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Patients Find 'Sunshine' at Stroke Club

May 16, 1985|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

Seated in the patio outside a meeting room at Saddleback Community Hospital Medical Center, volunteer Helen Blum was describing the attitudes many stroke patients have when they first start attending the weekly meetings of the Laguna Hills Stroke Club.

"When people come for the first time, they're mostly very withdrawn, very bitter at the world," she observed.

But those negative attitudes tend to change after a few Wednesday afternoon club meetings.

"Now," Blum said enthusiastically with a smile, "it's like a love-in here. You watch when they come in--we kiss and hug. They even kiss and hug among themselves. It's just so gratifying to feel that warmth."

As if on cue, a man and woman walked up, and Blum, described by a fellow volunteer as "our sunshine girl," greeted the late arrivals with a hug and a hearty, "Hello! How are you today?"

Inside, program director Norman Freestone gave a nod to volunteer Fritz Starr, who had just finished playing "I Want to Be Happy" on the piano. It was time to get things under way.

Theme Song

"Fritz, I think if we'll start with 'Sunshine,' " Freestone suggested, and Starr immediately launched into a rousing rendition of "You Are My Sunshine."

Without any prompting, the 35 stroke patients seated around the room joined Freestone and his seven fellow volunteers in singing what has become the Stroke Club's unofficial theme song.

The upbeat standard is an appropriate tune for the Stroke Club, a 4-year-old support group formed as a social outlet for those learning to cope with stroke-related disabilities. The main requirement of the club's six volunteers and two junior volunteers, said Freestone, is simply a "commitment to serve."

"It's been a help to me. I don't feel sorry for myself, and I just try to get better," said Genevieve McMahon, a 20-year Leisure World resident who suffered a stroke last June. "These volunteers are exceptional; they are simply wonderful."

Frances Van Huel, who suffered a stroke 10 years ago and has been attending Stroke Club meetings for four years, was even more profuse than McMahon in her praise of the volunteers: "They are a special group of people with compassion, understanding and love, who give and share of themselves."

The Stroke Club was formed in 1981, after federal funds to Saddleback Community Hospital's day-care center program, for people suffering from the effects of strokes, Alzheimer's disease and other age-related illnesses, were eliminated.

Freestone, the retired chairman of the speech and drama department at Occidental College, said he and several other hospital volunteers got together "to see if we could do something similar to that."

Working with people who had lost the ability to speak or communicate came naturally to Freestone, who has a doctorate in clinical speech, for years ran speech and reading clinics at Occidental College and headed the language rehabilitation department at Los Angeles Rehabilitation Center.

'Sense of Belonging'

Freestone said the Stroke Club's goal is not to offer direct therapy, but "to develop a sense of belonging within this group. Once you've got that kind of identity established, then confidence comes. They begin to pull out of themselves and out of their isolated environment."

After a stroke, he said, "it's so easy to just hole up in your home and feel sorry for yourself and let the world go by. We want to get them out of the house, to quit feeling sorry for themselves and to accept life as it is."

Freestone said many of the club members had to be coaxed into attending their first meeting by spouses or friends, but, volunteer Mary Kelley says, "Before you know it, they say, 'I wouldn't miss this for anything.' "

It's easy to see why.

With the amiable Freestone as group leader, the meetings are as upbeat as the vintage tunes Fritz Starr plays on the piano.

After opening the meeting with a song, usually "You Are My Sunshine," Freestone welcomes back any members who have been away or have missed meetings because of illness. He greets newcomers and gently urges them to say a few words about themselves. He then reads a couple of jokes out of a joke book. ("I like them to laugh," he explained.)

15 Minutes of Exercise

At this particular meeting, Freestone, a Mark Twain buff, also read a passage from a Twain short story, and one of the junior volunteers read an inspirational thought for the day.

One of the highlights of every meeting is 15 minutes of light exercise, led by Kelley, a retired singer-dancer-comic from Britain who says her stage experience spanned "vaudeville, musical comedy, legit theater--everything but the circus!"

(Taking her position at the head of the room, it's obvious Kelley has lost none of her dramatic flair: "OK here we go! For those who are new: We nod our heads and sing with everything we do. 'Yes sir, that's my baby . . . .' ")

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