Gail Anderson Lansdale, PA email@example.com
For years I have quoted the exciting news about the brain’s plasticity and its ability to forge new connections after a trauma, but this winter I discovered for myself how hard it actually is to build those new connections.
As a teacher leader, I really enjoyed discussing the slide about brain growth and how it is like building a path in the forest. As part of the CPM curriculum team, I have participated in many discussions about growth mindset. In the September 2017 newsletter, I reviewed a course I took online from Columbia University which had mindset as one of its four units. In my mind, I simplified this process to just re-teaching something that was missing. In my personal attempts at recovery, however, I have learned what it feels like to consistently fail.
On February 21, 2022 as I packed for the National Teacher Conference in San Francisco, I suffered a hemorrhagic stroke in my left pons/midbrain area, which left me with my left side barely usable and my right side without sensation. It was very difficult to move, so I could not walk, read, write, or talk as I was accustomed to. I had severe processing issues, giving real meaning to the phrase “extra time required.” I remember being asked to swallow ten times, and how difficult it was for me to make my throat do that simple action even though I desperately wanted to get through the practice so I could be cleared to eat food again.
I needed resilience and engagement in the work I was doing to keep going and keep making progress. It was, and still is, a long road to recovery. The various therapists, like many teachers I know, seemed trained in giving gratuitous praise – but I soon figured that out and learned to challenge them to tell me specifically what I was doing that was good. That feedback was so much more helpful than the generic praise because it gave me an idea of what I should do more of and what I should do less of.
We talk about neuroplasticity and about how wonderful it is, but it is not the same for kids and people recovering from strokes. Learning to walk for me is very different from the first time around. I already know what the motions are supposed to be; I just have to teach my legs to make the right moves. One-year-olds learn to walk without the experience of that motion and do not know what it is supposed to feel like. As an older walker-to-be, I can analyze things and communicate and listen to therapists, whereas a toddler does not have that verbal understanding.
I tried a couple of software treatments to improve my motor skills post-stroke. One was a typing test that would not allow me to type a wrong letter. This soon became very discouraging because I got no credit for all of the correct letters I typed. Another game I played was designed for stroke survivors where a shape came out on one side of the screen, and I had to turn a dial to match the shape before it left the screen. If I got it wrong, it just went by, and let me keep trying. A new shape came out, and I got to try again. This game was more engaging to me. This kind of painless practice is what we model the Skill Builders after.
I am now a stroke survivor. My new motto is: Let it go and just try again. And I am learning to take my time. Many of my therapists tell me to slow down, and I have heard from other stroke survivors that they have learned to “stop and smell the flowers.” We cannot rush neural connections.