After Phil's Stroke: Dee and Phil Fight Back with Love, Prayers, and Determination -- Also Jokes and Poetry.
In the early morning of September 27, Phil Bisnette, 65, suddenly jerked up from his sleep, lost balance, and fell out of bed. Dee, his wife of 46 years, called 911 and the ambulance came and rushed Phil to the hospital.
He had suffered a major thalamic ischemic stroke -- caused by sudden loss of blood flow to the brain.
Phil has been in good health, active, a successful businessman who has run his own construction business for many years. His two sons, Peter and David, work with him in the business.
He is also a live wire and incurable jokester. But now, lying in a hospital bed on the fourth floor of the Jewish Health Care Center in Worcester, Mass. -- the floor for patients receiving intensive rehab -- his right eye is almost closed and he struggles to move and speak simple words.
But Phil is nothing if not one determined guy. In the photo, he gives a thumbs-up, his way of telling everybody that he is going to come back from this stroke. And with wife Dee at his side 24/7 making sure he gets the best possible rehab, with the big Bisnette clan behind him 100%, he can do it if anybody can.
Yes, it's a battle royal. The thalamus is a major relay center in the brain. Besides being responsible for regulating sleeping and waking states, it relays motor signals to the cerebral cortex. When blood flow to the brain suddenly stops, as it did for Phil, brain cells begin to die.
The right half of the brain controls the left half of the body and vice versa. When the stroke occurs on the left side of the brain, as it did for Phil, paralysis is possible on the right side of the body. The brain’s language region is also located in its left side. Left-hemisphere-damaged patients often have serious problems reasoning and speaking, which is the case with Phil.
So why am I writing about Phil? Did I come across his name in a newspaper and was struck by its human-interest appeal? No. Am I a friend? Well, not exactly. Am I family? Yes and no -- or maybe. Actually, I don’t know.
You see, Phil is the brother of my wife Barbara’s former husband, David Bisnette. Got that? So what does that make me to Phil? Honorary, or perhaps socially obligatory, step-in-law something or other? Nothing?
On second thought, nothing doesn’t work either. Barbara has never left behind her Bisnette in-laws of many, many years ago. They are still family to her and she to them. I just got tossed in the basket along the way, not family and not nothing -- but what?
David Bisnette and his wife Maureen have become my friends. Ditto David’s sister, Sue. The last time I saw Sue at her home in Connecticut, she and I joked, laughed, and even did a dance together in her driveway as Barbara and I were leaving. Eleanor, the Grand Dame of the Bisnette clan, watched Sue and I dance with a big smile on her face. I am after Eleanor to adopt me and be my mom.
At Bisnette family gatherings, whenever I have been in the same room with Phil Bisnette, we kid each other. It comes natural to both of us. We both get in trouble for the same reason, when a joke or comedy skit bombs.
When Barbara asked if I’d like to go with her to visit Phil at the Jewish Health Care Center, I hesitated. I thought: Shouldn’t this be reserved for the immediate family? Would I be intruding at this difficult time?
I decided to go for Barbara, Phil, Dee, David, and the Bisnette clan. I would just be there for them, respectfully and on my best behavior, on what I expected to be a monumentally sad occasion.
I could not have been more wrong. Dee greeted Barbara and me with a huge smile and long, tight, sincere hugs. Though she has been with Phil day and night for nearly three months, she was still her same warm, smiling, loving self. She welcomed both of us as family.
So did Phil’s brother David, who visits Phil every single day. He hugged Barbara and clasped my hand and patted me warmly on the shoulder.
And there was Phil, propped up on his hospital bed, expressionless. Dee bent over close to him and said cheerfully, “Barbara and George are here to see you.”
Barbara went over and embraced him, telling him how good it was to see him. Then I went over and took his left hand in both of mine. But before I could say something appropriate, what I had promised myself would not happen happened.
I went immature.
“Look at that hair,” I said,referring to Phil’s full head of hair. “What’s with all that hair?”
He looked up my bald head. And then, with considerable effort, he slowly raised his left hand and pointed at his thick head of hair. His eyes, now full of expression, said it all.
“He’s making fun of my bald head,” I protested loudly. “I’m nice enough to come here and visit him and he makes fun of me!” Phil smiled. Everyone laughed.
Phil’s brother David teared up, but with a big smile on his face. I had gotten through to Phil and he had communicated back. The old Phil, the mischievous jokester, was still there. Here he takes a break from rehab to play the guitar.
When it came time for us to go, my turn to say goodbye to Phil came after a series of his long hugs and kisses with female family members. I grabbed his hand to give it a manly shake. He began pulling me closer.
“He’s, he’s trying to kiss me!” I protested loudly. “He’s trying to kiss me.” I made a big show of backing off from him. Again, Phil and I got a big laugh. Again, he smiled mischievously.
Of course, there is nothing funny about what is going on with Phil. But the fact that he can still kid around and that he wants to, will only increase his chances for recovery. It speaks volumes about the indominable human spirit.
And what family support Phil has! Below are a couple of photos of that support.
Dee is no stranger to life-changing adversity. When she was a young girl, just 7, she lost both her legs in the great Worcester Tornado of 1953. That devastating 84-minute tornado on June 9 of that year killed 94 people, maimed many others, and left thousands homeless.
When the tornado hit, Dee, her sister Nancy, and her brother Robert were with their mom in their third-floor apartment. In his book, “Tornado,” John M. O’Toole, described what happened to Dee in a chapter named after her, "Diane." (Dee’s given name is Diane DeFosse) He wrote:
“The tornado smashed into the building, blowing out the DeFosses’ windows and tearing off much of the roof over their heads. Diane, age seven, had fallen or been thrown to the kitchen floor, and was lying there as a steel structural beam, exposed and loosened by the raging winds, plunged down. The heavy beam landed across Diane’s legs, instantly severing her right leg above the knee and shearing almost completely through the left, which remained attached only by a shred of cartilage.”
Dee’s mom and two siblings were not seriously hurt. Thinking quickly, Dee’s mom grabbed the remnants of two kitchen curtains and knotted them tightly around her pulsating stumps. Despite a massive shock to her system, Dee did not lose consciousness as a neighbor helped carry her down the stairs and a volunteer drove her six miles to Holden Hospital . There she was stabilized, but left without legs.
But her bright outlook and iron determination remained. Eventually getting two prosthetic legs, Dee built a happy life. Married to Phil as a teenager, just 18, she and Phil have raised three kids (Lisa, Peter, and David) to middle age. They have four grandchildren.
No one can possibly put into words what Dee is going through now, and I won’t try. Even for Dee, it is not easy to describe the intense emotions that she feels day and night as she does whatever must be done for her beloved Phil. Dee posts daily updates of Phil’s progress on the CarePages website.
On the day before Christmas, she expressed some of her feelings in a poem. It follows: