How life in the woods helps one man recover

May 15, 2019

Thoreau wrote, “I went to live in the woods because I wished to lived deliberately.” He wanted to live deeply and learn what nature had to teach him. There are, in fact, many things that we can learn from nature. And here is a story of how living in the woods in Montana has helped one patient come to terms with having a stroke and with his rehabilitation.

Tingling in his leg

On the morning of September 11, 2017, Ben woke up with a little tingle in his left leg. Brushing it off as no big deal, he went on with his day. But, while at work, he started to slur his speech and his leg was starting to feel numb. He drove himself to the hospital, and doctors quickly identified that he had a blockage in his carotid artery that broke off and traveled to his brain, causing a stroke. He underwent surgery to have the blockage removed.

Acknowledging the full effects

After his stroke, he found it difficult to talk about and had a hard time admitting that it happened. It took him a long time to tell his closest friends. When he started to feel physically better after a few months, he went back to work. But getting back to work made him realize there were cognitive effects of the stroke that he hadn’t acknowledged before the demands of his job made it clear to him. At that point, he decided to retire and focus on his life in the woods.

Ben enjoying his life in the Montana woods

How living in the woods helped Ben

Loving the outdoors, Ben took up hiking again after his stroke. Hiking helped him get fitter. It helped increase his endurance and strength. And although he loves hiking, he realized after a while that it wasn’t challenging enough. He needed something more.

With the support and encouragement of his brother and friend, he took up mountain biking. He admits that biking isn’t his favorite sport, but he feels better after doing it. Not only is this sport working his body, but requires him to navigate the terrain with every step of the pedal, keeping him alert and thinking. He notices that his legs have gotten stronger and sees real improvement in his abilities. That’s why he sticks with it.

As we talked, Ben casually mentioned that when he goes snowshoeing, he has to really work his affected leg. Snowshoeing? Maybe out of the realm for us city folk, but not out of the ordinary during a Montana winter. And, no doubt, it must be challenging. He explained that the snow makes the shoe really heavy, so it requires a lot of leg work to get it out of the snow to step. This is great exercise, especially for his affected leg.

Using daily activities as rehabilitation

Although Ben went through some helpful physical therapy and still practices the balance exercises that he learned there, just doing the things he needs to do on his land has helped him most. His daily activities keep him busy and exercise his body and his mind.

Because he lives out in the woods, he has a host of chores that aren’t typical for most of us. The seasonal work that comes along with living in a cabin keeps his rehabilitation active. Things like chopping wood, raking leaves, mowing the grass, packing rocks to line the creek bed, shoveling snow, or using a snow blower all keep Ben moving.

These daily activities help him with both his physical and cognitive abilities.  He gets out every day and just does what needs to get done. He admits that these things take a little longer because he needs to think about them more before he does them. Things that used to come automatically now need to be planned out so that he doesn’t get hurt.

When he has to cut down a tree, for example, he needs to first think about the steps and safety precautions to protect himself from injury. He uses a chainsaw to do this, so he really needs to think through the process step by step before he gets started. Or something like hunting, which used to be second nature, now requires more thought. And he notices that although he can still hit his target, his reactions are slower, and it takes him more time to bring home dinner.

Keep moving and don’t give up

It took Ben over a year to really come to terms with the fact that he had a stroke. He didn’t want to acknowledge it. But once he could admit it and say it aloud, it left him room to get better. However, he says he never uses it as an excuse.

Physically, Ben feels good although he still has some balance issues that he works on. Cognitively, he admits that he has some deficiencies. But he is getting on with his life. He never lets the fact that he had a stroke stop him. He refuses to accept the effects of the stroke as a handicap because it goes against his mindset of getting better.

What is Ben’s advice to people recovering from a stroke? He says, “Get out of your chair! Get out of the house! Do all the things you used to do and try some new things. Believe that you will get better every day!”

Ben definitely practices what he preaches. When he parks his car, for instance, he takes the furthest space away so he can get every step he can out of each day. He advises that we all, ‘”take the long way around.” He says we should always “make the extra trip because all day, every day is rehabilitation.” His hard-working approach gets him moving to get done what needs to get done each day. Living in nature keeps him active and has been helping him recover. And although he might not get things done at the same rate as before, the important thing is that he keeps going!

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