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Healing can come in many shapes and forms. Mark Zander, a recent stroke patient at Presence Resurrection Medical Center discovered the power of art therapy as he fought back from a life-threatening condition.
Mark Zander says he was on the rugby field when it happened, in a serious practice match with his team. At 41, he knew the open grass field, the rough competitiveness of his teammates and the bruises of the game all too well, having played since high school.
One minute, he was fine. The next, he fell to his knee. He blacked out briefly and thought he just needed a breather, but then tried to stand and “walk it off.” His teammates rushed him and held him down. They called 911. Later, Mark says, he was told of his drooping face and the paralysis of his right side.
That was the day a stroke changed his life – Oct. 13, 2016.
“I was overweight and I wasn’t taking care of myself regularly,” Mark says. “I was working all the time, which involved a lot of late night dinners and travel. Honestly, God kicked me in the butt and asked ‘What are you doing here?’”
Mark suffered an ischemic stroke in the frontal lobe of his brain. Luckily, he made it to the hospital for treatment with tissue plasminogen activator, or Alteplase IV r-tPA. This, he says, was crucial to his recovery, as the majority of stroke survivors need to receive this treatment within three hours.
Though he rushed through his recovery, he says he threw himself into his old ways, pushing himself, unable to tell those closest to him what he was going through.
“It was hard for me to communicate the feelings of anger and pain to those who hadn’t had a stroke,” Mark says. “But cutting everyone out was no way to live.”
In January 2017, Mark had what he describes as a relapse.
“My chest was hurting, I started feeling weird. I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing – drinking water, eating properly, reducing stress at work, sleeping,” Mark says. “I think I ended up having a panic attack.”
Mark was admitted to Presence Resurrection Medical Center in Chicago, where he was introduced to a newly established art therapy program to help him cope with his feelings around his stroke.
“I’m not really a therapy kind of guy,” he says. “Everyone has their own way of dealing with their issues. My wife was telling me I needed to do something – that I can’t do it all myself. So, I joined art therapy, where I could just listen and not be forced to talk.
“Being a guy, I had a macho mentality,” he continues. “I had that rugby mentality – keep your nose down and fight through it. But with the art therapy, I could create something to show how I was feeling. I was drawing and making things with multiple meanings. I was sharing through my art. And when I felt comfortable, I contributed to the group discussion.”
Mark continued with the art therapy outpatient group, where the stories from the other survivors touched him, he says. Even with a busy work schedule, he tried to make the weekly groups as frequently as possible.
Along with his art therapy, Mark adopted a new way of life. He began working out with a personal trainer and lost 25 pounds. He began eating better and reducing his stress. With the anniversary of his stroke in October 2017, he even registered for the Hot Chocolate 15K/5K in Chicago. With the run, he raised nearly $10,000 on his own as a donation to the art therapy program at Presence Resurrection. In addition, his employer agreed to donate twice that amount to the program.
“I run two to three miles a morning, but this was the first race I’d run since the stroke,” Mark says. “This was my way of giving back to a program that meant so much to me in my recovery.”
Mark says his message is simple: Stroke can happen to anyone, no matter what age or physical condition.
“Reassess your life and put what’s important up front,” he says. “That’s a lesson that was reinforced to me through my art therapy.”