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Miraculous stroke recovery

By Staff | Sep 12, 2009

Physical Therapist Dan Bankson works with Gary Ehrich on his dynamic balance.

Decongestants aren’t for everyone. In fact, for Gary Ehrich of rural Blue Earth, the usage of a decongestant almost cost him his life.

Last February, Ehrich and his son, Shawn, had hauled two loads of corn from the farm and were working on the third when Ehrich discovered he could not move his leg.

“Shawn was filling the other semi,” recalls Ehrich. “I turned to him and told him I couldn’t move my leg. He thought I was joking. At about the same time, it felt as if my face was dropping. Shawn must have seen my face droop, because he sprang into action by helping me sit on the ground before he called 911.”

Ehrich’s blood pressure had spiked from his normal range of 127/68 to 205/120. A stroke resulted, leaving him paralyzed on the right side of his body and unable to speak.

“For the first few days I didn’t think I was going to make it,” says Ehrich. “The doctors at St. Mary’s in Rochester didn’t give me much hope either.”

After four or five days, Ehrich started showing some improvement, thus becoming a good candidate for physical and occupational therapy at the Rochester Hospital.

While Ehrich was hospitalized at St. Mary’s, his family members checked-out St. Luke’s Lutheran Care Center’s therapy department to see whether it could help with his recovery. Finding that it could, arrangements were made to bring Ehrich back to Blue Earth.

On March 22, thirty-two days after his stroke, Ehrich was transported to St. Luke’s to continue his rehabilitation more closely to home.

For over three months he worked with the various therapists at St. Luke’s. They included Kay Sonnicksen (speech therapy,) Kris Blowers and Patty Peterson (occupational therapy) and Heidi Dill and Dan Bankson (physical therapy.) They are affiliated with Rehab Care and organization which employs some 17,000 personnel throughout the country.

“Gary is very self-driven and motivated to do the best he can,” says Bankson, physical therapist. “Many patients are not motivated or just don’t have the drive like Gary does.”

Ehrich previously had cartilage removed from his knees, so he knew what the benefits of therapy were.

“I knew you had to do the therapy,” says a matter-of-fact Ehrich. “If you don’t, you’ll never get better.”

Ehrich generally was the first patient Bankson saw in the morning as well as in the afternoon. On average, Ehrich spent five and one-half hours daily with the therapists. According to Bankson, this is what the Sister Kinney Institute would require. It also expedited Ehrich’s recovery process.

Each week has been a constant challenge for Ehrich to up the ante to regain his independence.

Bankson has seen Ehrich progress from being unable to speak clearly, or sit on an exercise mat without falling over to talking normally, walking and being able to return to live independently in his home with his wife, Sandra.

“In the 18 years I have worked in physical therapy, I have had only one other person I would compare to Gary,” says Bankson. “He never complains and is always working to better himself.”

Ehrich says there were a couple of days when it seemed as if he wasn’t making any progress at all. He adds the staff brought him back to reality by reminding him of where he had been.

Because of his remarkable recovery from such a massive stroke, Ehrich is somewhat of a ‘miracle man’ to the therapists at Blue Earth and Rochester.

Bankson says Gary is a left CVA (cerebral accident) victim with a right hemi. In layman’s terms this means the right, or dominant side of his body, had been paralyzed because of the stroke. As a result, Bankson has had to work with Gary’s lower extremities, mobility, trunk strength and balance, including his ability to sit and roll, in order to help build new pathways in Ehrich’s brain.

“Nerve regeneration is very slow,” explains Bankson, “but the plasticity of the brain is pretty remarkable.” He says research and surgeries are being conducted whereby they can even change the pathways of the brain to help stroke victims. So, progress is being made, but therapy continues to be part of this solution.

“It’s a real workout,” says Bankson. “Gary and I both get sweaty doing the therapy, but it pays off. I sleep better when I’ve worked with Gary.”

Currently, Bankson says Ehrich is pretty low risk for a fall, but continues to need work on his right foot since it tends to rotate outward and on his dynamic balance which is needed when a person walks stairs or lunges.

Bankson says he learns from his patients. In the case of Ehrich, who is very high-level, he is constantly trying to figure out new activities to challenge Ehrich.

“Working with Gary has been fun,” says Bankson who enjoys his job as a physical therapist very much. “It has been fun and rewarding to see the incredible progress he has made from point A to the present.”

Even though Ehrich is determined to regain 100 percent, therapist Bankson wants to set realistic and functional goals. Literally taking one step at a time.

“When you are 80 or 90 years old, you don’t understand the need for therapy,” says Bankson. “But it is a big deal to be able to move yourself so you can go to the bathroom or get out of bed on your own.”

In addition to his current regimen of working with Bankson for three one-hour sessions weekly, Ehrich also travels to St. Mary’s two times a week to have therapy there and to check and reset the arm and hand monitor he has. This battery operated device forces his hand to contract and release, thereby improving the muscle tone.

“My hand is the biggest glitch now,” confesses Ehrich. But in no sense is he going to give up. He says he’s going to continue to do whatever it takes to continue to get better. And for sure, it won’t include the usage of decongestants.

Rochester physicians surmise the decongestants Ehrich was using last February possibly caused his stroke. Statistics report three out of every 1,000 people will be affected by decongestant usage. In some, it causes their blood pressure to spike, resulting in a stroke.

As the cold and flu season approaches, Ehrich is adamant about never using decongestants again. One close call last February was enough for Gary Ehrich. He enjoys life too much.