Tom Wagner Transitions From Patient to Patient Advocate After His Stroke

How are you going to cut your steak?

It isn't something the rest of us think about when we plan a night out with our spouse. We may go back and forth on which restaurant to choose or what to wear, but those are generally our biggest concerns.

Not so for Tom Wagner, a Washburn man whose recent stroke sidelined everything, including a regular date night with Ellen, his wife of 44 years.

"When something like this happens, you try to plan for the big changes: 'Will I be able to walk?' and things like that," said Tom, a retired pastor. "But you forget the little things. Like being able to get out of the car, or fit your wheelchair in the bathroom, or cut your own meat. These things that used to be automatic are now big adventures."

Tom and Ellen's unwelcome adventure began on October 20th, as they were getting ready to visit their grandson on his birthday. Tom was going to bring a Mickey Mouse toy as a gift, but when he asked Ellen to hand it to him, something didn't sound right.

"I asked him to repeat what he had said," said Ellen, "and when he couldn't, I told him he wasn't well and called 911."

After receiving a CT scan and a stroke-stabilizing TPA treatment at Memorial Medical Center in Ashland, Tom was taken by helicopter to Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center, where he spent three days in intensive care and four more under supervision before heading to rehabilitation at Essentia Health-Duluth.

"That first week, you know your whole life is different, but you don’t know how different," added Ellen, who was at Tom's side through all his rehab, relearning, too, what things would now be like. "You don't know what you've lost or what will change. It's a great sea of unknown."

To Tom, it was ultimately frustrating not to be able to do the simple things. But even through the depression that came as part of the healing process, his spirit stayed strong.

"It took me two years to learn to walk the first time.

I have to figure it's gonna take that long this time."

"Don't list the things you can't do, list the things you can," added Tom, who's now out of rehab and gaining new ground at home. "That might mean rebuilding my dreams, but I'll do whatever is in front of me."

This spirit, and the couple's willingness to speak up about their care led to an invitation to sit on Essentia Health's Patient and Family Advisory Council. Here, Tom and Ellen have the opportunity to help fine-tune the patient experience, and already they've made changes.

"They were checking patients' insulin levels in the group dining room before dinner," said Ellen. "It's not that big of a thing, but it is personal. Now, they make that check in each patient’s room. Being on the council lets us share our experience, and if we can help anybody through the process, God willing, we're here to do it."

Tom's sentiment is similar.

"I'm here to help a patient or two have a more pleasant experience—and to help the caregivers, too. It's a truly, truly special gift to take care of people. God bless them."