Page 6 of 6

Let it bleed


This was a week of bad news.

I can’t get into what it was exactly. But it was that gut-wrenching stuff that first has you slip into denial, then into bargaining with higher powers, then finally, grudgingly and painfully into acceptance.

And, hopefully, into the kind of acceptance that comes with action. What I can do in this case can only help emotionally, it can’t specifically impact things one way or another, but still…

I want to write about the bad news. I did, actually, and then destroyed it because I can’t put it out there without betraying a confidence.

My mind is a fog and I can’t focus on my original plan for this week’s blog. Wasn’t it Ernest Hemmingway who wrote something like; “Writing is easy, you just sit down at the typewriter and bleed”?

So, I’ll follow Papa’s lead, and the Rolling Stone’s, too, and Let it Bleed.

When my mind was made mush five years ago by the stroke, it was devastating and almost too much to comprehend. Especially given that I was trying to comprehend using a faulty melon. But at least I could do something about it. Being faced now with circumstances that I can’t take direct action on is having a sizzling impact on my noggin.

It would be fascinating if it wasn’t so frustrating.

I often think about my stroke in then and now terms. I couldn’t read then but I can read now (albeit much slower and usually with the aid of a reading device). My memory was a sieve then, but it’s normal now. (Practically speaking this is true but not technically). I was an emotional glue bag then, I’m normal now. (What’s normal?).

The fact is that this news I’m dealing with has made me get real on these “facts” and others.

I’ve recently written about my turtle reading speed, my memory tricks and the fact that the new Tim is a bit, ‘er, emotional.

What I haven’t always confronted directly or honestly with myself is that I’m constantly rebooting my brain to function differently without the aid of the sizzled parts. I have to work harder to do this. Work harder, coax it along, show it love and patience and do mental calisthenics and tricks.

The good news is that this is possible. The bad news is that it’s a constant effort and, under stress, the tricks can fail.

I’ve been exposed by this in recent days. It seems, with my mind heady with the new stuff that ‘the recent news’ has weighed in with, I’ve been slipping up. Simple words aren’t coming to me. Complex ones are miles away. I’m forgetting to remember. I’m having brain drain doing the most basic stuff. And that emotional glue bag thing is getting glouier and baggier.

Depressing. Until you take it for what it is. An athlete who’s lost a step can still be a star, he or she’s just got to learn how to protect the weakness and get everything out of their strengths. Economy of effort.

It’s frustrating. It’s angering. But even anger can be our friend. Like the drawing at the top of this blog says, don’t ever give up. And sometimes not giving up takes getting a little pissed off.

That’s that for now. Please see below for the final installment of the feature story I wrote for the Edmonton Journal on my stroke.



Part 4

Former journalist Tim Seefeldt tells the story of his amazing journey to relearn the basics 3 Rs

By Tim Seefeldt, Edmonton Journal

June 13, 2014

I got a handle on the alphabet with the help of flash cards designed for children. The cards would show me a b,d and aD and I’d try to parrot back what letters they stood for. Then it was on to flash cards with entire words on them. From there it was cards with questions.

I also had packs of children’s “First Words” cards. They’d have simple pictures with the corresponding name written beneath. So, a picture of a book would have the boldly coloured letters b-o-o-k beneath it. And who could forget the page after page of pictures of forks, pens and dogs? be-It turns out that I could. Initially it was tough to make the connections. But little by little, my brain seemed to kick back into gear and this stuff started to click.

I’d work through these with Heather at our sessions. Patricia would run through them with me several times a day every day. And I’d work on it the best I could by myself.

At times it was humiliating to be staring at worksheets designed for children and know that I was struggling to do would many kids could manage with ease.

Heather motivated me by getting me to write my story. When this started – about a month after my stroke – the writing was very rough. I couldn’t read it moments after I’d written it. But I felt like I was working on a real project, proving fate wrong.

As the weeks went by, the homework got more complex. By summer I’d moved on to exercises that required me to fill in missing words in short sentences. Was the right word hurry or worry? And then there were the “builds.” These would start with a couple of sentences that would build the story to a short paragraph then a longer one, exercising my reading ability and memory.

