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.”
They started slow. Elliott practiced walking and turning on a path Krohn made with plastic cones and did repetitive drills to master sitting down and standing up from the ground. Krohn also used TRX straps to help Elliott build upper-arm strength and to improve his balance.
Two weeks after they began, he encouraged Elliott to try walking on his own. On that day, Elliott tossed the cane for good.
“He just needed the confidence,” Krohn said.
Next, he asked Elliott to bring his bike and ride around the parking lot. It was another milestone for Elliott, followed by swimming in the lap pool.
Elliott considers Krohn a game changer. “Phil can look at a muscle group and fix it,” he said. “He’s inspiring.”
The memory-boxing workout Krohn developed five years ago also became part of Elliott’s program. “To improve Ted’s coordination and balance, we put the gloves on and started slow,” Krohn said.
He catches the punches with his own mitts as Elliott works his way through sequences of footwork and punches with names like the “four-corner Louie,” the “flurry” and the “Ginger.”
The “Ginger,” for example, involves moving forward with a left jab, then moving forward with a right cross, then a left uppercut and a right uppercut.
“Memory boxing is repetitive, deliberate and, most importantly, mindful,” Krohn explained. “I believe exercise increases brain function. My memory-boxing workout is the best brain exercise there is.”
While it is a popular cardio workout at the club, Krohn also has found it to be helpful for people who have had strokes or who have Parkinson’s disease and dementia.
Today, more than two years since the stroke, Elliott continues the memory-boxing workout that now includes a sequence called the “Ted,” a combination of 32 punches, defense movements and footwork. Memorizing the combinations and other sequences stimulates long-term memory and “requires 100 percent concentration,” Krohn said.
As he progresses, Elliott has become a beacon of hope at Montecito Heights. “He’s an inspiration to me,” said Bill Cary, an 85-year-old member who recalls the day Elliott began working out there.
“The first day he came in, he was shuffling, and I’ve watched him make progress,” Cary said. “He has the tenacity, courage and gumption to deal with (his recovery) in a substantial way. Most people wouldn’t do it.”
Elliott and Krohn continue to work together three times a week for an hour, continuing to mix up the routine. Elliott jogs, has added yoga exercises, hits tennis balls and plans to take Zumba classes. While still working on the aftereffects of the stroke, Elliott remains determined and optimistic.
“I’m still healing,” he said, glancing out at the tennis courts. “I look at the men playing tennis, and I wish I could play a game. Sometimes I feel sorry for myself, but then I wonder what would’ve happened if I hadn’t had the stroke?”
He has been humbled and touched by the generosity and patience of the people he has encountered since his stroke. The experience also has changed him in other significant ways.
Said Elliott, “I have an appreciation for those who suffer more. I’ve learned to be more patient and fully accepting of who I am and what my limits are. I used to not listen to anybody,” he said, pausing to grin. “But now I open up to people and ask for help. I put a lot of faith in people I believe in and trust. ”
His primary goal these days is keeping up with his family’s outdoor adventures, including a trip to Antarctica next year, and using his experience to help others.
“There’s a lot of attention on how the brain works, because it hasn’t been tackled,” Elliott said. “There is no hard science, but the unknown makes it a different recovery. There is no road map to follow.
“The brain can recover. Hopefully I can offer a road map to someone, because anyone suffering from a stroke should feel hope.”