Recovering 1 day at a time

Friday, June 17, 2016

Miller shares experiences as a young stroke survivor

Pictured are Joseph Miller and his mother, Deanna. Miller lost 95 percent of his memory after suffering a stroke at 24 years old. His mother was one of the few things that he remembered. (Photos by Will Musgrove)

SPIRIT LAKE -- Joseph Miller woke up in a hospital bed in November 2014 unsure where he was or why he was there. Many of his memories were erased.

Miller had suffered a stroke and spent the previous month fighting for his life. The 25-year-old's long road to recovery was about to begin.

He had to relearn how to eat, how to use the restroom, walk, and rediscover who he was as a person. The healing began, slowly, through the help of social media accounts and his family.

Miller now serves as an advocate for young stroke survivors. He shared his story Friday at the 12th Annual Lakes Health Conference at Arrowwood Resort in Okoboji in the hope of inspiring new techniques and strategies to help young stroke survivors persevere.

"I wanted to encourage pioneers in the health field to develop programs for young stroke survivors," Miller said. "I think there can be a lot of progress made if people work together to create change. There's a need, and I definitely want to be a voice for that."

The stroke

Miller moved to Los Angeles in 2007 and worked three jobs to support himself as he went to art school. Seven years passed before signs of a health concern began to emerge.

He struggled to eat and his left leg often felt numb. While driving home from a sculpture class, he started seeing bright orbs in the corner of his eyes, which he described as "a chain of diamonds."

Miller said he could barely see and believed he was having an intense migraine. He told his roommates not to bother him, that he was going to lie down.

Three days later, Miller's roommates discovered him unconscious in his room and called 911. He was transported to Providence Holy Cross Medical Center, where doctors said it was a miracle he was still alive.

"I wanted to be left alone," Miller said. "I didn't want my roommates to bug me. They didn't, only to realize that I wasn't going to work or school, so they checked up on me."

The recovery

Miller couldn't move or speak in the early stages of his rehab. He said 95 percent of his memories were gone -- his mother, Deanna was one of the few things he could recall.

Deanna and her husband stayed with some of their son's friends in California as he went through his rehabilitation process at the hospital. The Millers eventually brought their son home to Lincoln, Nebraska.

"We didn't have a lot of money, so it was hard for us to stay (in Los Angeles)," Deanna said. "We brought him home so we could care for him better."

Miller attended the Madonna Rehab Center once he got back to Lincoln. But after about a month of therapy, he was informed his insurance wouldn't cover the cost. He was slapped with a $10,000 bill and he and his family were on their own.

"The rehab center didn't do its job," Miller said. "You don't start me in a program if I'm not going to be covered. I researched on YouTube for workout programs for stroke survivors. I knew I needed to avoid muscle stiffness. I needed to stretch and build my range of motion."

Deanna left the hospital with only a handful of pamphlets on how to care for a stroke survivor. She said helping her son became a process of trial and error.

"It was a very confusing time," Deanna said. "When I brought him home, I was like: 'What do I do now?' We had a lot of errors. It's hard. There was a range of things we had to learn. We had to help him in the bathroom, feed him, dress him. He also has sensory overload, so we had to make sure lights, sounds and textures were all right. It's a continuous learning process for the whole family."

This loss of independence was tough, according to Miller. He decided to educate himself and his family on how to handle the emotional and physical pressures a stroke survivor faces every day.

"The first year of a stroke survival is so important," Miller said. "I aggressively communicated to my parents my needs. That's me though, I have that kind of motivation. Some people might not have that and need their parents to motivate them."

Piecing his life back together

Miller used his social media accounts to discover who he was prior to the stroke. He scrolled through his Instagram account looking at old photos in attempts to jog his memory. His friends also sent him videos detailing who he was.

He found solace again in his art. He said it allows him to focus and cope with stress.

Each day he paints an image based on Bible devotionals. Miller describes his art as abstract expressionism.

"I just like to go with the flow," Miller said. "I pour my heart and soul into every painting that I do. It's part of my own psychological, emotional rehab. I didn't do it at the rehab center. I did it on my own accord."

Loneliness is another factor Miller has dealt with since his stroke. Many of his friends have moved on with their lives, not willing to slow down for him.

"I haven't heard from so many of my friends and a lot of the friends I do make don't stick around," Miller said.

Miller has located a group of people he can relate to on a young stroke survivor Facebook page.

"There are over 5,000 stroke survivors on there," Miller said. "It's a huge community. It's a great platform to connect with other stroke survivors. It's a way to not feel isolated and alone."

Lakes health conference

Joseph Miller spoke at the 12th annual Lakes Health Conference about creating new programs for young stroke survivors. Miller himself had a stroke in late 2014.

Iowa Lakes Community College booked Miller as a Lakes Health Conference presenter after hearing his story on "The Today Show." Miller relished the opportunity because he said he wanted to do something to help people like him.

"I'm an artist, so I'm very introspective," Miller said. "I'm able to examine my life differently. Being very self aware and documenting my physical and emotional deficiencies is like a self-study case. I'm doing my own investigation on my body, so I can talk publicly and educate people and maybe collaborate with people to make new therapies."

He spoke about organizing more programs that are focused on young stroke survivors rather than the traditional patient. He also emphasized the importance of constructing programs to enable parents and guardians to provide better care.

"There is no easy one word answer on how to deal with a young stroke survivor," Miller said. "I can't say the biggest struggle for me was a loss of friendship or independence. It's a layer of things. It's not just one thing. It's complex and takes some effort."


Some symptoms of an oncoming stroke, according to the National Stroke Association:

-- Face dropping

-- Arm weakness

-- Speech difficulty

-- Trouble seeing

-- Loss of understanding

-- Severe headaches

-- Fatigue

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