Larry Barnes is a fighter. Always has been.
He was a fighter when he took shrapnel in his neck during his time in the Navy, and through eight different conflicts involving the U.S. military.
And he was a fighter when he needed it perhaps the most: When he suffered a stroke, at age 55.
“I consider him a miracle because he was in our unit for only six days and in that time frame, he made a miraculous recovery,” said Jenifer Byrd, a registered nurse and clinical assessment coordinator in the acute rehab unit at Northern Michigan Regional Hospital. “He walked off our unit and was able to talk.”
The average stroke patient is hospitalized for 28 days, Byrd said, and the average age is 75.
But Barnes, of Gaylord, isn’t a typical patient.
“I remember that my mother’s first violent stroke put her down, and she didn’t get back up. The 17th stroke killed her,” Barnes said. “I wasn’t going to give up. When I got (to NMRH), I told them, ‘You’d better make this interesting or I’m leaving.’”
Barnes’ arm and leg on his right side began tingling Oct. 11, but he shrugged it off. Two days later, he was out hunting when his face dropped and he lost use of his leg. He made it back home where his wife, Judy, drove him to Otsego Memorial Hospital.
“After my face went down, I knew it was time to go to the hospital,” he said. “I was in bad shape. I didn’t think a 55-year-old would go through a stroke.”
On the 17th, Barnes was transferred to Northern Michigan Regional Hospital, where he was admitted to the in-patient acute rehabilitation unit. His speech was garbled and slurred and he could not walk, but he was adamant, Byrd recalls, about reversing those limitations.
“He was determined. He said, ‘I’m not going to talk like this for the rest of my life, and I’m going to walk,” Byrd said. “It takes a highly motivated person who has a really good, positive attitude to get through it. It’s pretty easy for people to throw in the towel, and there is a high correlation between stroke and depression.”
Barnes said his 21 years in the military taught him to not give up. And he said while a stroke doesn’t necessarily hurt in a painful way, emotionally it is difficult to lose faculties which once were taken for granted. For Barnes, the stroke occurred in the left/center part of the back of his brain, affecting his right side; he’s right handed.
“It’s an experience that all of a sudden, your life flashes before you,” he said. “That’s rough for a guy my age. All of a sudden, you can’t do anything for yourself. It’s horrifying.”
Barnes admits that he hasn’t always taken the best care of himself, afflicted with diabetes and now trying to give up smoking. He’s taking a renewed interest in his health and more of a hands-on approach to his own health care.
On a recent trip back to the acute rehab unit, Barnes was like a visiting rock star — arriving to hugs and handshakes from nurses and doctors who all recalled his time in their unit and his incredible progress. Just being able to walk into the unit and talk with them was significant.
“He is remarkable,” said Dr. Todd Shepherd, family medicine doctor and medical director of the acute rehab unit. “Patients can often be here for up to four weeks, sometimes longer. The rehab process is usually months, not days. He was incredibly motivated. He was not going to let it beat him.”
Barnes credits the entire staff for getting him back on his feet. It’s an involved process that is tailored to each patient, Byrd said. First, a three-day assessment period allows nursing staff to evaluate and determine needs based on 18 different categories.
In order to qualify for inpatient care in the rehab unit, a patient must meet two out of three areas of need: physical therapy, occupational therapy (activities of daily living) and speech therapy, which includes help with swallowing, often affected following stroke.
Barnes required help in all three areas.
“He had difficulty in speech, hearing, focusing (eyes), his motor functions were impaired, he couldn’t walk — those were all huge obstacles,” said Byrd. “He could not do all the things he did before, the activities of daily living, things we take for granted.”
Byrd’s job is to handle prescreen evaluations, to determine a patient’s level of function prior to the stroke. “From there, the multi-discipline team gives them a road map for recovery,” Byrd said.
Each day, patients like Barnes undergo the therapy determined by the staff that will hopefully help them regain the skills and abilities lost by stroke. Because it is inpatient, specialized nursing care complements the daily routine. The team caring for the patient also develops goals and progress is scored daily.
When Barnes was discharged on Oct. 22, he had successfully met his goals.
“Larry really flew through his program, which really surprised everybody, how awesome he did in such a short amount of time,” Byrd said. “We wish we could rubber-stamp (his determination) in each of our patients.”
While stroke is not common in people in their 50s, it was a variable Barnes had in his favor. Those in their 80s and 90s, Byrd said, have sometimes been through so much medically that their will and determination are exhausted.
Added Dr. Shepherd, “Fatigue and depression are some of our biggest problems. Everything gets affected by stroke.”
Shepherd credits the nursing team and specialists on the floor for pulling patients through the grueling recovery process. “It’s the therapists who make or break this place,” he said.
The “miracle patient” says the lingering effects he’s experiencing from the stroke are that his brain works a lot faster than he’s able to communicate and that sometimes he mentally grasps for the correct word when speaking; he’s still undergoing speech therapy in Gaylord.
Retired since 2003 due to post traumatic stress disorder, Barnes said he is taking life a little slower these days.
“The first thing I learned was that if I think I’m invincible,” Barnes said, “I’m not.”
Earlier this year, Northern Michigan Regional Hospital received statewide recognition for its stroke program.
NMRH was the first hospital in Michigan to receive the American Stroke Association’s “Get with the guidelines — stroke” Performance Achievement Award. The award recognizes the hospital’s commitment to state-of-the-art stroke treatments developed by the ASA, the American Heart Association and the Brain Attack Coalition.
The guidelines focus on best practices for improving outcomes for patients with coronary heart disease, stroke and heart failure. Specifically, the guidelines address acute stroke management, primary prevention of cardiovascular diseases, the prevention of second strokes and the establishment of primary stroke centers.
Rapid diagnosis and treatment of stroke have been key components when patients are first admitted to the emergency department.
At the time of the announcement earlier this year, Dr. Roger Gietzen, neurologist and medical director of the stroke center, said the recognition is an honor for the team that is available 24 hours every day to provide brain imaging scans, conduct patient evaluations and administer clot-busting medications when appropriate.
Northern Michigan Regional Hospital is the only certified Stroke Center in Northern Michigan and one of just seven in the state. The Joint Commission has given the Stroke Center its Gold Seal of Approval as a Primary Stroke Center.