Saturday, November 30, 2013

My Stroke Story: A video for St. At's in Boise, Idaho

St. Al's is a local hospital in Boise.  When my first stroke happened, we went to St. Al's.

I was honored that St. Al's used my stroke story for the annual Festival of Trees, a huge fundraiser the raises money for specifics projects. This year, the focus was their ER services. Here is the four minute video:  

Mark Dunham at the Festival of Trees

Even now, this video is surreal. It seems like this is another person's story. 

The goal for me to agree to relive this bad experience was to help other people. I know that other stroke survivors often feel that the have no hope. My hope that this video will help people about recovery and possibilities. 

Never give up. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"Sybil" and My Brain: I have is a Imaginary Friend


“Sybil” is a 1973 book by Flora Rheta Schreiber about the treatment of Sybil Dorsett (a pseudonym for Shirley Ardell Mason) for dissociative identity disorder (then referred to as multiple personality disorder) by her psychoanalyst, Cornelia B. Wilbur.

The therapist called the woman "Sybil" to protect her privacy.   Originally in treatment for social anxiety and memory loss, after extended therapy Sybil manifests sixteen personalities.  I loved the book when I read it in high school, and I loved the miniseries.

I never really thought about my brain. You take your brain for granted. It is a bunch of complex cells, but I didn't comprehend how much a brain really “does.”

In school, I had to study the brain.  I took psychology and biology. But the concept of a brain was so clinical. The structure of the brain was a just a topic to study.

When my strokes happened, it galvanized my thought process. This is my brain. Something is wrong with my brain. What! Why? Me! No way!

Now, it seems that my brain is like my secret identity. I am “Mark.” My brain is someone else entirely. Perhaps “his” name is “Todd” which was one of the choices our parents told my brothers they could name me: “Mark” or “Todd.”


Because of my strokes, I am so in tune with my brain. It seems like I have conversations with my brain all of the time. If I had a headache, in my head, I talk to “Todd” saying something like “No way Todd. We are fine. Stop this!” It is like have an imaginary friend.

Sometimes I argue with my brain, my imaginary friend. In my head, I think about my healing brain…wondering if the neuro-pathways are rebuilding. Every day, I sense that my brain is struggling to find new ways to circumvent the damage in the dead part of my brain. 

Sometimes, I pause and I consider that the brain is am miracle in so many unknowing ways. I am not a patient man, but I realize that my brain – perhaps my imaginary friend – working overtime to heal me. I check in occasionally in my head saying “Keep up the great work. No days off!”  

It is like I have an out of body experience. Maybe this is my coping mechanism.  

Maybe I am crazy after all.  


Saturday, November 23, 2013

"Thor" and saying "I love you" to my son

Today, my son and I saw a movie, "Thor." My son and I have seen so many movies on the big screen since my stroke. This is our tradition. This is my recovery.

I love my son. Watching him grow his heaven to me. 

Sometimes I just watch him sleep. I watch The curve of his face. I watch the color of his brown hair that reminds me of my father's hair.

The best times for me, is on a Saturday morning. Though he's almost 9, he snuggles up to me. I stroke his hair. I look at his eyes seeing the same green as my wife's eyes. He has the same eyebrows as I had when I was a kid. He has subtle dimples. He has dark eyelashes that are long. 

Funny? He's incredibly funny. He is irreverent even though he doesn't know what that means. 

He dances around the house  in the morning and when he's getting ready for bed. I want him to keep dancing through his life.

I watch him so closely because I almost lost him because of my strokes. I concentrate so much so I can always remember him at every age.

If I have a headache, sometimes I wonder if another stroke will happen again and I think of my son. I want to watch him grow up.

So thing does happen to me, how can I ever explained to him how much I love him. There is no words to describe how I feel about my son.

A lot of my therapy is because of my son. Therapy is incredibly hard and sometimes painful. It's worth it.

When I watch a movie with him, I love that he laughs and giggles. Or when he raises his eyebrows. It's like a facial giggle! Or when he wants to make a point in a movie saying in a very serious way "Daddy. You know this is very real don't you?" Even when I know this is not real. I love that his mind is always exploring possibilities.

Every day I say I love you too my son. My dad wasn't comfortable saying I love you until when I was about 20. I decided to hug him and tell him that I loved often. I knew that he was uncomfortable with that, but he embraced hugging soon after my 20th birthday. He loved to hug!

When you have a life threatening health issue like a stroke, you do not take anything for granted. In a sense I am living on borrowed time and I will make the most of it. 

I love you Ethan. 



Thursday, November 21, 2013

Easy Street and strokes....It is NOT easy at all!

"Rehabilitation Easy Street" is on the third floor at St. Alphonsus Hospital in Boise, Idaho. “Easy” is a misnomer for me. Nothing was easy about my rehabilitation in the early days.

My room was on the fourth floor, and my therapist told me that we had to walk down one floor to “Easy Street” on the stairs. I had to use a harness so I wouldn't fall.

On “Easy Street,” there is a general store sponsored by the Albertson's Corporation. In reality, there are shelves and plastic products.

My therapist told me that I should look at item on the store shelves. What is toothbrush? Deodorant? Envelops? Fruit? I was dumfounded. I had no idea what those things were. Of course I had no concept of an alphabet.  I could not remember my name let alone saying obscure terms like deodorant

My therapist told me that I needed to concentrate on the plastic fruit.  I would look at an apple. I had no clue what “apple” was. The therapist said,  “what is the color of an apple?”

