You can't keep Parker Finch down for long.
A retired Navy man, the Coronado resident was enjoying his golden years and his volunteer work as a docent at the Hotel del Coronado when he first realized how much his tenacity would be tested.
It was in June 1999 while he was giving a tour of the historic old hotel that he suffered a stroke – and his life changed forever.
"I was leading a group across the lobby when I noticed I wasn't speaking well – usually not a problem for me," Parker said. "I didn't feel right. I saw my left foot was dragging, and I couldn't hold the briefcase I had in my left hand. Then I fell over."
Paramedics rushed him to the nearest hospital, where physicians confirmed he had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke. Parker spent five days in the intensive care unit, and was then transferred to the San Diego Rehabilitation Institute (SDRI) at Alvarado Hospital.
The stroke had left Parker paralyzed on left his left side. He could not walk or sit up in bed.
"I spent the next five weeks at SDRI, undergoing intensive speech, recreational, occupational and physical therapy," he recalled.
And that was just the beginning. When Parker was discharged in August, he started outpatient therapy. But the fact that he could walk out of the hospital after those five weeks was proof enough that his determination – and the persistence of his therapists – would pay off if he kept at it.
"They had great faith in me. They would never let me give up," noted Parker, now in his mid-60s. "I called them terrorists."
But his therapists' insistence and Parker's resiliency were gradually helping to restore his level of function. For nine months after his discharge from the hospital, Parker continued to attend physical and occupational therapy sessions and made great strides.
Even when his course of therapy ended, he continued to work on his motor skills using the techniques his therapists had taught him. According to Parker, his proudest moment came when he passed his driver's test in May 2003 and got his license back.
"That was my goal when I left the hospital," Parker remarked. "I said that if I was ever able to drive again, I would come back to SDRI and volunteer to help the staff out – I was so impressed and so grateful for the care I received there."
Parker made good on his promise. He now volunteers at the hospital two days a week. But his real mission these days is helping other stroke patients at Alvarado Hospital.
"I think the key to my recovery was the fact that I always used humor to deflect the misery I felt in losing my independence," Parker said. "But throughout my recovery, I was always frustrated that there was no one I could talk to who had been through what I was going through, and could tell me what was ahead of me."
Parker wanted to be there for other stroke patients, just like he was a guide at the Hotel Del. Coincidentally, Mary Williams, therapeutic recreation manager at SDRI, had already laid the groundwork for a Stroke Peer Visitor Program at Alvarado. When Parker shared his desire to help other stroke victims, she knew Parker could help her pull the program together.
"Parker knows firsthand what a stroke survivor thinks and feels, from the first onset of 'brain attack' through the ongoing battle for recovery," Mary said. "He's also our role model for demonstrating how far a stroke patient can go with persistence and ongoing therapy."
Parker renewed a correspondence that Mary had begun with the American Stroke Association in Las Vegas, where a stroke peer visitor program had already been established. The information he obtained helped Mary and an occupational therapist create a training curriculum and select appropriate volunteers for the program.
"You need to have people who first and foremost, have survived a stroke and who have a genuine interest in helping other stroke survivors with their recovery," Mary said "Many of our peer visitors have successfully made the transition back into their communities, and live meaningful and productive lives despite the challenges of stroke."
Nine volunteers who had successfully completed therapy were selected. They attended a rigorous five-day training program, which is one of the only programs in San Diego County.
"Stroke survivors who are still in the recovery phase have special needs that go beyond the obvious physiological concerns," Mary remarked. "They want to know what is ahead of them. Will they ever walk again? What's next after the therapy stops?
"While our stroke peers cannot answer these questions, they can listen and also share their own experiences. They help these patients in ways that go way beyond the care our medical staff and therapists deliver here at SDRI," she added.
Parker couldn't agree more.
"I know from experience how important it is to have someone to talk to about the effects of stroke, someone who's been through it," he said. And he is the first to note how much helping other stroke survivors has aided his own recovery. "Someone told me early on that although the brain may not completely heal, it may retrain itself. I'm living proof of that.
"The fact that I can even visit other stroke survivors to encourage them helps me realize how far I have come these last five years. I continue getting my life back, a little at a time."