Susan Armstrong (centre) and Maureen Bilodeau write down animal words during a recent brain-exercise session. (Tracy Holmes photo)

Stroke survivors finding ‘magic, family’ with White Rock group

Successes in the face of financial, space struggles

The act of sticking your tongue out at someone isn’t typically one that evokes a round of applause.

But when Susan Armstrong did it recently, it was beyond applause-worthy, witnesses say.

“This was a magic day for all of us,” said Laurie McFarlane, community co-ordinator for the Stroke Recovery Branch White Rock/South Surrey.

Interestingly, it was during “neurobics” – brain exercises that work on communication skills including speech and writing – at the group’s twice-weekly meetings that Armstrong discovered she couldn’t stick out her tongue; yet another ability that had been taken from her by a stroke she suffered in October 2018.

It came to light when McFarlane challenged participants to say the word “sodium.”

With exercise and encouragement from fellow members, Armstrong – who joined the group being able to say just one word, “Wednesday” – regained the skill.

The success and camaraderie are just a few of the many “wonderful things” that McFarlane has seen in her three years with the club, which meets Tuesdays and Thursdays at White Rock’s Centre for Active Living, located adjacent to Centennial Arena.

She’s also more than familiar with challenges facing the group – including the demand for its services.

When McFarlane first started – initially as a volunteer – membership numbered between eight and 10. In the short time that has passed, however, it has tripled. Now, it’s not unusual for as many as 30 stroke survivors to pack the small CAL room for the aphasia class; most stay after for chair exercises with a kinesiologist.

“Our numbers have grown so, so fast,” McFarlane said.

And with both programs held in the same space, the chaos involved in the transition is concerning, she said. Her worst fear actually came true a few weeks ago, when one of the members fell out of his wheelchair and hit his head.

“There’s just too many people in one room here,” she said.

Volunteer Bev Olds agreed, describing the program as “just overloaded.”

Olds has seen the group’s value firsthand. She became involved after her husband, Bill, suffered a stroke in 2012, and continued to volunteer even after he passed away two years ago. The participants are “like a family,” she said.

“You don’t feel that you’re alone, when you have a nice group like this to come to.”

Participant Simone Tuazon also lauded the group’s impact.

Debilitated for three months after suffering her stroke in Toronto five years ago, Tuazon said she was advised “to find a stroke club” after moving to B.C. in 2015 and undergoing therapy at Surrey Memorial Hospital.

She said she was looking for “a community where I can go, have some friends.”

“I appreciate Laurie’s… challenging us to think,” she said.

“Even my life, I remember it now.”

McFarlane said she has gone to “all levels” of government to plead the case for funding support and additional space.

Currently, the non-profit has an annual budget of about $30,000, which must be raised through grants and local donations. This year, those have included a three-year, $5,000-per-year commitment from Peace Arch Hospital Foundation, $1,000 from the City of White Rock and $1,000 that resulted from Olds’ nomination through the Simple Generosity fund. Costs are also offset by a “nominal” $100 membership fee paid by participants.

McFarlane was thrilled to learn that the club was to also benefit from proceeds raised Monday (July 1) by the White Rock firefighters’ charity barbecue, held as part of Canada Day festivities on West Beach.

But McFarlane – whose 14 hours per week position is paid by the Stroke Recovery Association of B.C. (SRABC) – said she’s not sure where the balance of funds needed for 2019 will come from.

“We’re right at the level red,” she said. “We’ve got a few dollars left in our bank account.”

She said part of the challenge in raising funds is the lack of awareness around the group – what it does, and even that it exists – even though it’s been operating locally for about 40 years.

She noted that the aphasia class is “pretty unique” to White Rock, and is hopeful it will eventually be offered at all 30 branches that operate under the umbrella of the SRABC and March of Dimes.

“People that are recovering from aphasia need to have this every day,” she said.

For more information, or to donate, email wrstroke@gmail.com

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Tracy Holmes photos Clockwise from above: Exercise class is a regular component of the stroke recovery club meetings at White Rock’s Centre for Active Living; Laurie Mcfarlane leads White Rock/Surrey Stroke Recovery Club members through some ‘neurobics’ – brain exercises; regaining communication skills is a key focus in the twice-weekly meetings.

Stroke club volunteer Bev Olds chats with Tory Philcox at the start of the meeting’s exercise class. (Tracy Holmes photo)

Regaining communication skills is a key focus in the twice-weekly meetings. (Tracy Holmes photo)

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