Swanson Recovers From Brain Stem Stroke


While April typically brings warmer temperatures, rain showers and sunshine, it also marks Occupational Therapy Month. At UnityPoint Health – Trinity Regional Medical Center, our Occupational Therapy team provides home care, inpatient and outpatient-based services, including the specialty of lymphedema. Our occupational therapists work with people of all ages and varying conditions to enable them to participate in daily living.

Debora Swanson, a patient with the occupational therapy team, was an active crafter until she suffered a brain stem stroke last fall. The stroke left her without the ability to taste and feel on the right side of her body.

“It took me a long time to acknowledge it – that my body is divided in half,” Debora said. “My left side was affected too, but not nearly as bad as my right.”

On September 27, Debora’s husband, Bud, took her to the Emergency Room after he noticed she was slurring, grabbing her face, and not using her right arm. She was admitted that same night, and the next morning, she started working with an inpatient, acute care occupational, speech and physical therapists.

“Everyone in the hospital was awesome, and the therapy team was really nice,” Debora said.

Debora worked on exercises with her arms and legs, along with simple tasks – like brushing her teeth and using the bathroom. She was able to get her right hand moving more and was discharged on September 30. Then, Debora’s hard work continued at home with the support of Bud. She was seen by the Home Health Care Occupational Therapy team.

“The therapists helped me a lot at home. It’s amazing how simple, little tasks became so hard,” Debora said. “I had to start finding different tools to use at home to be more independent.”

Each week that went by, she was able to use her right arm a little bit more – to reach a little higher in the kitchen or the towel hanging in the bathroom – and she continues to make gradual improvements.

Daisha Tigges, Debora’s Home Health Care Occupational Therapy Assistant, shared that reaching the towel in the bathroom was one of Debora’s main goals that she wanted to work on nearly every time. Daisha, along with Cindy Stanberg, Home Health Care Occupational Therapist, were creative in using everyday objects as therapy tools.

"Deb has some rocks in the plant next to her chair so we used them to challenge her fine motor skills," Cindy said.

After graduating from her home health care therapies, Debora began working with Occupational Therapist, Grace Hovde through the outpatient occupational therapy services at Trinity.

“We’re working on strengthening both arms, even the left that was less affected, because it was weakened during Debora’s stay in the hospital,” Grace said. “We want to make sure her left arm is really strong, to bear more of the weight, until we can get the right more functional.”

Occupational therapists utilize traditional approaches – repetitive exercises and stretching – along with creative approaches, such as simulating or doing desired daily tasks to help patients get back to normal. During her sessions, Debora strengthens her arms on the bike, lifts different weighted bars and improves fine motor skills with her right hand. She practices her sewing skills by using a rotary cutter (pizza cutter) to slice putty during her session. The entire team continues to see Debora’s improvements each session.

“It took a lot of concentration to start doing things again,” Debora said. “I have several crafts I love doing, including drawing and making sewing patterns. I finally was able to practice writing and coloring for Valentine’s Day and hadn’t been able to do that since before the stroke.”

While some simple projects Debora used to be able to do in a short amount of time take longer now, she is proud of the things she can accomplish.

“It’s been a long road, but I’m determined to get better,” said Debora. “Some days, I wanted to curl up in a ball and say, ‘forget it,’ but I had to keep fighting.”

Because occupational therapy can offer such a wide range of treatments, based on what a patient wants to accomplish, the setting can look very different. Along with her current treatments, Debora previously utilized the specialized treatment for swelling in her limbs through lymphedema services with Trinity’s occupational therapy practitioners. The end goal is always helping patients get back to doing what they want – and need to – do in their lives. Through the guidance and support of her occupational therapy team more independent days are ahead for Debora.