Thomas Witakowski is missing five seconds of his life due to a stroke. The staff of Mercy Hospital has given him the past 17 months.
Just before Christmas 2016, Witakowski, a professor of music at Buffalo State College, suffered a hemorrhagic stroke when two blood vessels in his brain began to leak. He recalled blacking out and coming to just as his head hit the floor.
"I don't remember falling. I just remember hitting the ground," he said during a press conference on May 9 at Mercy Hospital in Buffalo that kicked off Stroke Awareness Month.
Witakowski and the team who cared for him told of his dramatic, and to be honest, unexpected recovery.
Dr. Lee Guterman, a neurosurgeon for 25 years at Mercy, explains his job in layman terms. He's a plumber who fixes leaky pipes and clears up clogged pipes. Guterman used platinum coils to block the two leaks in Witakowski brain. Other blood vessels took over the area that was being served by those leaky vessels.
"If I were to make a prediction at the time of that surgery how well you would do, and I'm not a particularly pessimistic person, but I would have said the odds were surely against you to have any type of meaningful recovery," Guterman said. "I think given the spectrum of care he received here at Mercy, not from the plumbing staff, but from the people who took care of him when he had the bleed, after he had the surgery, in rehab, the continuum of care contributed to the quality of your life presently. We all couldn't be happier with your outcome, and happy for you to be able to return and participate in your passion once again."
Witakowski, 60, is not sure what caused the stroke. A non-smoker who is otherwise healthy, he chalks it up to high blood pressure or something congenital. To see his animated laughter and hear his detailed stories, one would doubt he had been sick a day in his life. His only remaining problem is his left eye, which causes double vision.
Guterman credits the nurses who took care of Witakowski with his recovery. As a teacher and conductor, as well as a passionate lover of the symphony, music played a big role in his therapy. He told Witakowski, "Your support team that we had for you didn't give up."
"He was one of the sickest patients we had in the intensive care unit at the time," said Tina Knop, one of Mercy's intensive care unit nurses. "As a stroke certified nurse, we recognized that the different care that you need is dependent on the type of stroke that you had. He was a patient that required total care at the time that he came in. He was ventilated. He was comatose. And he required full support, not only from the nursing staff, but from our respiratory therapists, our physical therapists, our occupational therapists, our providers, are amazing."
Donna McCourt, case manager, met with Witakowski's family and learned he was the conductor of the Chopin Singing Society and Amherst Symphony. She witnessed him perking up when music was played. "We incorporated into the plan of care, music," she said. "I have never seen such a team effort from the time the patient entered the hospital to when we brought him up to say goodbye, every single person that touched Dr. Witakowski made an impact. This is why he is where he is today. We treated the person, not the brain."
A month ago while conducting the Amherst Chamber Orchestra, Witakowski dedicated Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which he is told he demanded during his recovery, to the staff at Mercy. Conducting is like calisthenics or physical therapy. For Witakowski it was like emotional therapy.
"The entire time I was conducting that symphony, which lasts a good 40 minutes, I'm going through, 'This is what they were playing for me during the hospital stay,'" he said.
That piece has a romanticized reputation about being a struggle between fate and life. It starts out dark in C minor representing struggle. At the end there is an incredible change to C major. "It has the feeling of conquering fate," Witakowski said.
Music therapy is sometimes used to help stroke victims regain the power of speech. Guterman said they are looking for ways to use it more in the treatment of strokes.
Mercy Hospital's stroke team was recently reaccredited as an Advanced Comprehensive Stroke Center from the Joint Commission. Presented in conjunction with the American Heart Association/American stroke Association, Advanced Certification for Comprehensive Stroke Centers, is the highest stroke center designation offered by the Joint Commission, the nation's leading health care accrediting body.
"We are at the dawn of a new era in the treatment of stroke in the Catholic Health system," said Guterman. "For the first time in my 24-year career we are routinely treating patients with ischemic stroke out to 24 hours from the onset of symptoms." In the 1990s, when he started this kind of work, there would be no treatment after three hours. He credits sophisticated imaging of CT scanners used at all Catholic Health hospitals to look at the brain and see if it is viable and if the blocked pipe should be opened or not.
Special software sends a CT scan to a smartphone in three minutes, so the best therapy can be decided immediately. Catholic Health has plans to expand these capabilities across all Catholic Health hospitals.
Witakowski's stroke has changed his outlook on life. When he reads of war and hate in the news he thinks of his month-long coma and the nine frustrating months it took for him to return to his music. "I think if these people had to go through what I've gone through, they wouldn't do the things that some of them do and they wouldn't say some of the things that they do, and they would have a better idea of what the priorities of life and being part of a society are," he said. "If you knew what I know now, you wouldn't do that."