A Stroke of Luck

Stroke of Luck for David FestensteinI had not long been back  from a trip to the 2008 NSA Convention in New York. Then suddenly on 29th August I had a  stroke, a brain haemorrhage, which paralysed my right side, my hand and arm were affected also; this left me unable to walk.

Within a small space of time, many of the things which I had taken for granted were simply not there any more and little did I realise how much help I was going to need, to do simple things like going to the toilet, washing, dressing and even eating.

I have always been a worrier starting the day with a menu of worries, a starter, main course and desert! Now I said to myself I really had something to worry about!

How did I deal with it?

I was really scared and I remembered the first night shaking, in the bed with all the beeping of the machines around me.With this overwhelming feeling of helplessness, I appealed to my subconscious and wrote on a pad “When I wake up I will feel my right side”, many times like a child writing “lines”. My right foot began to twitch during the night so it made me feel a whole lot better.

In the morning, when I woke I took on a very different perspective, as I looked around at my fellow patients I realised how “lucky” I was. I am left handed so I could still write, I could still speak and cognitively I was unaffected, so I had no memory loss or any sense of disorientation.

About a year earlier, I had attended a break out session withW Mitchell at the NSA Conference in San Diego, his courage from his own experiences gave me so much inspiration as I lay there in my hospital bed. I thought about his mantra “It is not what happens to you, its what you do about it.”

Starting my recovery process

Gratitude: This played a huge role in my recovery process as I realised how important it was to focus on what I still had rather than what I had lost. It was on my third day in hospital although I had been making notes on a pad my wife had brought in for me, that I decided to keep a diary and a journal. It was at this point I believe that I set my intent for recovery, here is the diary entry for that day:

“The Language of recovery”
August 31 2008

“How you approach the process of recovery from anything is critical. Choose your words in the positive with specific outcomes in mind. That way your feelings will be markedly influenced and in turn your energy and strength. An example of this is I will walk again. I can see myself walking soon. I am so strong, nothing will stop me getting back to normal. Run films of yourself, getting back to normal, taking your first steps. Lifting something, small steps. I will be so successful with this.”

Belief: My physio Jeanette really played an enormous role in forming my belief that recovery was possible.

She told me that the first two weeks after the stroke were significant as a lot of movement could return. However it was possible weeks, months, in some cases years,  to teach one’s affected side to regain movement. She then went on to do a visualisation exercise getting me to hold my paralysed hand, visualising it opening while I opened and closed my left hand. She said although I would not necessarily see or feel anything, this exercise would produce important brain activity.

This belief was further reinforced by the nurses and carers and above all my family, with stories about people who had had much worse strokes and made really excellent recoveries.

Goals: In parallel with my exercises my physios asked me to set myself goals:

  1. To be able to hug my family with both arms
  2. To walk to the toilet and back
  3. To be able to type again on the PC
  4. To visit my dad in the care home.

My Vision: As the days passed in hospital I realised that I had created a vision of me living a normal life again with my family and being able to work again. Interestingly, I did not put myself under any pressure of when this would happen, I just held on to the vision and was very diligent about doing my daily exercises.

Things began to slowly happen; I got movement back in my fingers and my toes and after two weeks I could open my right hand. At the same time, movement was slowly coming back into my right arm.

State Management

Managing my emotions, my energy level and above all my internal dialogue, were all crucial in driving my recovery process. This was particularly noticeable when I was learning to walk again. It was very scary as the physios supported me on either side and helped me step across the gym. My internal voice was often“Oh I could fall, what happens if I fall?. I found by changing this to“left right left right” “I can do this”, made a huge difference in how I felt as well as to the level of my stability.

The Dream

One night I had a dream I was walking and walking really well! It was so vivid I pinched myself to check I was not dreaming! I did it so hard I woke up!! Four days later I took my first steps. They were very wobbly, yet I was absolutely determined to realise my second goal of walking to the toilet. At first, one of the nurses or carers would hold my hand and steady me and then little by little I was able to do it by myself. I kept saying to myself “I can do this”, “I can get there”. This powerful internal voice just drove me to achieve it!

The Power of Affirmations

As soon as I took my first steps I took my journal and just wrote a stream of consciousness about walking.

You will notice that each sentence is structured from an“identity level”point of view. Starting the sentence with“I” can be very powerful, we know too well how damaging language can be if is put in an identify level structure e.g. “I am useless.”

“I am an awesome walker”
“I love walking”
“What a joy to walk again”
“I am walking my dream”
“I am my dream of being able to walk again”
“I can feel my walking steps”
“I have sunshine walking legs”!
“I can walk to the toilet yee hah!”
“I will be dancing soon”
“I can feel my legs talk to me” (the muscles were twitching as I wrote these!)
“I know my legs are mine again”!
“I can walk the world”
“I am my strong legs” (I could feel tightness in my calf muscles)
“I am rock when I walk”
“I am stability when I walk”
“I am balance when I walk”

Later, I read this to a stroke patient when she was in hospital and she said it gave her a lot of courage to hear this and my story.

Taking the stage as a speaker

As all these wonderful outcomes took place, the doctors and other medical staff began to take a lot of interest in what I was doing that was supporting my recovery. I told them about my training in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and showed them my diary and journal. My consultant asked me if I would come back and present to the medical team once I was better. This I did and he later invited me to present at the Herts and Beds Heart and Stroke Network Conference which was an audience of health professionals. I reframed this experience as “a stroke of luck” as clearly a new world of opportunity was opening up to help others.

Recently, I presented at The Black Country Cardiovascular Network, Patient and Carer Partnership event.  I got fabulous feedback as to how“brilliant” and “inspiring”my talk was. I told them that if there  was  any way they could take advantage of anything they had heard in my story and how I had recorded my experience, it would be a great honour.

What I have outlined above in the structure of my recovery model I believe could help anyone who has suffered a severe health setback, it does not necessarily have to be a stroke. I believe also that in these difficult and uncertain economic times it is also an uplifting and inspiring story to deliver to any audience.

As a first step I have managed to secure my first booking for a workshop in 2010 to NHS health professionals to go through my recovery model so they can take parts of it and give it to their patients. I am thinking in parallel about how it can be made into certain products, a booklet, CDS, MP3 files so it can be used by as many patients as possible. I have also been encouraged to put in a proposal to speak at The NLP Institute for the Advanced Studies of Health Conference in the US- Oct 2010, my stroke experience and my background as a communication specialist is so fitting for the theme of the conference “modelling healthy systems -the spirit of NLP.

Finally on a note of belief,  there was no question in my mind that I was going to get better. Some weeks later after my discharge I went to see my daughter Hannah sing in a concert. The song she was singing was “When you believe” -when I heard the line “There can be miracles when you believe”; tears started to stream down my face, for me walking again and being back with family, virtually fully recovered, was indeed a miracle!!


SpeakEasy MagazineThis article originally appeared in the
March/April 2010 edition of speakeasy,
the magazine of the Professional Speakers Association.