Learning to live as a stroke survivor

The Day Family has struggled to cope after John Day suffered debilitating brain damage following a series of strokes in 2018. September 21, 2019. Bobby Block / The Signal.
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As Melissa Day pulled up to the curb of her apartment complex in Canyon Country, she began the process of unloading her family of five from the car.

First, she took her husband John’s wheelchair out of the trunk, and quickly realized she had to back the car up a bit more.

“I have to line it up exactly perfect,” she said, referring to the curb she has to park next to as there’s no ramp.

Once she had helped John into the wheelchair, she tasked her two oldest sons in getting their father around the back of the building to their apartment, while she went to park the car with 3-year-old Easton in tow.

As Trenton, 5, helped his father push his wheelchair, Jaymison, 10, walked ahead, kicking pine cones out of their path.

Because the wheelchair doesn’t fit through any of the apartment’s doors, Melissa then had to help John into the door and onto a dining room chair, then back to his wheelchair after carrying it through the doorway.

“This is the only way to get him into our apartment,” she said. “It’s like musical chairs.”

In fact, the last time they did this, they lost a chair in the process.

The Day Family has struggled to cope after John Day suffered debilitating brain damage following a series of strokes in 2018. John lives at an inpatient nursing facility and is only occasionally able to visit with his family in their home. September 21, 2019. Bobby Block / The Signal.

On Dec. 11, 2018, 33-year-old John Day suffered from a massive stroke, leaving him paralyzed on the left side and changing the Day family’s lives forever.

That day, Melissa had gotten a text from John, who was at work in Long Beach.

“There’s something wrong with me,” the text read. John proceeded to tell her that his arm had gone numb while he was in the bathroom.

“When I couldn’t open that (bathroom) door, that scared the hell out of me,” John said.

Melissa told him to go to the emergency room, but he had a meeting to prepare for, so he put it off.

On his way home, John made a deal with himself — if he didn’t feel better by the time he got to Huntington, he’d go to Huntington Memorial, a hospital he was familiar with because Trenton was born there.

“I was going to leave when I didn’t want to pay to park, but because Trenton was born there, I told myself, ‘OK, you came here because of Trenton, so stay alive for Trenton,’” John added.

A photo of the Day Family taken just 10 days before John, 33, suffered a massive stroke last year. Courtesy

When John stopped replying to Melissa’s texts, at first she wasn’t concerned as she assumed they were doing tests or his phone had died, until she received a call from a doctor telling her that she needed to get there right away. He was asleep in the critical care unit when she arrived, and though his speech was slurred, he was stable and seemed OK.

The next morning, Melissa ran home to check on the boys. “I was gone exactly three hours.”

She was parking when the doctor called, telling her that John had suffered a second stroke in the right side of his brain.

“The first one they called a TIA, it’s like a mini-stroke almost,” she said. “The second one was massive.”

John was rushed into surgery, and had to have half of his skull removed so his brain would have room to swell.

“They basically said this stroke was so massive that he wasn’t going to come back from it,” Melissa said. “If he woke up, it’d be a miracle.”

John spent the next month in a coma while various procedures were done.

“My mom took three weeks off work unpaid to help me, because I was at the hospital pretty much nonstop for the beginning, when it was so touch-and-go,” she said. “It was like a movie to me — this couldn’t be happening. We had just driven to Utah for Thanksgiving two weeks before and he drove the whole way. It snowed the day after Thanksgiving, and it was this perfect happiness.”

John Day, 33, and his son in Utah the day after Thanksgiving, only two weeks before he suffered a massive stroke last year. Courtesy

Melissa’s biggest fear became that John would wake up unable to talk and wouldn’t recognize his kids. “In that aspect, he was pretty lucky, because it’s the other side of the brain that controls your speech and memories.”

John had developed hydrocephalus, so doctors had to put a shunt in, and almost immediately after, he opened his eyes and started responding.

He spent the next few months in various hospitals as Melissa fought the insurance to keep him out of a nursing home.

“All this time he had no skull, so had to wear this huge helmet anytime they did any kind of therapy, which was so heavy,” she said. “The beginning was really tough … he couldn’t even sit up in the wheelchair. He’s improved a lot since then — way more than we ever thought would even be possible.”

Soon, John had run out of time. With his private insurance maxed out and Medi-Cal resources limited, the doctors told Melissa she could either take him home, where he’d require 24/7 care, or she could send him to a nursing home. So, in early June, John moved to a nursing home in Tujunga — the closest they could find that would take someone under 55.

“It’s really hard for him — he hates it,” she said. “He wants to be here with his kids.”

Melissa tries to bring him home to visit the kids on weekends, but on weekdays, it’s hard to visit as traffic builds up by the time the boys are out of school.

“I feel like I’m missing the best years of their lives,” John said. “All I want is to be here.”

Since his stroke, he’s already missed a few birthdays and holidays.

“Trenton has had a hard time. He’s been waking up crying at night saying he misses his daddy,” Melissa said. “He told me, ‘I don’t want to play baseball anymore,’ even though he loves it, and I know it’s just because daddy can’t be there with him.”

The boys will tell Melissa they remember when their dad used to play with them. “They’ve been incredibly strong, but it’s been difficult.”

Though it has affected all three boys, Melissa believes Jaymison has had it the hardest. “Because he’s the oldest, he’s had to grow up a lot more.”

“I’ve kind of come to terms with the fact that I’ll never see that version of my dad again,” Jaymison said. “Of course, it took some bumps along the way.”

John Day looks at 10-year-old Jaymison’s drawings. The father of three suffered severe brain damage following a series of strokes in late 2018. Bobby Block / The Signal.

He had a difficult time coping, and admits to being depressed.

“He was crying a lot at school, so we brought in a therapist at school for him to work through it,” Melissa added.

Now, Melissa, who had always been a stay-at-home mom, has to balance four people’s schedules, including taking John to doctors’ appointments and the boys to school, karate and baseball. “It’s like a huge juggling act.”

Before the stroke, the family had already been struggling to make ends meet. Though John was approved for Social Security and a year of disability, it doesn’t go very far toward covering the family’s expenses.

“We don’t really know what we’re going to do,” she said, adding that John has also maxed out his allotted therapy days for the year. “The first year of a stroke is the most critical, so his mom has been paying for him to get physical therapy.”

The last year has turned the Day family’s lives upside down, yet they continue to be hopeful.

“John’s definitely surprised everybody in his recovery, so hopefully we can keep going,” Melissa said. “Four months ago, he couldn’t even stand up without passing out, now able to use walker. It’s definitely a miracle.”

Because John’s young, it’s frustrating that his recovery isn’t going faster, but he is making progress nonetheless. He’s been tackling the stairs with therapy. His goal? “I want to trade this (wheelchair) for a cane.”

To follow the Day family’s journey, visit facebook.com/dayfamilyoffive, or to donate, visit bit.ly/DayFamilyGoFundMe.

John Day suffered debilitating brain damage following a series of strokes in late 2019. The idea of being there for his children was one of the things that he says continues to motivate him throughout his recovery. September 21, 2019. Bobby Block / The Signal.

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