Life can change in the blink of an eye. A year and a half ago Hamilton, Ontario resident Jeff Wolfenden was a typical suburban dad. He worked in real estate law, was a devoted minor hockey league coach and a dedicated family man to his wife and two children. Jeff and his family’s life changed dramatically on what began as a regular April afternoon. Jeff had been making some repairs to the family home, painting his basement ceiling, when he began exhibiting the symptoms of a stroke.
He recalls his body slowly starting to shut down, experiencing numbness and his vision blurring. His wife called an ambulance and had him rushed to the hospital; by the time he arrived he was paralyzed on his right side and unable to speak. Jeff has since discovered that he has a condition which makes his blood too thick. His doctors believe the awkward position of his neck while painting may have triggered his catastrophic stroke. Jeff was just 41 years old.
With the support of his family and friends, Jeff began the long, slow and often painful process of stroke recovery. He knew he would need to work hard, having already survived a heart attack at 36 years old. Jeff threw himself into his recovery, and was able to walk and talk six weeks later when he left his rehabilitation hospital.
"When I was in the hospital after my stroke I couldn’t even eat on my own for the first six weeks – just learning to swallow again was a major accomplishment," says Jeff. "I really had to learn that the entire pace of my life had completely changed."
Part of his recovery involved becoming a part of Stroke Recovery Canada®, a program of March of Dimes Canada, which helps stroke survivors across the country to more easily re-engage in their communities, and affirm that there is meaningful and quality life after a stroke. The program is a national service offering post-recovery support, education and programs for stroke survivors, their families and health care providers. Through its work with local peer support groups across the country, Stroke Recovery Canada® provides Canadians with the resources needed to survive and thrive after stroke.
He first heard of the program from his physiotherapist, and joined a local stroke recovery group, knowing how important peer support can be in the stroke recovery process. This past May, as part of Stroke Recovery Canada’s celebration of Stroke Recovery Awareness Month, Jeff entered and won the program’s photo awareness contest.
The contest, called 'From Your View' invited stroke survivors and their family members to submit original photos, showing how surviving a stroke changed their view on disability, day-to-day life or the world around them.
Jeff’s winning photo was titled "Stroke Vision".
"The shot was taken at night in Toronto outside of Sick Kids Hospital. I shot hand held with a slow shutter speed producing a shot that reminded me of how my vision was directly after the stroke. I am happy to say that vision is much better now however the whole process is painfully slow," says Jeff.
An amateur photographer before his stroke, Jeff is hoping to further explore the connection between photography and stroke recovery. He is in the process of putting together a cross-country trip to document the experiences of stroke survivors from across Canada.
Although the last year and a half of Jeff’s life has been his most challenging, he strives to find the blessings that can come from even the hardest experiences.
"Probably the worst part of the stroke was the feeling of being completely helpless – that you have no control over your body," says Jeff.
"One of the most important parts of my stroke recovery process has been trying to regain that control – even if it is a slow process – I can ride my bike again, am back to coaching hockey, and hope to rejoin the workforce soon,” he continues.
"But more importantly, my stroke forced me to slow down – before my stroke I worked long hours and was heavily involved in my community – now I can pick my son and daughter up from school, take them for bike rides – my daughter even commented once that she liked how much more time she gets to spend with me now – so there are truly positive things to be found in everything," Jeff says.
Jeff wants to encourage other survivors and show them that they can make strides in their stroke recovery – even incremental changes can add up to a big difference. He has become an integral part of his local Stroke Recovery Canada® peer support group and strives to create a warm and safe environment that allows members to focus on the positive and what can be achieved in the journey through stroke recovery. He has also begun giving presentations at stroke awareness events.
"I get inspiration from others and so I try to do the same. I just focus on the simple facts, keep a positive outlook, know that although your pace may be slower and more focused, you can get better every day," Jeff says.