MINNEAPOLIS -- When a stroke hits an otherwise outwardly healthy person in the prime of life, it can seem to be a death sentence for what had been a full life. John Mastel wants stroke survivors to know that it does not have to be that way.
"It is a life-changing or life-altering event, but it certainly does not have to be a life-ending event," said Mastel.
He knows what he is talking about. Mastel was 33 years old when his life as a construction company owner was shattered by one of those "life-altering" moments. "I had a rupture of an aneurysm in the brain in 1981. Then, (while recovering from the aneurysm) they assume that I threw a blood clot and that hit the brain and that was my second stroke," said the Columbus, Minn. man.
"I lost, ironically, my sense of taste and smell and I say 'ironically' because I absolutely loved to cook," Mastel sighed. "I did have some weakness or paralysis on the left side. My speech was affected to the point of where I am fond of saying that I do not use 25 cent words anymore. I use 10 cent words."
Health care workers and administrators at Saint Paul's Bethesda Hospital would argue that John Mastel's words are actually priceless. He uses them to lift the spirits and the outlooks of thousands of stroke survivors and their families.
The strokes that almost killed John Mastel also inspired him to find ways to help others out of the depression that often follows a stroke diagnosis. In 1982, Mastel was attending therapy sessions at Courage Center in Golden Valley. He noticed that the renowned rehabilitation center was beginning a program to train "peer counselors." He had found his calling.
"We started the stroke support group. We had our first meeting in October of 1983 and it has been going every since," said Mastel. The monthly "stroke survivor group for patients and families" is based at Bethesda Hospital, the same place where Mastel was saved during his brain injuries. The self-described stroke survivor is now 62 and recovering again, this time from major back surgery to fuse some crumbling vertebrae. His long and painful recovery from the surgery has not dimmed the cheery and helpful disposition he presents to all he encounters.
For 26 years and counting, Mastel has used that approach to brighten the lives of those who may not be able to see the light at the end of the recovery tunnel. He was worked with stroke survivors ranging in age from two to 82.
"John is such a gift to us at Bethesda Hospital," commented Administrative Director Lia Christiansen. "So few people take what can be such a devastating moment in their lives and turn it into a lifetime commitment to serving others."
Mastel "co-facilitates" the monthly meetings and volunteers to counsel individuals more than once a week. It is his life's work now. Prior to his recent back surgery, Mastel had missed just one meeting in 26 years. That was because of a blizzard!
After his own strokes, Mastel was unable to resume his construction business. He and his wife decided that he would stay home and she would be the breadwinner. Mastel said It has hardly been the limit of their family. "About four years 'post-stroke', my wife came home from work one day and proceeded to announce that we were going to have a baby!" Krista, who now holds a Masters degree, was the first of their two children. In a sense, all of the stroke survivors he has touched are his "children" as well.
"He just helps people with that adjustment to this life-altering change that happened to them and they are just so grateful because he is willing to come in and talk to them at a call and help them adjust to their situations," said Bethesda Director of Guest Relations Anne Gibbons.
Christiansen was quick to add: "Our patients here at Bethesda are so acutely ill and sometimes at the beginning of their journey here the path looks so far ahead to where they might have an improved life. Having someone like John come and visit with them and say 'I, too, had something like this happen to me so personally devastating and look at me. My life is meaningful and yours will be as well.' I would say that John has probably touched more than 1,000 lives here at Bethesda over the course of time he has been with us. I think that is just the 'patient' count. If you added in the spouse and the families that are around that patient, you would really have to quadruple that and say it was many thousands of people who have been served by what John Mastel does."
John Mastel is a 2010 Eleven Who Care award recipient for his volunteer work with stroke and aneurysm survivors. He was nominated by Anne Gibbons, Tess Seirzant and Lynn Sadoff of Health East Care Systems and Bethesda Hospital.
RELATED: Nominate a volunteer for the 2011 Eleven Who Care Awards
(Copyright 2010 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)