Finding Forward after Stroke

Jeffrey Morse went into surgery to repair an aneurysm. There was a 75% chance he wouldn't survive. Fortunately, he did wake up, but when he did, he discovered he was paralyzed from the neck down. Complications from the surgery that saved his life cause a spinal cord stroke that mean everything would change.

And then, after a lot of hard work, Jeffrey defied all the odds and walked out of the hospital.

One thing that jumps out at me from this interview is how much Jeffrey's career as a pilot informed his mindset and recovery -- perhaps more than he realizes.

You can hear the conversation in the player below or by clicking this link.


About Jeffrey A Morse

Jeffrey Morse Headshot against a gray background

At 49 years old, Air Force reservist, flight instructor, and scuba diver Jeffrey Morse found himself lying in a hospital bed, paralyzed from the neck down after suffering both an aneurism and a stroke. Doctors told him that he would likely never walk again, but Jeffrey wasn’t the type to give up. With incredible inner strength, determination, and faith, Morse defied all odds against him. He set a goal that he would walk out of the hospital in six weeks when he was set to be released. And to the astonishment of his medical team, he did just that!

Finding Forward book cover featuring Jeffrey Morse paragliding with a bird landing on his forearm

He continues to live with disabilities such as the use of his right arm--in fact, he wrote this entire book FINDING FORWARD: You Have the Will Within* with one hand. Still, Finding Forward encourages positive thinking and forward movement. With piercing honesty, Morse takes the reader through many of the challenges that he had to face through both therapy and every day life. He discusses the fears, the continuous claustrophobia, guilt from the burden he felt that he was putting on his loved ones... he shows how he dealt with these arising challenges and learned to overcome them. There is always a path forward, and as Jeffrey Morse says, we need to help each other find forward together. His mindset was liberating, and in many ways it saved his life.

The Pilot of his Recovery

Jeffrey served as a pilot in the military and in private life -- flying into and out of combat areas.

As he went into surgery, he knew he might not survive. He had spent his life living his life. By the time surgery came around he had already had to confront his mortality and the possibility that he might not come back from work. While that can happen to any of us, it's not something most of us spend time thinking about. It's part of the reason many of us were unprepared for stroke.

Jeffrey also talks about what to do when you encounter trouble in the air: Never stop flying the airplane.

As a pilot your job is to keep that plane flying until you want to put it down. For those of us not driving aircraft, it means figure out your most important task -- for example, to live -- and focus on doing that job. Live and move in the direction to keep living. Keep flying the airplane that is you, no matter what. It's your only option.

Jeffrey also described his process in various parts of the conversation in terms of steps he would take. He broke things down into their constituent parts and then executed them in order.

Checklists are an important part of flying. You go through the list every time for every step. When an emergency comes up, one of the first things a pilot will do (while the other pilot continues to fly the plane) is pull up an emergency checklist to govern their actions.

Checklist are not limited to airplanes of course. NASA uses them. Accountants use them. Logistics teams use them. The ER uses them when they call a stroke code. Checklists are an important part of everyday life and a great tool to use in our recovery.

With pilots it is such an ingrained habit and procedure that using checklists not only tells them what to do. It informs how they think about what they do. And that logical and determined thought process can get us through some very stressful times.

Finally, Jeffrey talked about the importance of communication with air traffic controllers around the world. The default language for all air travel is English, but that's not enough to ensure clear communication when thousands of lives are at risk. First, even among native US English speakers, there are miscommunications over words and pronunciations.

For example, in college, I, a native New Yorker, was pair with Angie, a native Texan, for a game of Pictionary. We ended up in a bit of a conflict because she disagreed when I said that "saw" and "sore" were pronounced the same. She insisted they were pronounced differently.

Now, expand the challenges beyond the US an when speaking English with folks from England, we can still have language based communication challenges. Simple words like "pants" mean different things in the two countries.

And that's to say nothing of the rest of the world where English is not someone's first language.

Aviation English makes strict use of vocabulary that is standardized across dialects around the planet to enable pilots to communicate key facts, questions, answers, and instructions with other pilots and controllers to reduce the likelihood of mistakes.

We see this in the medical field, too. There is very specific language. Outside the medical context, its fine to say, "My arm is not straightening today. In the medical field we might say, "I'm experiencing high tone in my bicep." Neither is wrong; just like "sore" and "saw" are pronounced the same. One is just more precise than the other. That precision can make difference between treating an arm for tone and spasticity in an overactive bicep, or simply pursuing exercises to break down accumulated fascia.