To spice things up, I had pages and pages of simple math sheets. Stuff like: You have three quarters and your pop cost you 54 cents. How much money do you have left? To be in my mid-40s and unable to easily make simple change was depressing. But I learned to cherish every simple improvement.

Heather picked up the pace. She added newspapers designed for new Canadians to my rehab. I’d practise reading and be tested on comprehension. Eventually, I started taking on sections from books and doing verbal story reports.

By August, things had improved enough to allow me to start working part time. I worked for a consulting company that used social science to solve problems. My job was to bring in clients and I had to solve the complex problem of how to succinctly explain to them what we did.

We identified a reading device I was able to load on my computer to help me read. Without this, a return to work would have been impossible.

An average person reads at between 150 and 190 words per minute. I was at 20 in the early days of rehab and improved to 51. I still use the reading device today.

As well as things were going, there were a few shots of ugly reality to come. In the fall I was going to face a comprehensive series of tests at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital over the better part of a day. These were supposed to show how well my brain was rebooting. It would isolate specific regions to determine how they performed on their own.

The pace of my rehab continued to pick up. I joined a quirky reading group at the Glenrose geared to the strokedout and brain injured. At my first meeting, I met a guy in his early 50s who inspired me. His summaries were a bit wordy but I was impressed with his reading speed. If he could do this, so could I, right? During a coffee break I chatted with him.

“You’re doing great,” I said. “Thanks,” he said. “And it’s only been six years since I had my stroke.”

That was another shot to the gut. Would I still be here in six years? Would my parttime work fizzle and leave me unemployed and on financial assistance my remaining days? What would the test at the Glenrose tell me? Was I just fooling myself?

I failed the test. With the different parts of my brain tested in isolation, I couldn’t stand up to the pressure. But the neuropsychologist who oversaw the test told me a secret.

While parts of my brain in isolation may not be up to snuff, she said it appeared that I’d learned some tricks over the previous months that could override the deficits. Notetaking was a big help and something that came naturally from my journalism days. She said just the act of taking notes helped memory.

“Who knows how much you’ll be capable of?” she said. “Keep trying and don’t let this test define you.”

It’s been four years and I’ve spent every day trying to prove that test wrong. Most days I succeed.

Sure, the scars are still there. I’m reminded of them every time I punch in the wrong numbers on an ATM with a long frustrated line behind me.

On the surface, I live a pretty average life now. And to me that’s a huge sign of success.

I’m among more than 315,000 Canadians who are living with mild, moderate or severe disabilities due to stroke.

And what’s so frustrating to so many survivors: half of the people who have had strokes are never able to work again. This includes people in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. I’ve seen this first-hand through volunteer work with the Stroke Recovery Association and its program with Alberta Health Services that sees stroke survivors visit new victims in hospitals.

I’m in a new job and for the most part folks wouldn’t notice I’m a stroke victim. Patricia and my girls treat me like a husband and dad. That is, they get angry at me or laugh with me, they don’t pity me and walk on eggshells around me. I even got my driver’s licence back.

Patricia also played the role of head coach and motivator while my daughters – Kristina and Anna – were my inspiration. This is more than a nice to have. Research shows that support from family and friends is a powerful tool in recovery.

So is amazing rehab. I had this in spades. Every stroke is different, so the job of rehabilitation is a real head game. It’s too complex for a cookie-cutter approach.

“The treatment plan is different for everybody,” said Heather Stamler, the Speech-Language Pathologist who led my rehabilitation. “It’s not like one mode of therapy fits everybody. We interpret what we discover and we go from there with the input of the patient.”

Stamler said they try to work with the patient’s goals top of mind.

“In your case you were young and you wanted to get back to work. You were eager and motivated,” she told me. “You were instrumental in working on a treatment plan with us. So we made it very specific to you getting back to the kind of work that you’d been doing.”

The wrinkle was that as somebody who relied heavily on reading and writing at work, the stroke hit me in about the worse place possible.

“It was going to be very difficult for you to get back to be doing those things,” said Stamler.

