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Our patients and their stories

Stroke patient stories

Michael FrickstadStroke recovery: The power of not taking no for an answer

Michael Frickstad fell ill while golfing with co-workers from St. Michael-Albertville High School. A physically active adult, he didn't think much of it — just a bad headache. Frickstad went home, took some extra strength Tylenol® and got to bed early. He hasn't been the same since.

Robert Myer

Robert Myer

Robert (Bob) Myer had a stroke in the spring of 2013. He was then challenged with impaired mobility and balance, as well as limited use of his left arm, which hampered his ability to do the basic tasks of daily living.


Alan (Frank) Schwab

Alan "Frank" Schwab

Alan Schwab prefers to be called Frank. He received therapy at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute – New Ulm to overcome the debilitating effects of a right-hemisphere aneurysm and a left-hemisphere stroke.


Ken Boelter works with a physical therapist on his road to stroke recovery

Giving to others and receiving in return: Ken's story

Coon Rapids Firefighter Ken Boelter continues to fight one of the toughest battles of his life. A stroke paralyzed the left side of his body. But experts at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute - Mercy Hospital say he's making great strides.

Alan P. Sakry

Alan P. Sakry

Despite a severe stroke in January 2012, Alan Sakry of Elk River continued to serve his community in numerous ways as he recovered and participated in rehabilitation.


William Holmberg

William Holmberg

When William Holmberg first arrived in the SKRI inpatient unit, he had severe mobility and cognitive impairments due to a stroke that caused a large brain bleed.

Denny Burda at the 2011 Inspiration Awards Ceremony

Denny Burda: Rejoining life

Denny Burda suffered a stroke while driving to work one day last year. That began a tremendous year of change for Burda and his wife and family.


Mary Conroy Johnson

Mary Conroy Johnson: You can learn from her misfortune, healing

While on vacation, Mary was felled by a stroke that paralyzed her left side, cut off a slice of vision and garbled her speech. Without an immediate medical response and a relatively new treatment, she may have spent the rest of her life paralyzed.


arrow points to link to more stroke patient stories More stroke patient stories on allina.com/stroke

Stroke recovery: The power of not taking no for an answer

Michael Frickstad walks on a treadmill during a session with his physical therapist

In May 2008, 57-year-old Michael Frickstad fell ill while golfing with co-workers from St. Michael-Albertville High School. A physically active adult, Frickstad didn't think much of it — just a bad headache. He went home, took some extra strength Tylenol® and got to bed early. He hasn't been the same since.

"I woke up the next morning and the bedroom was spinning," recalls Frickstad. "I tried to get out of bed and fell to the floor. I had no control over my legs and right arm."

He managed to crawl to his telephone and called his girlfriend, Lynda. Worried because she couldn't understand what he was saying, Lynda called 911. It was the right thing to do — Frickstad was having a stroke.

He was rushed by ambulance to Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, where he spent the next 10 days in intensive care.

"The neurologist at Mercy Hospital told me he didn't think I was going to make it," recalls Frickstad. "A stroke is usually caused by blockage or bleeding and I had both."

The stroke left Frickstad with balance and coordination problems, as well as right side weakness. He was transferred to the stroke specialty program at Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute at Abbott Northwestern Hospital.

Confined to a wheelchair, Frickstad doubted he would walk independently again, but his team of therapists proved him wrong.

"They wouldn't take 'no' for an answer. I was able to remain positive because they believed in me. I figured if the professionals thought I could do this, then I must be able to," he explains.

For three weeks, Frickstad spent three hours each day in physical, occupational and speech therapies.

In addition to traditional therapies, Frickstad's care plan included acupuncture, music therapy, reflexology and aquatic therapy in the Institute's Wasie Therapeutic Swimming Pool.

Just six weeks after leaving his home in a speeding ambulance, Frickstad returned to his living room with only the aid of a walker.

"It was one of the most awesome experiences I've ever had. I had come along way since I left my home strapped to a stretcher," he remembers.

Frickstad continues to work on coordination, balance and regaining sensation in his right arm. He has returned to the high school classroom where he teaches students English literature and the power of not taking no for an answer.


