Sean Russell

After a sudden, life-altering stroke, Sean Russell has relearned how to do his favourite things, and is using his experience to help others.

Sean Russell and wife Kathryn volunteering with patient

When Sean Russell headed to the subway to meet a friend on a sunny summer afternoon, he had no idea that by the time he would finally make it onto the platform, several months later, it would be one of many milestones on his road to recovery.

In September of 2015, Russell found himself feeling dizzy and unwell on his way to meet a friend at the gym and collapsed on the sidewalk not far from the subway station. Fortunately for Russell, a passer-by recognized his symptoms as signs of a stroke and called an ambulance, helping Russell get much-needed treatment within a small, crucial window of time.

Russell had suffered an ischemic stroke with a clot in the left side of his brain, causing deficits on the right side of his body and other side effects. In the aftermath of his stroke, Russell experienced compromised strength and coordination of his right limbs and expressive aphasia, a side effect of stroke that partially impairs the ability to communicate verbally.

To have a conversation with Russell now, you wouldn’t be able to tell that he suffered a stroke just over four years ago, and that he is still working on his recovery. But during those first months, sitting down to speak for half an hour was something he struggled to do.  

After spending four days at Toronto Western Hospital for acute stroke treatment, Russell was transferred to West Park for 10 days as of stroke rehabilitation as an inpatient. Once he was discharged, he stayed with the hospital as an outpatient until the following November, working with a speech language pathologist and a physiotherapist.

Stroke rehabilitation at West Park changed not only Russell’s life, but his wife, Kathryn’s, as well.

“What I was so impressed with about West Park was how staff were able to give patients encouragement and small successes along their individualized road to recovery,” Russell says of his rehab. “They celebrate small wins with patients along the way, but still keep us challenged as we improve.”

Russell notes that while the progress he sees now is at a slower pace than when he first started doing rehab – as many of his deficits are not easily noticed – he still gets excited about his progress, like continuously getting better at hiking and riding a bike every year.

“A lot of my continued progress I owe to the caring, engaged, and knowledgeable staff at West Park,” he says. “About four or five months after my stroke, I told the therapists I wanted to get back on the subway to visit my friends. It took weeks until I was ready, but I eventually did it.”

Russell and his wife’s lives were impacted greatly by his stroke, but also by the sense of community they were introduced to at West Park.

“I remember when I saw an ex-patient who had had a stroke come in and speak to us,” Russell says. “To see someone that wasn’t a doctor, or a therapist, or a professional able to walk around and do these things again that I wanted to do again, was very inspiring.”

After seeing firsthand the positive effect of this inspiration, Russell and his wife were interested in giving the same hope and motivation to other patients. Once introduced to the March of Dimes’ After Stroke program, Peers Fostering Hope, they decided to give back to other stroke patients at West Park, which is a particularly meaningful place for them. Their volunteering includes monthly Stroke Survivors Group meetings and speaking with inpatients one-on-one to share experience and give support. Watch the March of Dimes video below featuring Russell below.

“One of the things that keeps us coming back to West Park is, as volunteers, you’re made to feel like you’re really valued and really welcomed here,” Kathryn says.

Kathryn especially understands the help from support groups, having become a first-time caregiver to her husband.

“There’s a lot of confusion for someone who has just had a stroke, and a lot of unanswered questions and anxiety,” Kathryn says. “Coming to the Stroke Survivor’s club and hearing other people’s experiences made me feel like I’m not the only person who has felt this way; it’s going to be ok.”

Kathryn emphasizes that support received from West Park and the After Stroke programs as well as volunteering in the programs allow both her and her husband to feel a sense of community and purpose at the hospital, which has helped immensely through the long recovery process.

Sean Russell climbing

As for how his recovery is going, Russell is able to participate in many of the things he could before his stroke, including alpine skiing, rock climbing, and hiking; and with a lot of practice, perseverance, and patience, bike riding on rough terrain. In terms of getting his life back, one of the biggest and most necessary steps for him was that first subway ride to see his friends.