So she and her colleagues studied the kind of work I did, talked to me about the job and came up with a plan that would give me the best shot at getting back to it.

Beyond the practical role of rehabilitation, Stamler noted the importance of being aware of the emotional toll a stroke puts on the victim and the people in their lives. This needs to be dealt with compassionately as the treatment moves forward.

And as the stats above suggest sometimes the stroke victim’s goals won’t line up with reality.

“Success may not look exactly like it did pre-stroke,” she said. “Some people compare their new self to their old self. You can’t do that.”

That you’re reading this proves there’s at least the hope of a road back from stroke. I’ve tapped out a book as well, something that I couldn’t even manage before my brain was fried. Whether or not I ever get a publisher to bite on the book, the words are there in black and white.

Proof that you can put Humpty Dumpty back together again.


Comfort rots the brain


Comfort kills.

It rots, it mutes, it makes us benign.

Kevin Spaceys’ character Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint nailed is in the great movie, The Usual Suspects. He said:

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

When we think there’s no devil, there’s nothing to keep us sharp. We get soft. Or as Pink Floyd perfectly put it, we become comfortably numb.

Rage against the devils that mute us, I say!

It took me stroking out and having to reboot my brain to get hip to this trick. It doesn’t have to go so far.

I’m convinced that we’ve become wired today to make us think that the early struggles and challenges of life are supposed to lead us to a land of milk and honey where we can finally just sit back. So we get to a point where we can do our job in our sleep and go on autopilot to handle the other things in our lives.

That’s when we’ve made it, baby.

Except that we haven’t.

Because — I’m convinced of this — that’s where the rust sets in. And before you know it, one day melts into the next. We’re not bending our brains. We’re not stimulating our souls. We’re at risk of becoming like a character in another amazing Brit band’s song, Synchronicity II by The Police: “He walks unhindered through the picket lines today. He doesn’t think to wonder why.”

Think! Wonder! Our brains literally feed off of this.

So do we seek high stress jobs and drama in our personal lives to stay sharp? Been there, done that. It’s the other extreme. Maybe it’s another trick of that damn devil. In my case, it’s likely a key driver in my path to the stroke ward.

There’s a middle way that’s not benign.

You’ve got a great job that you’ve been doing for a long time that’s keeping the family in groceries? That’s great. Maybe volunteer on weekends at an inner city homeless shelter? You’ll get yourself some stimulation there. Guaranteed.

You’re kinda shy? Did somebody say ‘open mike night at the local comedy club?” There’s nothing like the sound of crickets after you’ve delivered your best gag to get those juices flowing!

Angry about that good for nothing politician who keeps talking without doing? Don’t be a do-nothing yourself. Volunteer on the campaign of that layabout’s competition during the next election.

Don’t be afraid of being afraid. If you’re a right brain gal, find left brain stuff to do. Hey left brain guy, take a walk on the right side.

There’s also stuff that you can do without leaving the comfort of your hacienda. There are loads of brain games and programs online and at your local book store. Read books and magazines on subjects you don’t normally follow.

I knew a guy in the advertising game once. He said some of his colleagues would go to different kinds of houses of faith to challenge and stimulate their noodles – a synagogue one week, an evangelical church the next, then a mosque. I was once at a Hindu wedding and, wow, was that a feast for my mind.

If folks run to lose weight and build heart health why is it so crazy to exercise your brain? It’s not. It’s madness not to.

Here’s a bit more from my newspaper piece:

Part three:

Former journalist Tim Seefeldt tells the story of his amazing journey to relearn the basics 3 Rs

By Tim Seefeldt, Edmonton Journal

June 13, 2014

Everything we do, everything we are is connected to our brain. Its four quadrants control various functions. So where the stroke hits determines what type of damage it does. And the longer it goes on, the worse that can be.

Simply put, a stroke is a sudden loss of brain function. It’s caused by the interruption of blood flow to the brain or the rupture of blood vessels to the brain. While this is happening, the brain is being damaged.

There are more than 50,000 strokes per year in Canada – one every 10 minutes. It’s our third leading cause of death and our leading cause of adult neurological disability and hospitalization.          

You don’t fix a broken brain.

