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Can A Massive Stroke Change A Life — For The Better?

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Can A Massive Stroke Change A Life — For The Better?

Can A Massive Stroke Change A Life — For The Better?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

So for a lot of people when crisis hits, a natural response is to find a way to move forward, to find a way out, to not let the crisis define you. But this next story is about the opposite. It's about Kitra Cahana's father, who's a rabbi. And about five years ago, he faced his own serious crisis with both physical and spiritual consequences.

KITRA CAHANA: That experience became the nucleus of my life.

RAZ: This is Kitra. Her father is Rabbi Ronnie Cahana. And to understand her father's response to his crisis, Kitra says you have to understand a bit about him before it happened.

K. CAHANA: He was always a very charismatic person but also a complicated person. He had this very kind of poetic way of speaking.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONNIE CAHANA: The loneliness inside himself loathed and leaned beside himself.

K. CAHANA: He would do sermons sort of off-the-cuff but they would be so powerful.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

R. CAHANA: Two trees as distance be your two legs that God stands upon.

K. CAHANA: He never wanted to be a rabbi. He thought he was just going to be a kind of like a wandering poet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

R. CAHANA: ...Which tree should I have eaten, she...

K. CAHANA: But then ultimately, found his calling as a rabbi because you can write a poem and it stays on the page, but when you're counseling a family helping them through the loss of a loved one and you're bringing in that poetic vision into that conversation, into the eulogy, that's living poetry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

R. CAHANA: We shall see God someday in the desert walking through the clefts of the psalm.

K. CAHANA: He was always my everything.

RAZ: And then one day, Kitra got a phone call from her mom.

K. CAHANA: And she said that father had had a stroke. And I remember just entering into this daze and thinking everything has been lost.

RAZ: Kitra picks up the story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

K. CAHANA: I walked into his room in the ICU and found him lying deathly still tethered to a breathing machine. Paralysis had closed over his body slowly beginning in his toes. And made it's way up his neck cutting off his ability to breathe and stopped just beneath the eyes. He never lost consciousness. Rather he watched from within as his body shut down muscle by muscle. In that ICU room, I walked up to my father's body, and with a quivering voice and through tears I began reciting the alphabet - A - B - C - D - E - F - G - H - I - J - K - at K he blinked his eyes. I began again - A - B - C - D - E - F - G - H - I - he blinked again at the letter I, then at T, then at R and A - Kitra. He said Kitra, my beauty, don't cry. This is a blessing. Just 72 hours after his stroke, he had already embraced the totality of his condition. Locked-in syndrome is many people's worst nightmare. In French, it's sometimes called maladie de l'emmure vivant, literally walled-in alive disease. For many people, perhaps most, paralysis is an unspeakable horror. But my father's experience, losing every system of his body, was not an experience of feeling trapped but rather of turning the psyche inwards, dimming down the external chatter, facing the recesses of his own mind, and in that place falling in love with life and body anew.

RAZ: I mean, it's just amazing to imagine the scene of your father lying there paralyzed. And for him to express this kind of optimism, to reframe it at that moment is kind of unbelievable. I just...

K. CAHANA: It's not optimism. He's reacting to his experience. He's not taking a negative experience and seeing it in the best light. He's had a transformative experience and he's reacting to that. So it's not a re-frame.

RAZ: That's interesting, yeah.

K. CAHANA: It's his reality. His reality is that during the stroke, he had one of the most profound and reassuring experiences that he had ever experienced in his life. He was on such a high. He felt that the before the stroke he was always looking beyond the body for spiritual meaning and that suddenly this whole other world of spiritual meaning opened up to him and it was right there in him. That was his narrative. And I don't understand it, but I honor it. And as a family we joined him in his narrative.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

K. CAHANA: I slept by my father's side for the first four months, tending as much as I could to his every discomfort. We became his mouthpiece, spending hours each day reciting the alphabet as he whispered back sermons and poetry with blinks of his eye. His room - it became our temple of healing. His bedside became a site for those seeking advice and spiritual counsel. And through us, my father was able to speak and uplift letter by letter, blink by blink.

RAZ: How did what happened to him affect his beliefs?

K. CAHANA: I think the stroke affirmed everything that he believed 'cause for his entire career as a rabbi he's been with people in their moment of crisis saying this is an opportunity. And I think the stroke was his opportunity to live what he believed. And when it came, I think it was his natural response.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

K. CAHANA: Then one day for the corner of my eye, I saw his body slither like a snake, an involuntary spasm passing through the course of his limbs. At first, I thought it was my own hallucination but he told me he felt tingles, sparks of electricity flickering on and off just beneath the surface. The following week, he began ever so slightly to show muscle resistance - body was slowly and gently reawakening. Today, my father is no longer locked in. He moves his neck with ease, has had his feeding peg removed, breathes with his own lungs, speaks slowly with his own quiet voice and works every day to gain more movement in his paralyzed body. But the work will never be finished, as he says. I'm living in a broken world, and there is holy work to do. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Kitra Cahana is a documentary photographer and filmmaker. She has an ongoing project with her father. It's called "Still Man." You can check out her photos and her full talk at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRISIS")

SPACE: (Singing) I'd appreciate you. I'd appreciate you. I'd appreciate you standing by me in a crisis, crisis, crisis.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show, Crisis and Response this week. Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Brett Bachman, Megan Cain, Neva Grant, Sanaz Meshkinpour and Kelly Prime (ph) with help from Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Maria Paz Gutierrez. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the "TED RADIO HOUR" from NPR.

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