GOOCHLAND, Va. (AP) — In a room on the second floor of the Sheltering Arms Institute in Goochland, two women were talking near a window. One was recounting the day she had a stroke and was left on the floor of her home alone for 16 hours.
Kim McCue, who had been at the hospital for about a week, was telling her story to Eleanor Angle, a woman who had had a stroke two years ago and became one of the first patients at Sheltering Arms Institute.
Angle, 53, listened thoughtfully while McCue talked about her stroke and recounted how the last few days of recovery had gone.
“I’m here to be a voice of encouragement and support and to tell you that life after stroke is richer and more meaningful – at least to me,” Angle told McCue. “You’ve got a wonderful journey that will unfold one day at a time.”
The pair was part of the Stroke Peer Program at Sheltering Arms Institute, a joint venture between Sheltering Arms and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Health System. In addition to serving stroke patients at the physical rehabilitation hospital, they have programs for spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries and more.
The in-house mentoring program was modeled after successful programs the Institute had implemented with people who had experienced spinal cord injuries and amputations.
“The opportunity for me to be a mentor allows me to pay back to the community at-large and other survivors,” Angle said.
Peer mentors are volunteers that are required to complete a six-hour training course taught by clinicians in psychology and speech-language pathology, according to a release from the hospital. About once or twice a week, the mentors meet one-on-one with patients at the Institute.
“It’s just an incredible organization,” said Sandra Romeo, another patient who met with Angle that day. “I’m glad to be here because I feel like I’m recovering a lot faster.”
Romeo, 59, had just finished therapy at the Institute’s core gym, a larger physical therapy space on the first floor. Among loads of equipment and natural light from the floor-to-ceiling windows, patients practiced walking.
Romeo herself had been walking through the gym with bright pink one pound dumbbells and an ankle weight on her right leg. She also practiced stepping over neon green hurdles that were lifted six inches off the floor.
“Let’s try stepping over them sideways now,” Kate Hogue, her therapist, said.
With a sigh and an eye roll, Romeo turned to the side to complete the exercise successfully.
Today, four mentors, including Angle, are mentoring stroke patients within Sheltering Arms Institute. The mentoring program itself is seen as part of the recovery process there, said Melissa Banta, the therapy program manager for strokes. Sometimes mentors can help explain to patients what they’re going through better than clinicians.
“Having them stay motivated and engaged is just so important,” Banta said. “And they can really work with that patient.”
Not only is stroke one of the leading causes of death in the United States but it’s also one of the leading causes of serious disability in adults. Aside from having had a previous stroke, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and sickle cell disease are all health conditions increasing one’s risk of stroke.
In 2021, stroke was the fifth leading cause of death in Virginia.
“They feel like they have hope (at Sheltering Arms),” Alison Clark, the community engagement manager, said. “And the other thing I’ve heard a lot of is that it’s motivating them to see that there is life after they leave here, and that they might not be where they want to be when they leave, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t continue to make progress.”
In her second floor room, McCue said she was proud of her recovery so far. She was walking backwards for the therapists and throwing a ball at the same time – something she couldn’t do before she had her stroke.
“I just met Eleanor today, but for me, it’s really refreshing to talk to somebody who’s back out there, and ’been there, done that,” Romeo said. “It’s just encouraging to hear somebody talk about what they’ve been through and know that you can recover.”