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When a Stroke Rehabilitation Physician Becomes the Patient

How Therapy Changed His Perspective

Mahesh V. Ramachandran, MD, stroke rehabilitation specialist at Northwestern Medicine Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital, has spent many years of his life understanding, encouraging and nurturing patients back to health after they have had a stroke. He never imagined that one day, his own staff would be caring for him.

One day in May 2021, Dr. Ramachandran was in his backyard when he had sudden weakness and numbness in his left arm and leg. He was rushed to the hospital where an MRI revealed he had an ischemic stroke, which occurs when a vessel supplying blood to the brain is blocked.

Although timely medical attention restored the blood flow, an area of the brain that controls connections to the spinal cord was impacted. Dr. Ramachandran did not have difficulties with his cognitive function or speech, but he had serious weakness in his arm and leg.

Now I know exactly what some of my patients feel.
— Mahesh V. Ramachandran, MD

After a few days in the hospital, he was transferred to Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital to begin two weeks of intensive inpatient therapy.

"The brain has a remarkable ability to reorganize and reconnect to new pathways around damaged areas," says Dr. Ramachandran. "I was very motivated to begin therapy right away because I know that you can achieve fantastic progress in a short period of time."

Recovering With Confidence

Dr. Ramachandran's therapy team aided him in regaining his independence. "I had difficulty walking, and it was very hard to put my clothes on. Buttoning and doing very basic things suddenly felt impossible," he recalls. "My physical therapy team was instrumental in getting me walking again, and the occupational therapy team ensured I could take care of daily tasks."

Technology also contributed to Dr. Ramachandran's recovery. He used a robotic body-weight support system controlled by a computer to protect him from falling while he practiced walking. He also used a robotic system for upper-body therapy: It recognized when he was not able to carry out a movement, and helped his arms as much as needed to successfully complete the goal of each exercise.

After two weeks of inpatient therapy, Dr. Ramachandran was discharged and continued his recovery as an outpatient. He returned to work part time and within a month was back to full time. He remains determined to regain more strength and improve his fine motor skills.

A New Perspective

"Recovering from a stroke has given me a new perspective," says Dr. Ramachandran. "I can talk about my own experience with patients, and now I know exactly what some of my patients feel."

For example, Dr. Ramachandran says that he used to tell patients to work hard and keep going. Now he understands how difficult that can be. "I know that is important for recovery, but after suffering a stroke myself, I experienced how fatiguing recovery can be. I was absolutely exhausted and sometimes found it hard to be energetic during therapy," he explains. "Now, I have more empathy, and I will encourage my patients to keep working but with plenty of rest breaks."