Six years ago Marco Chorbajian was lying in a bed at Surrey Memorial Hospital (SMH) and all he wanted to do was die.
Three weeks earlier Chorbajian, a retired salesman and active senior who enjoyed playing and coaching tennis and chess was at home when he suddenly felt very tired. He told his wife he was going to lay down and have a brief rest. When he woke up a short while later he decided to play a game of Soduko, a number-based puzzle, but realized he was unable to hold the pen in his right hand.
His wife noticed something wasn’t right and took him immediately to SMH but by the time they arrived, he was unable to stand on his own or speak.
“I felt like a deer in the headlights,” he said. “I was completely lost.”
While in hospital he was given some unsettling news. He had suffered a massive stroke caused by a hemorrhage in his brain.
Paralyzed on the right side of his body, Chorbajian, 70, felt trapped.
Soon after, his five-year-old grandson arrived for a visit, jumped up on him and said, “I love you grampa.”
“That was the turning point for me,” Chorbajian said.
A nurse had earlier given him the news he didn’t want to hear – that he would never play tennis again.
“She said you have no grip, no hand-eye coordination… nothing. Don’t get your hopes up.”
“That really p—-d me off,” he said, “I don’t like to take no for an answer.” Three months later, without the consent of his doctor, he checked himself out of hospital.
He felt the half-hour of physiotherapy he was receiving four days a week wasn’t enough and so he decided to push himself as much as he could and prove everyone wrong.
Chorbajian had been a heavy smoker, consuming up to four packs a day, but had quit nearly 30 years earlier, however he believes the smoking, along with his high-stress job, were the dominant factors that contributed to his condition.
He knew he needed to make some changes and so with the help of his wife and family, he began going to the pool at Sungod Arena in North Delta every day.
“My wife and son took me down the ramp to the jacuzzi… ahh that felt so good,” he said with a broad smile. “And after 30 minutes I got out and took seven steps.”
For the next 18 months he went to the pool every day and practiced walking six to seven kilometres in the water for as long as four to five hours.
To prevent his right hand permanently curling up into a fist, a condition very common with stroke patients, his wife would force his hand open, often using tape and even a tennis ball in his hand so it wouldn’t close.
He eventually progressed from a wheelchair to a walker, and walked as much as 6,000 steps every day.
Chorbajian said while he was in hospital he had asked if he could speak to a stroke survivor, someone who had been through all the treatment, to get some idea what he was up against. But no one ever came.
Feeling he could help others in the same condition as himself, Chorbajian began volunteering with the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
He tries to use humour when visiting patients who have recently suffered a stroke, a calling he now considers his life’s work.
He visits the stroke recovery centre once or twice a week and says, “I always try to leave them (the survivors) in a better frame of mind.”
Chorbajian credits his wife Margaret, who herself is now battling Parkinson’s disease, with much of his recovery.
“You need a strong support system, people that believe in you. I wouldn’t be here with out my wife.”
He recounts how he helped one man who had been wheelchair-bound for five years.
“I was able to get him walking and now he can walk up to 10 kilometres. He wasn’t getting better because he didn’t know he could get better.”
Chorbajian is quick to acknowledge, however, that not everyone will reach the level of recovery he has.
Although he still has issues with his balance, Chorbajian is now back playing and coaching tennis.
“I don’t give people hope, but it is so important to have a strong caregiver. I tell people you will have bad days but don’t call them bad days. They are challenging days and you need to stay positive, even if you’re not.”
Chorbajian will be part of a new program being offered by the BC Heart and Stroke Foundation called Living with Stroke. Provided free in several B.C. communities, the program is comprised of eight weekly two-hour sessions covering topics ranging from impact of stroke, physical changes and keeping active, to dealing with emotions and relationships, nutrition and reducing future risk.
The next program will be offered from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday evenings from Oct. 2 to Nov. 13 at the Surrey City Centre Library.
For more information, check out www.heartandstroke.bc.ca/livingwithstroke or call 1-888-473-4636.