The parts that are sizzled are done for. It becomes a matter of rewiring the brain to the degree that that’s possible. For me, the vision problem and body control weren’t the big issues. I was able to get those working for me again pretty quickly, though I’m still numb on the right side.

The real jolt was to the three Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic. Oh, I almost forgot: my memory was sizzled, too.

Technically, I had a large left posterior cerebral artery territory infarct. That meant that the back left side of my brain was damaged. I literally needed to relearn my ABCs and simple math. Confounding the task was that I couldn’t draw on important bits of the past and I struggled to keep hold on what was happening in the present.

Damage to the left brain is felt on the right side. That’s why it was my right eye and side that let me down the morning of my stroke.

Put it all together, I’d fail a general test of my intellectual abilities. I wasn’t capable of meaningful work and it wasn’t clear that I ever would be.

I had enough brainpower to realize this could add up to financial ruin, a downgraded life and a very raw deal for my girls and Patricia. I had lots of encouragement, but no promises.

I started my career as a newspaper reporter, spending 11 years in journalism. Writing was the only thing that my grade school teachers thought that I had some knack for.

I saw reporting as a path to writing books. But as the years passed, I kept putting it off. It was always in the back of my mind.

Now the back of my mind was broken.

I spent a week and a half on the stroke ward at the Grey Nuns, with a weekend pass to break things up. It was depressing and frightening. The only plus was meeting the folks who worked there who could deal with the horror of stroke without giving in to the depressing vibe.

Dr. What’s His Name was actually neurologist Mikael Muratoglu. He did a lot for me, nothing more important than trying to make it clear to my strokey mind that attitude would be as important as science in getting better.

Heather Stamler is the speech language pathologist who took on the task of teaching me to read and write again.

Twice a week, Patricia drove me to the Nuns for my sessions with Heather. (It turns out that they take away your driver’s licence when you’ve had a stroke.) Heather gave me daily homework to noodle over between sessions.

I now have new respect for people taking on English as a second language. Why does a capital D face one way while a lowercase d swings the other? Why is I before E except after C? Except when it isn’t? There were so many contradictions that I’d given no thought to in the days when thoughts were easy.

If my life then had been a movie, this is where the Rocky theme music would have kicked in. It felt like the training sessions before an improbable shot against the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. If I thought about it too much, it seemed impossible. Don’t think, I told myself; just do.

Heady stuff



The response to Blog # 1 blew my mind.

I knew that there was loads of interest in all things brain. But I didn’t dream that my first effort would get to so many readers or that the feedback would be so heady.

And after connecting with many of you, I realize that I have to do a bit more stage setting before going any further.

In the first helping of Brain Food I gave a sample of what the stroke fried in my mind. I want to be certain that I didn’t gloss over this. When I wrote that I lost the ability to read and write, I meant that I really lost it. That bit of brain was dead to me. It wasn’t a matter of snapping out of it. It meant firing up new brain bits and starting from scratch. Like a kid. But like a kid with a fried melon that may not be up to the task.

I’m not saying this to make you feel sorry for me. I just want to be crystal clear how devastating, damaging and life changing this mind sizzle was.

In the hospital, when I finally accepted that I’d had a stroke – and that took a while — this is how a poster on the wall of my hospital room looked to me: Eslmlsfslsmflsflsflosf CCCDOJIFOSFSJ.

After weeks re-learning the ABCs, I moved on to getting my head around small words and connecting them to what they stood for. The pic above is a snapshot of some of the tools I used for this. B—o—o—k spells book, read one flash card designed for preschoolers and adapted for my use. Above the letters, a drawing of a book painted the picture for me. The rehab folks at the Grey Nuns Hospital worked through this with me twice a week. My wife, Patricia, coached me on this a few times every day along with flash cards she picked up at a dollar store.

When I was ready we found a reading device called a WordQ which we installed on my computer. It would read the words on my screen for me while I tried to follow along. I still use it because while I now can read and write, I read at about 51 words per minute. The average person reads at somewhere between 150 and 190 words per minute.