Source: Sister Kenny Foundation, Possibilities Magazine, fall 2008
Reviewed by: Sue Newman, OTR, coordinator, Stroke Rehabilitation Program, Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute
First Published: 03/23/2011
Last Reviewed: 03/31/2011

Robert Myer

Robert (Bob) Myer of Cedar, Minnesota had a stroke in the spring of 2013. He was then challenged with impaired mobility and balance, as well as limited use of his left arm, which hampered his ability to do the basic tasks of daily living.

Through hard work and determination during his therapy at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute – Cambridge, Myer has gained almost full strength in his left leg and continues to work on balance and control. According to his therapists – Andrea Benner, PT, Cheryl Sailer, OTR/L, STAR/C, and Darren Rudeen, PTA – “he is not willing to still still!”

Myer had perfect attendance in therapy and was diligent in performing the prescribed home exercise program. He understands that there is “no quick fix” and continues to persevere each day. One of his first successes was a weekend alone at home, where he was able to prepare his own meals. With a desire to resume driving, he is now preparing for a behind-the-wheel driving assessment.

Because Myer has observed how various physical challenges have changed his life, he understands that he has a “new normal” and is willing to make changes in how he approaches activities. He has a great appreciation of accommodations for those with disabilities and has become a champion for accessible environments.

Myer’s therapists remarked on his upbeat attitude, positive energy, and his way of offering encouragement to his fellow patients. His wonderful sense of humor is uplifting to therapists and patients alike. The journey of his recovery has truly been an inspiration to all.


Source: Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute
Reviewed by: Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute
First Published: 09/14/2012
Last Reviewed: 09/14/2012

Alan P. Sakry

Alan P. Sakry

Alan P. Sakry is a 2012 Inspiration Award winner.

Despite a severe stroke in January 2012, Sakry of Elk River continued to serve his community in numerous ways as he recovered and participated in rehabilitation.

After Sakry's condition stabilized in February, he began a rigorous rehabilitation process with the determination and positive attitude of a champion. The stroke left this masterful motivational speaker with impaired language, making it difficult for him to speak more than one word. He also experienced loss of movement on the right side of his body.

However, Sakry's therapists, Michele Darger, MOTR/L and Rachel Vohs, PT, learned quickly that the positive attitude he brought to every interaction – with therapists, physicians and nurses – was seemingly extraordinary. His theme song was "Eye of the Tiger," which he and his therapists frequently sang at the onset of therapy.

"Went the distance, now I'm not gonna stop
Just a man and his will to survive.
Don't lose your grip on the dreams of the past
You must fight to just keep them alive."

Despite his medical issues and the challenges of his personal recovery, Sakry reached out to many other patients and provided that uplifting high five, huge smile or thumbs up to connect with them and encourage them.

His physiatrist, Jun Herrera, MD, was overheard telling him, "If all of my patients worked as hard as you did today, Alan, my job would be easy."

Sakry, a loving husband and father, is an extraordinary man who has lived his life generously. In May 2012, Sakry was named Elk River Volunteer of the Month, recognized by Mayor John Dietz for his accomplishments, which include: Chamber of Commerce board member and chair, YMCA community board chair, Elk River Rotary Club, CAER food shelf, Boys & Girls Club, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Faith in Action, and more.

Sakry loved to champion worthy causes and events, making his Elk River community a better place to live and work. He continued to do so even from his hospital bed.

Sakry remains focused on his recovery in preparation for the next chapter in his life. The stroke that nearly claimed his life has irrevocably changed it, but there’s no sign that his spirit was taken from him. He continues to be an inspiration to all around him.


Source: Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute
Reviewed by: Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute
First Published: 09/14/2012
Last Reviewed: 09/14/2012

William Holmberg

William Holmberg

William Holmberg is a 2012 Inspiration Award winner.

William Holmberg, a resident of New Richmond, Wisconsin, has received therapy at SKRI – United Hospital. When Holmberg first arrived in the SKRI inpatient unit, he had severe mobility and cognitive impairments due to a stroke that caused a large brain bleed.

It was very challenging for him to stand for even short periods of time without becoming nauseated and dizzy. He was unsteady and had no active movement on his right side. He was unable to form a complete sentence or make even his basic needs known because of severe speech impairments.

