Ted W. Baxter (MBA, Wharton), worked in the financial industry before experiencing a massive ischemic stroke in 2005. He’s now an advocate, author, and speaker on strokes, aphasia, inspiration and motivation. He volunteers at health institutions and is involved in a number of philanthropic causes, and lives in Newport Beach, California. He’s the author of Relentless: How A Massive Stroke Changed My Life for the Better (Greenleaf Book Group Press, July 2018).
First, can you talk about what your life was life before the stroke?
I’d been a Partner with Price Waterhouse, where I built a financial services consulting practice in Tokyo. I lived in Tokyo and Hong Kong for about 6 years. I left Price Waterhouse to become a Regional Controller for Credit Suisse First Boston – Asia Pacific, moving into the word of brokerage and securities. After that, I became a global managing director for Citadel Investment Group, a premier hedge fund and investment institution, based in Chicago. It was a huge job and I loved it. I was busy to the max every day, traveling the world. But it was a lot of pressure and stress, and that was the beginning of the end. I was there in 2004 and part of 2005, then my tragedy happened.
Were there any warning signs or indications that you were at risk for a stroke?
Nothing in my family history. My dad died from Parkinson’s Disease and my mother died from pancreatic cancer. I never had any mild strokes, I was in great health and exercised all the time, I didn’t smoke, my cholesterol was low. I took great care of myself. But my job was a combination of tremendous stress, a hectic and unremitting schedule, and constant traveling.
What was your condition right after the stroke?
I had weakness in my body and right side paralysis. My eyesight was weak on my right side. I had problems with balance and coordination and there was a pain in my head that wouldn’t go away. I had speech problems, had difficulty understanding speech, reading and writing, and had problems with my short-term memory. I couldn’t hold an idea in my head for more than 30 seconds, for instance.
You write about getting a bleak prognosis, which must have felt awful. How did you resolve to start putting yourself back together?
When I was lying in the ER I knew I’d had a really bad accident but I didn’t knew what. Talking to my wife in the ER once we were alone I realized my condition was grave. I remember feeling really sad and distressed. But I had to put myself back together. I have always had a lot of faith and a positive attitude. So I used my grit and determination to get going. It also helped that I’ve always had a will to try to do things differently and make sure have a plan B. I’ve never been afraid to fail because I always get back up.
How long did it take you to regain your speech and mobility, and to what extent?
I knew I had to solve two huge problems: physical mobility and speech and communication. And I attacked them in different ways. Sometimes separately, sometimes together. I took it slowly but methodically. It was all about starting small and making incremental progress, and trying different things all the time. I used negative outcomes as learning opportunities and I also found mentors and confidants to bounce ideas off of and I built a solid support network of family and friends who I asked to push me. It’s really important to not quit. It’s also key to laugh at yourself, too.
But I wouldn’t consider myself one hundred percent recovered. It took about ten years to primarily recover though I got back my physical body in about three and a half to four years. The physical aspect was faster, and I think it’s had a beneficial affect on my speech. I do yoga, pilates, and weights, and you can’t really tell where my physical limitations are now. But there are always things to improve with stroke and aphasia. I have days even now when I use circumlocutions or speak in a roundabout way because I can’t locate the right words. Sometimes I have to slow down and ask myself if I got enough sleep the night before — if I stay up too late, it can have a pretty strong affect on my speech.
Can you talk about your experience with your family, friends, doctors and therapists — who were invaluable in the process? Who did you lean on?
If my wife weren’t at the hospital I probably wouldn’t be here now telling my story. She made extremely important decisions on my behalf. She made sure I was attended by key neurologists and nurses, and really supported me and stayed by my side until I could understand 75% of a conversation. Even though I couldn’t speak, she knew I really wanted to survive and live, and she was right. My older brother was especially supportive, but all my siblings helped. They were there just to talk on the phone, visit, encourage, and just say the right things. I had close friends who dropped everything to come to the hospital, brought my wife food, take turns by my bedside so she could rest. And then as I began rehabilitation, the speech therapists — two of whom became close confidants.
Can you talk about some strategies people who experience stroke and aphasia should take to improve their odds?
I always use the concept of osmosis when talking about recovery — as in a gradual but continuous, successive, piecemeal process. It’s really a recovery journey. But
everybody who had a stroke or aphasia as their own unique journey. The survivor should just think or reflect about what just happened to him or her, be grateful being alive, and work on what to do to get better mentally first. No matter how big the accident or how long the hospital stay, having faith and staying positive are crucial. Those overarching themes were there in my brain every day. Then, just start by taking a step. Get out of bed and walk down the corridor. One step, 15 steps — just achieve something, no matter how small, and keep going. And build on that idea, whether you’re working on comprehension, speech or mobility. As one stroke neurologist said, “time is brain.”
Learn more about Ted Baxter at www.tedwbaxter.com.