No Clue.

“Look at that fruit. What is it? That an orange? Is orange color or a fruit?” What the hell! Orange is a color and a fruit? What a diabolical plot! That conversation made my head hurt.

Some therapists would ask me about my life. “What do you do for a living? What about your family?” I knew I was the Executive Director of the Idaho Associated General Contractors and I was on the Board of the College of Western Idaho. But I could not say that because I could not speak. That was incredibly frustrating. Now, I realize this was not a plot. Rather, it was forcing me to start speaking, forming words, etc.  

My hospital therapists were incredibly caring but they made me do a lot of things that I wasn't prepared to do. They challenged me a lot.

In those dark days in the hospital, I was so despondent. Depressed was an understatement.

So when my therapist would say “do this” or “try this,” etc, in my head I often was thinking “what's the use! Part of my brain is gone. Just leave me alone. Please! Maybe I should just die!"

But they wouldn't leave me alone. Every day, several hours a day, they had me  doing things then I didn't think I could ever do again.

My room was my sanctuary. Filled with flowers and overwhelming stacks of cards of concern, I would sit in my room wondering what my future would hold. Often I just wanted to be alone.

My world was a 12 x 18 room. In my room, I could be alone. I didn't need the harness that nurses and doctors insisted that I use everywhere else.

I remember one evening, I had my dinner and my wonderful wife called me. We agreed that my family would miss that night because my son didn't want to go to the hospital. Our six year old was scared and tired of the play dates that kept him busy. 18 days in the hospital. 13 play dates. I understood, and in a way I really didn't want to see him because I was so damaged. So, alone that night, I  silently wept.

The nurse checked on me, and she said, “I'm so sorry! Can I help in anyway?”  “No,” I said. “Just want to be alone.”

To say that I had highs and lows in those days, is not true. I do not think there were any “high.” Even though I had the support of family and friends, I tried to be strong for everyone, but sometimes I wanted to wallow in my self-pity.

But a therapist would come in, and say something like “we're to do this today. Get ready.”

It was grueling.

Now 22 months later, my recovery is so grueling even now. But every day I can see a change. Every single day. Though therapy was torture, those therapists changed my life.

Compassionate. Stern. Patient. Pragmatic.

Therapists have a special place in heaven.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Hypnotherapy, Pink Floyd and Corpus Callosum

Pink Floyd is one of my favorite bands.  When I was in college, I used to study and listen to Pink Floyd. One of my favorite songs was “Brain Damage.”

“The lunatic is in the hall.
The lunatics are in my hall.
And if your head explodes with dark forebodings too
I'll see you on the dark side of the moon.



That song resonated even before I had two strokes. Now, “Brain Damage” is very ironic considering I do have brain damage!  The lyrics are fitting because my head exploded with dark forebodings that scared me so much because I thought I would die.

It is hard for me to realize that I do have brain damage.  In some obscure way, even now, I do not think this is me. But it is.  About 20% of my brain is gone.

I am so grateful that I have the tenacity to try anything that will help me recover. In the hospital, a therapist told me that I would never drive again because of double vision and limited vision on my right side.  A doctor told me that I could never work again because of the damage.  “Just realize this is your life and basically take it easy.” One doctor told my wife and I that I “had to have memory loss” because they scanned my brain (a lot!), and they knew I must have memory loss. My right arm was paralyzed for a while, and some thought I would have some limited mobility issues.

They were wrong. I recovered all of those things that they said were impossible.  They just do not know me and my support systems! I have been beating the odds so far, and I will never quit. Ever.

One hurdle that I will want and need to conquer is reading and hand writing.  I was a speed reader. I love to read, and I would read several books at a time.  The fact that my hobby was reading and my profession required a lot of reading makes this challenge even more important.

I cannot take notes like a Power Point. I just cannot hand write anything. I cannot read aloud. I can comprehend everything, but I cannot express it…reading, hand writing, math, etc. There is a disconnect in my brain. I'll see you on the dark side of the moon.

I was researching strokes and vision because I have vision loss.  (It takes me a long time to read anything!) I happened to read several studies about strokes, vision, and hypnotherapy.  I have no qualms trying unusual therapies. Right arm is weak because of the stroke? The key is acupuncture! So why not try hypnotherapy to see if I can read fluidly again.

One website said “This stroke program is an amazing process to teach the brain how to repair damage from stroke or brain injury. This program asks the brain to electrically reconnect the wiring, find new areas of the brain to perform certain functions, and heal the spirit. After a part of the brain is damaged, another part can begin to take over the function. As the brain practices, during hypnosis, it uses a new area to produce speech or movement; it strengthens the electrical signals to that new part of the brain, and then grows new connections from that part of the brain to the function that is needed.”

have had two appointments with my hypnotherapist, and today we concentrated on reading and bridging the gaps in my corpus callosum. It is a wide, flat bundle of neural fibers beneath the cortex  and it connects the left and right cerebral hemispheres and facilitates interhemispheric communication.

During this session, we worked on my capacity to make new pathways in my brain. I will focus a lot of my energy trying to bridge the damage in my brain.

I really believe that this is possible. Just like many people told me I cannot recover fully, I cannot accept that possibility. 

My life is about possibilities.