Holmberg's physical therapist Christine Olson says, "It took Bill several days until he was able to tolerate the upright position long enough to begin pre-gait tasks. When we began to walk, Bill required my assistance even to move his right leg. I specifically remember him asking, 'Can I please try to move these animals by myself?' Due to his aphasia, he had difficulty expressing the appropriate words, but I knew right then that he was very motivated and wanted to do everything he could to improve and progress."

As time went on, Holmberg asked for exercises to do in his room and would promptly tell Olson when these exercises became too easy for him and he was ready for harder challenges.

He never lost his positive attitude and inspired other patients. Holmberg could often be found communicating with other patients on the unit, showing interest and support in their recovery. He shared his challenges and progress with them, encouraging them to stay strong and keep moving forward.

When he left the hospital four weeks later, Holmberg was able to walk more than 500 feet on his own, using a brace on his right leg and a cane in his left hand. He could also climb a flight of stairs, form whole sentences and hold a conversation with his care team.

Now in outpatient therapy, Holmberg continues to make great progress due to his ongoing perseverance and hard work both in therapy sessions and on his own.

In addition to being motivated, Holmberg has been very active in his care, taking an interest in learning about his diagnosis, prognosis and short- and long-term goals.

His professional career as a medical device engineer gave him a great knowledge base regarding medical care and how new devices and treatments can be life changing for a patient.

He has great potential to be a spokesperson for those who have suffered from strokes and a public educator about strokes, rehabilitation and outcomes. He will continue to inspire others in the future.

Source: Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute
Reviewed by: Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute
First Published: 09/14/2012
Last Reviewed: 09/14/2012

Denny Burda: Rejoining life

Denny Burda suffered a stroke while driving to work one day last year. That began a tremendous year of change for Burda and his wife and family.

Denny Burda holds his 2011 Inspiration Award

Denny Burda received the 2011 Inspiration Award from Pat Tarnowski of Allina Health.

After his stroke, he struggled to utter even the simplest words, like "yes" and "no." His wife needed to communicate for him. Television annoyed and confused him. Reading was too laborious. Writing was no longer functional.

He was reluctant about coming to outpatient speech therapy, as he rarely left the house after he was discharged from the hospital.

"He won't come, we were told," said Anita Bazan MA/CCC-SLP, speech-language pathologist.

But with steady encouragement and support from his family and friends, Burda did agree to come to therapy. And within a session or two, his perseverance and drive to regain skills were quite apparent, according to Bazan.

Burda attended therapy for three days a week at first, and later one day per week, for more than a year. His concentrated efforts during therapy sessions left him exhausted, but he never called in sick and never missed a session.

Although optimism was guarded about Burda's potential for recovery, he has had an extraordinary outcome, progressing from almost no words at all, to being able to strike up conversations with friends, store clerks, or whoever else is ready to chat.

He has resumed e-mail correspondence, keeps current with news on the Internet, and posts items for sale on Craig's List. He enjoys reading fishing magazines and is able to read story books aloud to his grandchildren. He has honed his fishing skills and is now able to teach this skill through words and actions to the younger generation.

Burda is now also beginning to reach out to educate others about his journey to recovery and to serve as an advocate for the disabled.

"He has 'rejoined life' after an extraordinary year," said Bazan.


Source: Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute
Reviewed by: Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute
First Published: 09/16/2011
Last Reviewed: 09/16/2011

Mary Conroy Johnson: You can learn from her misfortune, healing

She is well known as the outpatient surgical nurse at River Falls Area Hospital and, maybe even more so, as a founder of the Free Clinic of Pierce and St. Croix Counties.

Mary and Bob Johnson with dog Kinni

Mary is 59, wasn't overweight or on regular medications. Though a very busy person, she's not physically that active but considers herself fit except for some arthritis.

Yet on August 19, 2011 while vacationing with her husband Bob in Iowa to watch their son Neil, a professional golfer, compete in a tournament, Mary was felled by a stroke that paralyzed her left side, cut off a slice of vision and garbled her speech.

Without an immediate medical response and a relatively new treatment, she may have spent the rest of her life paralyzed. Circumstances were in Mary's favor -- having a spouse at her side who's a doctor and being in Des Moines, which had a "certified stroke" hospital nearby.

