Recovering from stroke: It takes a community

It was a late night in June of 2014 when Roland Strempler, then 54, started feeling strange. The right side of his body was weak, his vision blurred. He wasn’t sure what was happening, but he knew he needed to call for help. Shortly after, paramedics took Roland to Hamilton General Hospital, where the emergency team quickly determined he was having a stroke.

Stroke is common. About one in six Canadians will have a stroke in their lifetime. Thankfully, advancements in medicine and research have helped to dramatically reduce the severity of stroke when it happens, and to improve outcomes for patients as they recover.

“My balance and coordination have really improved, and I’ve met other people in the same situation as me, so I don’t feel like I’m going through this alone.”

The Fit for Function program is doing just that – helping patients like Roland recover better and faster after they’ve had a stroke. The 12-week exercise and educational program offered through the YMCA, Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) and McMaster University is aimed at helping patients improve their mobility, strength, balance, gait and coordination, and supporting their re-integration into their communities. For Roland, it’s meant being able to cook, write, and climb stairs again.

“After you have a stroke, you feel like you have a lot of problems without many solutions,” says Roland. “This has been my solution.”

Three days a week, Roland visits the Les Chater YMCA in Hamilton where he works with an HHS physiotherapist, YMCA staff, and fellow participants on getting back to his usual self.

“The Fit for Function Program fills a huge gap that previously existed in the community for persons living with stroke,” says Rebecca Fleck, clinical manager of outpatient services at HHS’ Regional Rehabilitation Centre. “We’re hearing from participants that this is the type of program that they’ve been waiting for.”

The program is founded on more than demand. It’s driven by growing evidence that targeted exercise, offered in an accessible, controlled group setting, leads to better patient outcomes related to community re-integration, mobility and balance. A pilot study in 2011 followed two groups of patients post-stroke: one group participated in Fit for Function, and those in the other were given a three-month YMCA membership to exercise on their own. Results showed that Fit for Function participants had far better outcomes in terms of balance, walking, leg function, and reintegrating into their communities.

“Having the opportunity to access community based programs that are close to home is important to so many,” says Genevieve Hladysh, senior regional manager of health, fitness and aquatics at the YMCA of Hamilton/Burlington/Brantford. “Being able to come a place like the YMCA, where people can make friends and be connected to others, is so important for life after stroke.”

A full-scale randomized control trial is currently underway to further explore these findings. YMCA, HHS and McMaster staff are hopeful that the new study will only add to the evidence that programs like Fit for Function are essential to stroke recovery.

“Health care isn’t confined within the walls of a hospital. This type of collaboration is key to building a healthier future for Hamilton, and for our region.”

In the meantime, there’s resounding confirmation among patients like Roland that the program helps.

“My balance and coordination have really improved,” he says. “And, I’ve met other people in the same situation as me, so I don’t feel like I’m going through this alone.”

“Health care isn’t confined within the walls of a hospital,” says Sharon Pierson, vice president of community medicine and population health at HHS. “This program is an excellent example of how we can create better supports and outcomes for our patients when we team up with community service providers. This type of collaboration is key to building a healthier future for Hamilton, and for our region.”

The Fit for Function program is offered through LiveWell, a partnership between the YMCA, Hamilton Health Sciences and McMaster University, the Brant Community Healthcare System and Niagara Health System which offers collaborative, community-based care for individuals recovering from a variety of diseases and conditions. To learn more, click here.