A Positive Spin After Stroke

May 23, 2020

The best word to describe Edward Modrak is resilient.

Over the course of his life, the 55-year-old has beaten a brain tumor, battled bacterial meningitis and lost his house to Hurricane Sandy—and he’s always come out on the other side with a steadfastly positive attitude.

“I just look at it like I’m grateful for what I have. I’m grateful for everything,” he says. But that optimism faced its toughest test on Thanksgiving Day in 2018.

Biggest Battle Yet

“It was a particularly great Thanksgiving,” Edward recalls. “We usually spend Thanksgiving with my wife’s family. We went to visit them in Brooklyn. My nephew and I went in the backyard and fried a turkey. There were a couple of drinks, a ton of food and a load of football.”

But shortly after dinner, Edward started to suffer from a headache, which quickly became some of the worst pain he has ever experienced. His wife, Dawn, finally decided it was time to go to the hospital. When he arrived at Bayshore Medical Center, however, things got worse. Edward lost feeling in his legs, then the numbness spread to his arms and his blood pressure shot up.

“My brain was telling my legs to get up and go to the [check-in] counter, but my legs didn’t want to work,” he says.

After tests were run, the doctors discovered Edward suffered a hemorrhagic stroke. “A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a weakened vessel ruptures and bleeds into the surrounding brain,” says Rajiv Prasad, M.D., chair, Department of Emergency Medicine at Bayshore. “We were able to quickly get a CT scan, provide an immediate diagnosis and initiate treatment for Edward, which is vital for the best chance at recovery. We focused on controlling the blood pressure to reduce the bleeding and minimize damage to the surrounding brain.”

While at Bayshore, the feeling in Edward’s arms slowly started to return until he had movement in them. “I could always breathe on my own and I could eat,” he says. But he could still not feel or use his legs. He was paralyzed—and it left the former New York City police officer reeling. for protection,” he says. “That’s where this stroke threw me into turmoil. In a matter of a few hours, I went from being strong and capable to being weak and incapable of taking care of myself. I had to rely on other people to take care of me.”

But his prognosis was good, and after about one week at Bayshore, Edward was transferred to the Riverview Rehabilitation Center at Riverview Medical Center, Monmouth County’s only CARF-accredited (Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities) acute inpatient rehabilitation center.

“He was having a lot of difficulty walking, but the expectation was that he was going to improve significantly, and he did,” says Javier Soares Velez, M.D., a physical medicine and rehabilitation medicine specialist at Bayshore and Riverview.

The Road to Recovery

On the first day at Riverview, Edward’s physical and occupational therapists gave him a strict schedule that included exercising over three hours a day.

“One of the things they had me do was pick out beads from putty,” he says. “It sounds like something a child would do, and as an adult, I was having a hard time doing it. After a couple of days, I started to get more strength back in my fingers.”

The exercises to get his legs back started off basic. Edward first had to practice getting out of a chair. Once he mastered that activity, the activities increased in difficulty. For example, he practiced putting on his shoes, going up and down a flight of stairs, and getting in and out of a vehicle, and he was given exercises to do in his room every night.

“They taught me all new ways of doing things,” Edward says. “For example, instead of just jumping in the front seat of the car, I had to be more conscious of the way I did things and do them in a safer manner than I was used to.”

No matter how difficult the task, Edward did whatever he was asked. “He was always very motivated, which is a big part of going into acute inpatient intensive rehab,” says Dr. Soares Velez. “The patient needs to be motivated and want to do the work, and he wasn’t lacking in that. That helps the team.”

That strict adherence to doctor’s orders wasn’t by happenstance: It’s a difficult lesson learned from the stroke itself. “I had a hemorrhagic stroke, and it was from hypertension. The hypertension came from me being a little overweight and not taking medicine,” Edward says. “My doctor wanted me to take the medicine, I didn’t take it, and that’s what got me into this problem. So this time I looked at it as, ‘I better listen and do what they tell me.’”

Walking Out

When Edward got to Riverview, he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to walk again. But within 21 days, he graduated from a wheelchair to a walker to standing and walking on his own two feet. That progress kept him motivated. “Once I started to see progress, I felt like there could be light at the end of this tunnel,” he says. “I was able to keep going forward.”

A few weeks before Christmas, Edward went home. “I felt like I had accomplished something,” he says. “I felt like sometime down the line I would lead a life like I used to have.”

But Edward’s time out of Riverview didn’t last long. He soon returned to recognize the work of the team—Dr. Soares Velez and his physical and occupational therapists—that worked so hard to help him regain his sense of normalcy. He presented the team with a plaque featuring a quote from Mother Teresa: “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.”

“Everybody at Riverview had a positive energy and a smile,” he says. “Just to see their smiles made me feel safe and comfortable. It was this team that got me back to health, with what they taught me and what they made me feel. They gave me the confidence to keep going and to keep trying.”

Dr. Soares Velez says recognition of the team is important because getting Edward to a point where he could go home and be independent wasn’t a one-person effort. “As a team, we collaborate,” he says. “Putting that together with a positive attitude gives patients confidence that they’re in the right place. You’re giving them hope that they’re going to get better, and we’re there to help.”

Not Taking Life for Granted

While Edward isn’t back to his full strength yet, he is getting there—and he’s excited to indulge in all the activities that he found joy in before his stroke, including going to the beach, skiing, fishing and, most importantly, riding his beloved Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

“I used to ride it every day,” he says. “It clears my head. When I’m on my motorcycle, it’s just the open road and me. It puts me in a different frame of mind.”

No matter what activities he gets up to, however, Edward says he’s learned some valuable lessons that he will continue to carry. “It makes you realize how life can change so quickly and not to take it for granted,” he says. “And you have to smile a little bit more, be happy a little bit more.”

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