Now, Mary and Bob want to spread the word that there are stroke warning signs, and that a person displaying symptoms must see a doctor without delay.

For Mary, looking back, there was one warning sign. Carrying a laundry basket up and down stairs at home, she experienced -- for the first time ever -- shortness of breath. "I wasn't dizzy and had no chest pains, but I just couldn't catch my breath,” said Mary. She attributed this to "possible heat stroke" caused by the extremely hot summer.

But she also had shortness of breath while walking up and down golf courses during Neil's tournaments. Her condition was later diagnosed as atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heart rhythm. In Mary's case, this was probably caused by a blood clot in her heart that would eventually break off and end up in her brain, resulting in the stroke.

Mary, who had gotten up during the night, slept again for several hours when she woke just after 4:30 a.m. in the Iowa hotel where she and Bob were staying. She fell while getting out of bed, hitting her head on a nightstand. Had she tripped over shoes or gotten her feet tangled in the sheets? Neil came to help and look Mary over with Bob.

Bob knew that it wasn't just the blow to the head that was causing Mary's grogginess, irregular pulse, slurred speech and paralysis. Neil called 911.

When paramedics arrived, it didn't take Bob long to convince them that they were dealing with a stroke victim and not simply a head injury from a fall. With that diagnosis, the ambulance bypassed a county hospital and went straight to the certified stroke-treatment hospital.

In the emergency room, a CAT scan confirmed that Mary's stroke was caused by a blood vessel clot on the right side of her brain, paralyzing the left side of her body. Through a catheter inserted in her groin and threaded up an artery to her brain, Mary was administered tPA, a powerful clot-dissolving drug.

But first, Bob and Mary and had to weigh the risks of using tPA. It can work wonders but carries a small risk of inducing severe bleeding. In Mary's case, the choice was clear: If she was to have any chance to regain use of her left side, she needed the tPA.

So the drug and other procedures were all done in about an hour and a half following Mary's falling out of bed and hitting her head. Despite her paralysis and disorientation, Mary remained conscious.

She was in intensive care for two days. Despite the tPA drug slowly dissolving her blood clot, Mary remained immobilized -- though "still spunky" -- for the first 24 hours. "Those were some very dark hours for me -- for us," Bob said. "It was awful. I knew if she didn't improve soon the damage could be permanent."

It helped enormously, Bob said, to have Neil and his other son, Erik, close by for support and to make "astute observations" about their mother's needs. Trying to take it hour by hour, Bob, shaken by the dire turn of events, did plenty of praying. "When something like this happens, it reminds you that it's not all about science," he said. "Some things exceed that. Medicine is always unpredictable, and there is healing that goes beyond what can be explained."

By the second 24 hours, Mary improved so fast -- she was walking down the corridor using a walker -- that her neurologist said, "This is a miracle." "I was so relieved," Bob said. "On that second day she just blossomed."

Mary was soon transferred to Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute at United Hospital in St. Paul. She underwent physical, occupational and speech therapy before her release September 1. She continues with outpatient therapy at Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute - River Falls.

In Mary's opinion, a key indicator of someone with stroke potential is high blood pressure. "If you have that, see a doctor and get it checked and treated right away."

Strokes -- known as a "brain attack" -- occur when blood flow to the brain is cut off. That blocks oxygen and nutrients. Brain cells can become damaged or die. When that happens, bodily functions controlled by the brain are impaired or lost.

According to a Stroke Education Resource Guide given to the Johnsons after Mary's stroke, these are sudden stroke symptoms:

  • numbness, weakness or paralysis of face, arm or leg, especially on one side
  • blurred or decreased vision in one or both eyes
  • severe headache with no apparent cause
  • difficulty speaking or understanding words
  • difficulty swallowing or unexplained choking
  • dizziness, loss of balance, especially when combined with another symptom.

The resource guide adds that stroke symptoms, unlike those of a heart attack, are typically ignored: "Stroke symptoms are more subtle and often overlooked. A recent survey showed that 97% of people 50 and over could not even name one stroke symptom. Recognizing these symptoms is very important to getting a quick diagnosis and treatment that could save your life."

Source: River Falls Journal
Reviewed by: Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute
First Published: 12/28/2011
Last Reviewed: 12/28/2011