Jeffrey talked about learning and using the language of the doctors and therapists. Doing so makes communication clearer and faster which can result in better treatment and quicker relief.

And these are just some of the ways that a lifetime in aviation has informed Jeffrey's thought process. It would not surprise me to learn there are many more.

Fascia and the Fuzz Speech

Jeffrey gets a lot of relief from neuro-muscular massage. This technique breaks up the fascia that naturally forms on and between muscles. As it builds up, it makes it harder to move. It's why our muscles feel stiff when we first get out of bed or if an injury keeps us immobilized for a time.

Massage, Tai Chi, Yoga, aerobics, and really any extensive movement can help break it down and help us move with less resistance.

The video, "The Fuzz Speech," is a fascinating exploration of fascia. It's the one Jeremy talked about in our conversation. You can watch The Fuzz Speech here.

The Writing Process

To hold and read a book that someone has written and published it kind of amazing. Those incredibly thin documents, with ink and pigments spread throughout them in precise patterns, are piled on top of each other and combined transmit a deeply personal story from one person to another.

And how does this magical artifact come into being? What complex steps do authors have to take?

Again and again they tell me you just have to write. You can listen to other conversations I've had with authors at http://Strokecast.com/authors and you hear that theme keeps coming up, expressed slightly differently.

In Jeffrey's case, he says it comes down to simply butt-in-seat time. You've got to carve out the time and then dedicate that time to just making it happen. If you don't feel you have the skills to create a polished manuscript, that's okay. A ghost writer, like Bonnie, can help with that part. But it's still your story and your feelings that you need to get on the page. And to do that, you just have to consistently take the time and do it.

Hack of the Week

Carry a flashlight with you.

This is even more important this time of year in the northern hemisphere when it gets darker earlier and stays darker later. You need to be able to see where you are going, and many of us need to be able to see our feet while walking. You don't want to trip over something in the dark and have another injury.

A flashlight doesn't need to be a big thing. It can be a small thing. There are plenty of designs that will fit on a key chain or in a small pocket. You can even find options for connecting them to your cane.

Before my stroke, whenever I travelled I kept a small "tactical" flashlight in my pocket. It was bright, had a strobe function, and was easy to hold in one hand. It was great when power would go out in a hotel, I would try to find things in an unfamiliar rental car, or an airplane would have a power glitch. I also found it helpful to have the extra light when I plug cables in. 

You can often get free ones as branded give aways from all sorts of organizations, if you don't have one. Your doctor's office may even have some spares laying around printed with the name of whatever drug the pharmacy reps are promoting on any given day.

Or you can order one to fit your particular needs. Obviously, flashlights are not hard to find. Here are a few I found on Amazon that look interesting:

OLIGHT I1R 2 Eos 150 Lumens EDC Flashlight Powered by a Single Built-in Rechargeable Li-ion Battery, Tiny Rechargeable Keychain Light USB Charging Cable Included*

This one is cheap, fits on a keychain, and you can easily recharge it from a computer or many phone chargers.

Streamlight 66122 Stylus Pro 100-Lumen Penlight*

This is slimmer and longer. It will be more at home in a short or coat pocket or a purse or bag. The classic pen light can be unobtrusive when you don't need it. Some folks with dexterity challenges may find it harder to hold with an affected hand.

Fenix PD36R 1600 Lumen Type-C USB Rechargeable EDC Tactical Flashlight*

This type definitely gets more spendy. It may be overkill for most purposes, but it is super bright and durable. It's practical, the strobe may make you feel safer since it may temporarily blind someone who may cause you harm, and…and…Ok. It's kind of an expensive toy. But look how cool!

LightBaum- Adjustable LED Flashlight for Crutches, Canes, & Walkers*

This is interesting. It's a flashlight you can mount on a cane or other mobility device. You don't have to hold it and can use it to directly illuminate your path in the dark.

PS ZAP Cane 1,000,000 Volts W/CASE*

Finally, if it's legal for you to purchase one and possess one in your jurisdiction, this may be an option if you need a weapon of some sort. The cane has a built-in flashlight, sure, but it can also shock someone with a million volts.


(If you don't see the table of links below, visit http://Strokecast.com/FindingForward)

Where do we go from here?

Here is the latest episode of The Strokecast