Painting a portrait of stroke recovery

“You don’t have to be Michelangelo to paint. You just put a brush to paper . . . and go.”  –Lisa Allison.

In February of 2009 my sister Lisa lay in a hospital bed, motionless, hooked up to every tube imaginable. She breathed through a tracheostomy tube in her throat. Two weeks earlier she had suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm. Although a brilliant neurosurgeon operated on her, hoping to undo the damage, Lisa still suffered a massive stroke. It looked grim.  The surgeon discussed organ donation with us. Surely, I thought, God wouldn’t let a 45-year-old mother of four young children die?

As Lisa fell deeper and deeper into a coma the surgeon pounded on her chest daily, hoping to elicit some small sound. My parents, my siblings and I stood by her bedside, praying, but nothing changed. We refused to give up.

Small miracles
It started with the flicker of her eyelids. They opened a slit and her blue corneas peeked out. Days passed, and her eyes opened fully for a few seconds, then minutes. Nurses detached the tubes, one by one. Nothing thrilled me more than seeing my sister twitch her toe. Inside her broken body, Lisa was still there, itching to get out.

God gave us another miracle at Easter. Six weeks had passed since Lisa’s stroke. A speech therapist entered her room and instructed: “Blow into this tube, Lisa.”

Lisa, who had remained silent for six weeks, uttered seven sweet words: “She asked me to do that yesterday.”

It was unbelievable. I was stunned. Not only did Lisa speak, she strung together an entire sentence. She had a sense of time – yesterday – and her memory was intact. Many stroke patients never regain their speech, yet my sister’s words were clear and ungarbled.

Holding on to hope
While Lisa appeared to be coming out of the coma, her new doctor – a general practitioner – warned us that she would never be the same, and that if she didn’t recover her abilities after six months, full recovery would never happen. My family and I refused to believe him.

I tried to get my hands on every book I could about strokes. I started with Walter Gretzky’s On Family, Hockey, Healing. Walter suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm and stroke in 1991. He said, “Every second of every day is important to me . . . and remember, there is life after stroke . . . look at me!”

I read neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s account, My Stroke of Insight. Counter to my sister’s prognosis, Taylor stated that she was still regaining abilities a full eight years after her stroke.

Next, I perused Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself, which states, “The brain can change itself. It is a plastic, living organ that can actually change its own structure and function, even into old age.” Dr. Doidge quoted a study of stroke patients who, using non-traditional therapy, regained complete use of their weak limb a full six years after their stroke. I held on to the hope found in the pages of these books.

Milestones and inspiration
Lisa held on to hope, too. She surprised us with the milestones she reached: reading, writing, brushing her teeth, putting on make-up. But the biggest hurdle was eating solid foods. We would take turns feeding Lisa, but it was an exercise in frustration. She couldn’t swallow solids; the doctor put her back on liquids.

For her 46th birthday, our other sister Laurie made her a cake – not a regular birthday cake, but a cheesecake, something that would slide down her throat. Sure enough, Lisa was able to swallow every sweet morsel.

Lisa stayed for a few months at Hamilton Rehab Centre where one day Walter Gretzky visited her. “A Toronto radio station declared me dead back in 1991, but look at me now!” he exclaimed, dancing around Lisa’s hospital room. It was invaluable for her to speak to someone who had walked in her shoes, someone who had not only survived, but thrived.

Two years after Lisa’s stroke she had come a long way. The left half of her brain – the undamaged portion which governed speech – allowed her to hold lengthy conversations. Lisa even finished my sentences. One day, looking out the window, I spotted a lady running across the parking lot. Describing her clothing, I said: “What a pretty. . . .”

“. . . sari,” my sister added.

Lisa participated enthusiastically in physiotherapy, stretching and riding an exercise bike, but her left side remained paralyzed. Despite our fervent desire for her to go home, she moved to a Brampton nursing home inhabited by 80 and 90-year-olds. It was a hard pill to swallow, but once again Lisa made the best of it. Her strong faith in God had brought her this far. He would see her through this.

Before her stroke, Lisa was a graphic artist. Laurie purchased a sketchbook, paints and markers to stimulate her. At first, Lisa just made lines on a page, like a toddler scribbling. Next, Laurie hired two high school students to paint with Lisa. While she enjoyed the lessons immensely, she simply made shapes on a page. We wondered if the right half of her brain – the half that governs creativity –was too damaged for such fine motor skills.

The breakthrough came when Lisa started painting classes with an art therapist at the nursing home. Each Thursday evening Lisa and other residents would gather together to paint. Armed with brushes, acrylic paints, water, pencils and gesso-coated canvasses, the group set to work. They studied points of reference – photographs, calendar scenes, postcards and magazines – trying to duplicate them.

Lisa chose a country-themed painting on a cookie tin that her pastor, who visited her every two weeks, had given her. She outlined her sketch with a freshly sharpened pencil. She mixed the primary colours to make secondary ones. Lisa knew what she was doing; she was the star pupil in the class.

Dipping her paintbrush in the paint, she made strokes, side to side, just as she’d done years before. First she filled in the background, then the foreground. It was like completing a paint-by-numbers scene. Next, Lisa took a smaller brush, adding the details of the cobblestone bridge, the barn and the trees. The minutes passed by like seconds. Before she knew it the class was over.

Creating progress and purpose
I visited Lisa and studied the country scene hanging on her wall – the old Lisa had reappeared, right down to her signature in the bottom corner. I was amazed to think that while my “healthy” brain draws stick figures, her “damaged” brain produces masterpieces! Although Lisa is a graphic artist, she pointed out, “You don’t need to be Michelangelo to paint. Just put a brush to paper . . . and go.” Her progress proves Norman Doidge’s point: healthy brain cells can take over the role previously performed by the damaged brain cells.

God the Creator calls us to create. Lisa’s painting provides her with a purpose. Each stroke of her brush makes her feel alive. The creative process helps her to focus her mind, gives her a sense of accomplishment and promotes the mind-body connection. For stroke patients who cannot speak, each picture is worth a thousand words. It’s a great emotional outlet for those who feel frustrated due to their limitations.

Today Lisa’s artwork is approaching her pre-stroke ability. Her latest piece, featuring grey birds perched on a branch, hangs proudly on the art bulletin board. It resembles a Robert Bates scene – a painter who once inspired Lisa. She is starting to give her paintings away: a dancer for her daughter, Meghan, a baseball player for her son, Taylor, a hockey player for her son, Andrew.

Unceasing miracles
Recently, while reading an article about art therapy for stroke patients, one sentence jumped out at me: “Recovery never ends.” When I set out to write this article, Lisa was confined to a wheelchair, as she has been for the past six years. However, three weeks ago, Lisa stood for the first time, unassisted! Laurie captured Lisa on video – her shoulders back, her expression proud, her body unflinching. What started as a one-minute feat has now reached three minutes, an eternity for someone who is half paralyzed. Three is also the magic number Lisa needed in order to obtain an overnight pass home. She was able to spend Easter with her family. God’s miracles never cease.


  • Linda Jonasson lives in Brantford, Ont. She is an elementary school teacher and a writer. Two of her short stories were published in Promises of Home: Stories of Canada’s British Home Children in July of 2014. She blogs daily about history, home and writing at alinefromlinda.blogspot.com.

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