Guitar has been Don Mann’s passion since “the Beatles hit the world” when he was a teen. But after suffering a stroke on Sept. 16, he couldn’t even grasp the neck of his instrument.
As fate would have it, Mann’s roommate at Christiana Hospital was Lewis Lott, a fellow guitarist who had experienced a stroke on the same day. Together, they determined to play music again.
On Friday, they did. Before the same support group they attended themselves, the duo performed such inspirational songs as “The Eye is on the Sparrow” and “This Little Light of Mine.”
“Thanks to Christiana Care and the grace of God, we’re here today,” said Mann, 68, of Landenberg, Pa.
“I still felt a little stiff, but it felt great to play,” said Lott, 54, of New Castle. “I’m proud of what I did today because not long ago, I wasn’t even able to do that.”
The day after the performance at Christiana Care Health System’s Springside Plaza, Lott, a professional musician, played his first paying gig since his hospitalization.
After discovering their common passion while at Christiana Hospital — a Joint Commission-recognized Comprehensive Stroke Center — the men ran into each other again during their stay at the Center for Rehabilitation at Wilmington Hospital, which is one of fewer than 100 centers in the country to hold Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities certification for its stroke, brain injury and amputation programs.
“The biggest thing that the stroke care team did for me was help me keep my positive attitude,” said Mann, who was known to roll down the halls in his wheelchair, singing.
Following their stay at the Center for Rehabilitation at Wilmington Hospital, both men received physical therapy and occupational therapy at Christiana Care Rehabilitation Services at Springside Plaza, which provides comprehensive care to patients who are recovering from or coping with conditions ranging from minor injuries or surgery to the most complex, chronic conditions. These include stroke and neurological disorders, brain injuries, balance and vestibular disorders and functional challenges related to injury or aging. Lott also received speech therapy.
Christiana Care Rehabilitation Services offers outpatient services and programs through a network of physical, occupational and speech-language therapy services throughout Delaware and southeastern Pennsylvania.
At Springside Plaza, Mann and Lott gauged their recovery through musical notes. They encouraged each other through rehabilitation and remained in touch, getting together a handful of times to rehearse for their joint performance.
“The big measure for us is how you’re working on the guitar. My first goal was just to be able to put my hand on the neck of the guitar,” Mann said, clenching his hand into a stiff claw to demonstrate how it had seized up after the stroke.
At first, though, he couldn’t even sit up by himself. He began to doubt whether he would ever be able to sign his name again, let alone walk or perform music.
“I thought for sure those things were gone,” he said. “Later, I had nurses look at me and say, ‘I didn’t think you’d ever walk.'”
When the occupational therapists at Christiana Care realized the men’s shared passion, they encouraged them to get together and play after they both were able to walk out of rehabilitation on their own.
“We tailored the therapy to get them back to playing music,” said Julia Santini, OTR/L, ATP.
In creating a map to recovery, she said, the occupational therapists take into consideration what is important to the patient — what skills are essential to their quality of life?
For Mann and Lott, that was refining the fine motor skill of the hand to isolated finger function and quick movement.
“Everyone’s stroke is so different,” Santini said. “Lewis and Don are on the upper echelon with their recovery. It’s pretty amazing they were able to get back to playing again.”
Santini explained that repetition is key to re-developing muscle memory. The brain’s neuroplasticity allows patients to regain control over their body.
“The damaged parts of the brain will be taken over by the undamaged parts of the brain,” she said.
Frank Herkes, 77, of Wilmington, experienced a stroke about a year and a half ago and sat in the audience for the musical performance.
“Seeing how far they’ve come is inspiring,” he said.
Lott estimated he’s gained back about 40 percent of the skill he had before his stroke. Like Mann, he is a religious man and returned to church the first Sunday he was back home to play music — even though he couldn’t finger the notes.
But not far behind God, the men credit the rehabilitation staff and stroke care team at Christiana Care.
“I can’t speak highly enough of the Christiana Care staff and rehab,” Mann said. “Through the process of this, I have met the most wonderful people on the planet.”