The recorder in the picture was with me whenever I went for a walk, which I did a couple of times every day. I was to use it to capture my thoughts and, later, to record attempts at summarizing short stories that I’d turtle read. Much of the time I would forget how to start the recorder. And when I did manage the ‘on’ setting, I’d often forget to turn it off.

That’s part of my story. I’ve met dozens and dozens of folks fighting battles with their brains with their own stories that have inspired, horrified and often helped shape the new me.

Like a kind, lovely lady who started swearing like a sailor after her stroke and never was able to work again due to the lasting damage it left her with. And there was a guy just a bit older than me who stroked out seven years prior to my brain buzz. I met him at a quirky book club for the brain injured and stroke survivors.  After all that time, he was still battling with his mind to hold thoughts together long enough to hold even a simple job.

I’ve met with and tried in vain to connect with stroke ‘survivors’ who were trapped inside themselves, unable to communicate with the outside world. I’ve spent time with people with perfect thoughts they could no longer easily communicate because their speech and mobility were stroke ravaged.

And yet there is hope. I’m proof of that as are loads of other folks who’ve been able to reboot and retrain their brains and once again start to live meaningful, productive lives.

That’s part of my passion for Brain Food. The other part is this. All of the knowledge that’s helping the brain injured and damaged is there for everyone. To help folks brush the dust off, to get more out of what they have for longer. This is very cool.

Oh by the way…that lady who had to give up her career? Her name is Wendy Pangrass and she’s now leading a group that’s doing amazing work with stroke victims, helping them deal with the emotional shock of what they’re going throw and support them in their long term recovery.

Below is along piece of the feature story I wrote for the Edmonton Journal last June. BTW, I’m still waiting to hear from agents or publishers about my book. Seriously, feel free to call 🙂
Part Two:
Former journalist Tim Seefeldt tells the story of his amazing journey to relearn the basics 3 Rs
By Tim Seefeldt, Edmonton Journal
June 13, 2014

The next day I was disconnected from the machines. Patricia was back and I was trying to get a grip on how to work my unco-operative limbs. There were more tests. People – I had no idea who they were – dropped by to talk to me, but whatever I was saying to them didn’t seem to make sense.

How could I have had a stroke? From what I could see, most of my ward mates needed walkers. This is what a stroke looked like, right? Many couldn’t talk or if they did it was with stilted speech. This is what a stroke sounded like, I was sure of that.

I was clearly confused and my memory was messed up, but I figured there could be lots of reasons for that. Near as I could remember, I was only 45.

When Patricia left that night, I decided to try to fix the things that had confused doctor What’s His Name into thinking that I’d stroked out. Then I figured he’d let me go home.

Memory first. I thought of the people I knew. Patricia, Kristina, Anna. Lee and Sue – my parents, deceased but still solidly in my mind. Rudy and Marlene – my inlaws. I eventually got my sister’s name – Shelly.

But I drew a blank from there.

I decided to look around my room for clues. There were a lot of posters on the walls. Maybe they’d stir some memories? The first one looked strange.

Something like: Eslmlsfslsmflsflsflosf CCCDOJIDFOSFSJ What language was that? I looked at another poster. Then another. They were all in this strange text.

There was nothing wrong with the posters. There was something wrong with me. I couldn’t read.

That doctor was right. I’d had a stroke.

OK, that will do for now. Until next week…

Brain Food’s first dish

I couldn’t have written this blog five years ago. That’s because a stroke sizzled the back left side of my brain erasing my ability to read and write.

It zapped lots of other important bits, too. I was only 45, married and the father of two teen-aged girls. There were no warning signs. I’d just had a physical and seemed the picture of health. But in the blink of an eye, it looked like I’d never be able to provide – emotionally of financially — for my family again.

And the salt in the wound was that I’d been a newspaper reporter with a dream to write books that I never got around to writing. Use it or lose it, it seemed.

But it turns out that you can put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Through a blend of science, art, faith and hope I literally relearn my ABCs, how to make change and loads of other simple stuff that I used to take for granted. Thanks to this and some technology, I’m tapping out stuff on the keyboard again.

