Ted Elliott and his son, Teddy, had just come back from the trip of a lifetime in the spring of 2013, hiking to the top of Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, 19,341 feet above sea level.
Elliott was 69, physically fit and up to the challenge of trekking up the world’s highest freestanding mountain. But two weeks after their return, while visiting with family in Marin, the unthinkable happened and everything changed.
“In 30 seconds, all systems shut down,” recalled Elliott. “First my hearing went haywire. It was pop, pop, pop. My vision was like (seeing through) a kaleidoscope. My legs collapsed, and I went numb on one side. It was a scary moment, but I was fortunate. I knew I was having a stroke.”
His wife, Peggy, and son responded quickly. Elliott was taken to Marin General Hospital. At first, emergency staff thought he might be suffering from altitude sickness, but an MRI scan revealed that Elliott had suffered a stroke.
A stroke is a “brain attack” that can happen to anyone at any time, according to the National Stroke Association. It occurs when blood flow to an area of the brain is cut off. When this happens, brain cells are deprived of oxygen and begin to die, and abilities they control are lost.
Elliott was completely paralyzed for a week, a profoundly devastating experience for the former Navy Seal who was accustomed to playing tennis, running and biking every day. His recovery began when medical staff placed him in a wheelchair and continued after he was moved to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital to begin physical therapy. He was given no promises about what to expect.
Elliott, the man behind Sebastopol pinot noir producer Elliott Family Cellars, required 24-hour assistance for the next six months.
“It was a long road back, and in those first six months miracles happened,” he said. Although he still couldn’t walk without the help of a walker, Elliott was officially released from physical therapy at the hospital, where medical staff encouraged him to continue therapy on his own.
At the start of 2014, Elliott continued his recovery at Montecito Heights Health Club in Santa Rosa, where he had been a longtime member. He started by walking on the treadmill three days a week for an hour, with his care provider, Eddie, standing beside the treadmill in case Elliott lost his balance.
Although Elliott was making progress, it was slow enough that he was losing his confidence, he said. “It was mentally a very difficult time.”
Elliott’s neuropsychologist provided education and guidance about how the muscular system and brain work together for full recovery. He began using a smart phone to remind him of appointments and make notes to himself.
Elliott learned that complex situations he had been capable of resolving could now be difficult to sort out on his own.
“I had to learn to ask for help when I needed it,” he said. “That’s hard to do if you never had to.”
After about a year at the club, Elliott met personal trainer Phil Krohn. He had progressed from the walker to a cane, but his balance was still poor. Krohn saw the possibilities and began working with Elliott.
“Variety is the key to recovery,” explained Krohn, who has 40 years of experience in his field. “There are so many neurons in the brain; you want to mix it up.”