Battling back from a stroke, one note at a time
● By J. Chambless
Don Mann and Lewis Lott perform a small concert for a stroke survivors group on May 20.
By John Chambless
As a self-described type-A person with a long career of giving 100 percent to everything he's done, Don Mann is learning to slow down and focus his energy on smaller tasks after a stroke last year stopped him in his tracks.
Mann, 68, has lived in Landenberg since 1996. His resume is remarkably diverse, including stints in the Air Force, as a research scientist for the Army, as a munitions designer for the Army, as a sales manager, and as the head of a purchasing consulting group with MBNA Bank, where he specialized in cost efficiency measures.
All those years, he was also focused on his faith, as the author of several books, including “OK, God, Now What?” and as the leader of an online support group and faith resource at CovenantPeaceMinistries.com. If you spend any time with Mann, his boundless energy and can-do attitude come through loud and clear. He has needed that attitude – and his rock-solid faith – to rearrange his life since Sept. 16, 2015.
He started his day with an online prayer meeting through his website. “I got up from the chair, and my leg was a little numb,” Mann said during an interview at his home last week. “And my arm was tingling, like it had gone to sleep. But that didn't register anything with me, so I went out and I worked in the yard, dug up trees and stuff. That night, my wife said, 'What's wrong with you?' She noticed I was limping. I said, 'I just stove myself up today. It'll work out.' That's what I thought.
“The next day, I had to take my grandson to a track meet down in Dover. At that time, I had a pickup truck with a manual transmission. And my left leg didn't work. So it was a rather brutal, jumpy ride to get over to my daughter's house.
“I was getting the idea that things were wrong,” Mann said. “This was lasting a long time. When I got to my daughter's house in Hockessin, I could still function. My daughter took one look at me, and my face was drooping and I was tilting to the left side. She's a nurse, so she sat me down and called 911.”
Mann was as Christiana Care Health System for three days, “pretty well bedridden,” he said. “It got worse as I laid in bed. More things were dying in my head. The trajectory of a stroke may take a week to have its full impact. It shuts a lot of things off, and the body then fights to get blood to the parts that are in trouble. One of the things that happens right away is that your blood pressure goes through the roof as your body is trying to push blood into these areas, and your blood sugar spikes. Your brain is trying to save you.”
After being stabilized, Mann was sent to rehabilitation for three weeks, and eventually to outpatient care at Christiana Care Family Medicine at Springside in Newark. On his first day, back at the hospital, he had shared a room with Lewis Lott, who had been admitted to the hospital on the same day as Mann, having also suffered a stroke. He was a professional guitar player, and Mann had been a lifelong musician as well, often leading worship bands in church.
Mann remembers slurring his words for a day or two, and not being able to move the fingers on his left hand. “I'm left-handed,” he noted. “But I've always been somewhat ambidextrous, so now I'm right-handed for the time being.”
Mann's stroke affected his motor functions, and “when I wiggle the fingers on my left hand,” he said, demonstrating the action, “I can feel the muscles tightening up in my lower arm.” Those motions are precisely the ones involved in playing guitar.
For his new friend, Lott, the circumstances were more dire. As a touring musician, he could no longer sing clearly, and he couldn't remember how to play the songs he used to know by heart. The two men bonded over their struggles and worked to encourage each other as they fought back against the effects of their strokes.
“It's been eight months now, and as of January or February, I no longer need a daily nap,” Mann said. “I had a brain injury in my 40s after ear surgery, when I couldn't keep my balance. If I shook my head, I'd pass out. So I learned to respect when I was out of gas and had to lie down.”
The stroke has challenged his passionately driven style of living, but Mann doesn't feel that it was a divine warning to slow down. “Many people think that God uses the devil to get messages to you. I think that God's waiting for you to stand up and teach the devil a lesson,” he said. “But the bottom line is that I did slow down, whether I wanted to or not.”
Things that Mann had taken for granted – like simply lifting his leg to wash in the shower – became arduous tasks that his wife, Cindy, had to assist him with.
Mann continues a grueling regimen of daily exercises and therapy to strengthen his left side. “I used to do 100 push-ups every morning,” he said. “Now I can't do the full motion – I have no control in going down – but I do modified movements.”
Every time he picks up a guitar, or the bass he has switched to because it's not as taxing, he is working muscles that have been weakened. The mental demands of playing music are good therapy, but challenging, he said.
“I used to be able to play guitar without looking down at the strings,” he said. “Now I have to look at the strings and remember what I'm doing and read the music. But I'm getting to be able to play longer. I can practice for an hour, twice a day.”
While he and Lott were working together on physical therapy, they were given a goal – to play a concert for the Christiana Care Rehabilitation Services stroke survivor support group. “From March to May, that was our focus,” Mann said. He and Lott worked out a 20-minute set that they presented to the small group on May 20. The event was filmed, and will serve as an inspiration for other stroke survivors.
“Lewis can't sing like he used to,” Mann said, “so that left me to play bass and sing. I think it went pretty well,” he said of the concert. “The audience didn't hear anything wrong, anyway.”
Mann said he and Lott are ready to perform a concert for any other groups that might be interested, and they're working on adding more songs to their repertoire.
As a writer and lecturer, Mann was verbally skilled to begin with, but after his stroke, writing “became labor,” he said. “My brain wasn't working as sharply as before. I had to go back and double-check what I had written to make sure what I wrote was intelligible.”
He has nothing but praise for everyone at the University of Delaware's physical, speech and occupational therapy program. “I was over at the Star Center in Newark the other day, being assessed for stroke studies. It's No. 1 in the nation for physical therapy,” he said. “Through this opportunity, I've met the nicest people on the planet. At Christiana, at Wilmington Rehab and at Springside – they're all absolutely wonderful people. Encouraging, knowledgeable, professional. They understand how to work with you, tailoring your therapies to what you can do. ... My first goal after the stroke was to write my name, then to work on a computer keyboard, then to play guitar,” Mann said. “I'm nowhere near where I used to be, but I'm getting better.”
He credits his rapid recovery to his constant connection with God.
“Without a doubt, I credit it all to the power of prayer,” he said. “I'm living proof. I'm improving four times faster than anybody like me. When I was laying in the hospital in Wilmington, on the third week, I had nurses come in who had seen me the first week, and they said, 'We thought you would never move that leg.' The therapists at Springside said, 'You're pushing us. Every time you come in, you're better than you were before. We have to keep ahead of you.'
“Every day, I'm rewiring my brain,” he said. “I just have to keep at it. I believe that if I had a brain scan today, there would be less dead area than three days after my stroke.
“There have been lots of answered prayers,” he said with a smile. “Lots of answered prayers.”
To contact Staff Writer John
Chambless, email email@example.com.