Today – March 15 – is my five year strokeaversary. To mark it, I’m going to put my rekindled writing to work on regular posts on some of the Brain Food that helped me get my noggin firing again. I’ll also share stories of amazing brain feats and phenomenon and pass on loads of things everybody can do to keep firing on all cylinders. Or maybe even to crank up the engine to become a brain Ferrari.

One important thing became crystal clear to me during my time with a malfunctioning melon. Our brains, our soul, are who we are. The other stuff is important for keeping us alive and physically healthy. But brain and sole is “us.” The longer and most optimally we can keep them at their peak, the better, the happier we’ll be. There are lots of assaults on our noodles – strokes, Alzheimer’s, injury are just a few. But it’s also easy to let ‘em run down though lack of stimulation.

On my road back, I’ve met and connected with loads of scientists, therapists and every day people with phenomenal stories and advice to share that have helped me re-boot. I’ll serve this up to you with Brain Food.  And through this blog I hope to connect with many, many more people with brain wisdom and advice.  Brain Food will be the online cafe where we can all feed on this collective brain bounty.

One last thing, I wrote a feature story for the Edmonton Journal a few months back. I’m going to share some snippets of it over the next few blogs to give you all a sense of where I started back from. Oh, by the way, if any readers are publishers or literary agents, I’ve written a book, too…would love to talk 🙂

Former journalist Tim Seefeldt tells the story of his amazing journey to relearn the basics 3 Rs

By Tim Seefeldt, Edmonton Journal

June 13, 2014

I woke up to madness. I heard noises, but they didn’t make sense. Was I still travelling or was I at home? And where exactly was home?

I figured I better get up and shake the cobwebs out, but they wouldn’t shake.

For starters, I couldn’t see clearly out of my right eye. It was like somebody had smeared Vaseline over it and my left eye was weakened by the extra workload.

And it got worse. You know how your body effortlessly does the routine things you need it to do? Things like sitting up and taking steps?

That wasn’t happening for me.


The last minutes of my old life ticked away early Monday morning, March 15, 2010. It was that groggy first work day following the switch to daylight time, when we’re robbed of an hour’s sleep.

It’s a tough day to remember, but an impossible one for me to forget.

The week leading up to my mental meltdown had been a whirl of plane travel and highway driving. It was late Friday evening before I rolled my car into my driveway in Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada.

I was still exhausted early Monday when my elder daughter, Kristina, 16 at the time, woke me up at about 6:30. Ignoring her, I put my head back down to catch some more Zs.

My head hitting the pillow was the last conscious moment of my old life.

I started consciously thinking about getting up. I fixed what vision I had on my right arm and tried to will it to lift me. I was rewarded with a slight twitch. It was like somebody else was in control, but they didn’t know what they were doing.

I kept staring and kept willing, harder and harder. Eventually I began to rise. There were two misfires halfway up that sent me crashing down. But finally I was sitting up on the bed.

Swinging my legs to the ground came with another surprise. My right side was numb from the tip of my toes to the top of my head. It was like that feeling you get when you sleep on something the wrong way, but without the tingly reawakening.

I used my left side to support and guide me and felt my way to the stairs dragging my unco-operative right side along. Two flights of stairs later, I felt my way to the shower, crashed in and tried to wash whatever this was away.

No dice. My wife Patricia was there when I stumbled out of the shower. I couldn’t see much, but the fear in her eyes was clear. The girls – Kristina and 13-year-old Anna – must have heard the crash and bang as I stumbled to the shower. I could sense they were scared and then I started to panic.

An ambulance was called.

I kept asking for my shoes even though they were already on my feet. I was soon at the Grey Nuns Community Hospital, where the rest of the day was spent in what I guessed was the emergency ward and going back and forth between tests. It was a foggy haze that ended with a doctor whose name I couldn’t seem to remember delivering news that landed like a Mike Tyson shot to the stomach.

“Tim, you’ve had a stroke …” He said a lot more, but he lost me at stroke. I was rolled up to the fifth-floor stroke ward and hooked up to machines where I spent a horrible night worrying about what Patricia would say to the girls.

That’s it for now. I’ll share more in next week’s offering. Until then, keep feeding your brain great food.