Learning to live – and love – life again after three strokes

John Etter was 45, married and the father of two young children when he had his first stroke. He lost sensation on his right side and struggled to speak. His symptoms lingered for two years, and he eventually recovered, returning to life as normal.

But six years later, as Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast, Etter suffered a second stroke that cut its own swath of devastation: It left him largely paralyzed on his left side.

Etter had suffered an ischemic stroke – one brought on by a clot in a blood vessel supplying blood to the brain – but doctors at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center couldn’t give him the clot-busting drug tPA because they didn’t know when his symptoms began. TPA is effective only for a few hours after stroke. His doctors had little choice: He’d have to wait and see.

It was on the second day that his prognosis really sank in. “I was in shock,” Etter says. “I knew it wasn’t a bad dream, but I was hoping it was.

“I felt like I had two bodies,” says Etter, who has no family history of stroke. “The left side wasn’t working. The other side I could move. It felt like I was dragging this other body around with me.”

But if his first stroke had taught him anything, it was that he was a fighter. Rather than wallow in self-pity, Etter would direct his stubbornness toward his recovery. He would regain full use of his body – and his independence.

After his initial evaluation, Etter was moved to Providence Acute Rehabilitation Center, or PARC, for three weeks of intensive therapy. There, everyone from the doctors, nurses and therapists to the folks who brought his meals – essentially everyone involved in some aspect of his care – fostered optimism in the face of his struggle.

“Having a positive attitude is probably the most important thing when you’re recovering from a stroke,” Etter says. “At Providence, they nurtured and encouraged that – they helped you find that in yourself. It was an extraordinary place for me and very important in my recovery.”

Over the course of the next 14 months, he continued his recovery with rehabilitation specialists at PARC. An attorney at the time, Etter was accustomed to an active lifestyle and had always been athletic. It was humbling and frustrating to be at the mercy of his limitations. His wife, Liz, was his primary caregiver after both strokes.

“You can’t do anything for yourself – somebody’s feeding you, you have to be taken to the bathroom,” he says. “She got to be the caregiver all along, which is not the most enviable position.”

As part of his rehab, Etter spent time in a therapy pool, which buoyed his spirits most of all. “If you could move your leg out of the water a little bit, you could move it a lot more in the pool,” he says. “Emotionally, it gave you a real opportunity to get better and believe you could improve.”

And improve he did. He didn’t quit after 14 months of insurance-approved therapy. He kept at it – he was “fanatical” – working at home and at the gym on exercises he learned in therapy. He went from a man who needed help brushing his teeth to a man who completed three decathlons in four years.

Today, he thrives on staying in motion. “It’s use it or lose it,” he says. “If I continue to do the physical activities, then I’ll be able to maintain more function.”

As a member of two fitness clubs, he takes turns on the treadmill, rowing machine and stationary bike two days a week. He takes swim lessons and does intensive strength-training.

You wouldn’t know by looking at Etter that he’s had three strokes. The third was a mini stroke that, while giving him a scare three years ago, did no lasting damage and cleared in a matter of hours. His gait is steady and his speech unhalting. Still, Etter says, “it’s not the original equipment.”

“There isn’t a day where I don’t notice something about how my foot turns, the way I lift my leg, the way I place my foot, the way my arm reaches,” he says. “I’m very fortunate to have such a wonderful outcome. But it’s always there.”

And so he’s taken that daily reminder – that unique identity – and put it to good use. As a volunteer with PARC for the past four years, he’s reached out to patients like him who’ve had a stroke and are navigating life on new terms. “It’s a way for me to sit down and talk with people – give them some idea that you can get through this,” he says. “It’s kind of like belonging to an exclusive fraternity, but the initiation is really hell.”

While stroke talk was never front and center at home, Etter says his children saw what he went through – from his debilitation to recovery – and made their own decisions about how to take care of themselves. “A picture’s worth a thousand words,” he says. His son, 28, who works in government affairs in Montana, plays rugby. His daughter, 26, a fourth-grade teacher in Oregon, is in training for this year’s Hood To Coast Relay.

Now retired from law and looking for something new to pursue, Etter’s experience with stroke has left a lasting impression.

“Strangely, I believe it improved me,” he says. “You go through these things, and you get a lot of sympathy. After a while, I used to say, ‘Worse things have happened to better people.’

“I feel really thankful and humbled by the fact that I’ve been able to recover so well,” he says. “As a result, I look at things with a positive attitude. I don’t worry about the small stuff.”