Fighting back: How a martial artist recovered from stroke
In the first days of physical therapy, when the therapist would say “great job,” it didn‘t feel that way to William Bouchard. The message he heard was: “not good enough.”
Recovering from stroke can feel like starting over, having to relearn various motor skills that the stroke has affected, physical therapist Kelly Grier explains. It‘s inevitably frustrating, especially for a healthy martial artist such as Bouchard, accustomed to a high level of physical activity.
On April 4, co-workers found Bouchard, 72, slumped in a stairwell at the Syracuse VA Medical Center, where he works as a biomedical engineer. They thought he had fallen. A test called computed tomography angiography, which showed detailed images of the blood vessels of his brain, revealed a clot on the right side. Bouchard was having a stroke.
He was quickly transferred to the Comprehensive Stroke Center at Upstate. Medication helped shrink the size of the clot, and neurosurgeon Grahame Gould, MD, used a clot retrieval device to remove what remained. Bouchard only remembers when “they told me I wasn‘t going to karate the next morning.”
Bouchard trains regularly at Impact Martial Arts near his home in Clay.
It would be three months before he would return to the dojo, as martial arts schools are called.
In the meantime, he would spend 22 nights at Upstate University Hospital. First, Bouchard recovered in the neurological intensive care unit, a space devoted to patients with neurological injuries and illnesses, staffed by nurses and technicians with specialized training.
Later he transferred to inpatient rehabilitation. Upstate has the largest adult and pediatric inpatient rehabilitation center in Central New York.
Once back home, Bouchard continued with outpatient physical and occupational therapy.
“Studies show that the earlier you can get people to rehabilitation, the better the outcome,” says Shernaz Hurlong, DO, Bouchard‘s physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor.
She says most of the recovery that will occur after a person has a stroke takes place within the first three months. Some of Bouchard‘s success is due to his persistence, and the fact that he was active and healthy before his stroke. “Having goals and motivating factors is also important,” she says.
His therapy began with a stretch band while he was still in the intensive care unit, already voicing the desire to get back to the dojo. Ten weeks later, Bouchard progressed to wall kicks, running and sparing movements using his boxing gloves during twice-weekly sessions with Grier, his physical therapist.
“He‘s had a remarkable recovery,” Grier says. “What really stands out is his high self-efficacy to get better.”
Grier can‘t recall a patient with goals as ambitious as Bouchard‘s. He told Grier he wanted to run a mile and do 500 karate kicks – per leg – as part of his therapy. So, she built a therapy plan incorporating karate moves that were familiar to Bouchard before his stroke. When he said he wanted to walk up the hill that is Adams Street, that, too, became part of his rehabilitation.
“I do my very best to make sure that each patient‘s goals and interests are being talked about in therapy, so that rehabilitation is meaningful to them,” Grier explains.
On a recent weekday, Bouchard strapped on boxing gloves and punched a target held by his daughter, Kristin Bouchard of Phoenix, also a martial artist. Grier stood behind Bouchard, ready to steady him if he wobbled. Bouchard surprised even himself. “I‘m more stable on my left side than I thought,” he said.
Grier admits that her sessions with Bouchard are work-outs for her. “I find it hard to keep up with him.”
She remembers how at the beginning of his therapy, like many patients, Bouchard wanted to see results overnight.
In the weeks to come, he learned that physical therapists track progress incrementally: distance walked, number of repetitions, amount of weight lifted. Grier used those objective measurements to show Bouchard that he was making progress toward his personal goals. It helped him realize he was doing great.
This article appears in the fall 2017 issue of Upstate Health magazine.