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Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas

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Building Partnerships between Recent and Past Stroke Survivors to Boost Recovery

January 12, 2010

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Barbara Kimmel, MS, MSc., CCRP, clinical research coordinator and Kirk Zihlman, MS, research coordinator (in white lab coat) join four of the five stroke peer Veteran volunteers. From left, Clarence Witherspoon, Edward Flynn, Kenneth Dexter, and Donald Foisie. Some of the Veterans, who are currently received help from peer Veterans, have expressed their interest in becoming peer visitors themselves once they complete the intervention program. PHOTO: Bobbi Gruner, Public Affairs Officer


HOUSTON - A stroke diagnosis can be a devastating experience. It is very common for stroke survivors to be fearful of the future, feel unclear about expectations for recovery, and suffer anxiety, frustration, and depression. Now at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center (MEDVAMC), Veterans who have suffered a stroke have the opportunity to talk to other Veterans who have lived through the same experience and gain support in managing their daily life.

In partnership with investigators from the Veterans Health Administration Stroke Quality Enhancement Research Initiative, MEDVAMC researchers are currently conducting a study to determine the effects of a peer visitor program for stroke survivors. The Stroke Peer Visitor Program is based on the American Stroke Association Share Giver Program and being implemented as part of multiple research initiatives at the MEDVAMC Stroke Center.

Therefore, the primary role of a peer visitor is to listen to the stroke survivor or family member and to offer support based on experience. If possible, peer visitors are encouraged to visit Veterans during the hospital stay. If the Veteran has already been discharged from the hospital, the peer visitor calls the Veteran at home to initiate contact.

“The Veteran stroke survivors I  work with seem to be more at ease after talking with me and have a more positive outlook for the future,” said Veteran Donald Foisie, who has volunteered for more than six months. “Most have a real fear of the unknown and what is going to happen in the future.”

“My motivation in the program is to give something back to stroke patients. I believe sharing conversation about each other’s experiences is very therapeutic,” said Veteran Ken Dexter, another program volunteer. “Whether on the phone or in person, it is always great to see and hear how relaxed and open the patient becomes knowing that someone would spend the time and effort to listen. This is so important toward recovery.”

There are currently five stroke peer Veteran volunteers who have completed training on peer interactions in the program. These peer visitors have been assigned to ten Veterans who have suffered a recent stroke. As Veterans and stroke survivors themselves, the peer visitors offer support and encouragement through the perspective of experience and a common bond Veterans share.

“Every Veteran stroke survivor I work with is more than grateful for the one-on-one contact from a fellow Veteran. All are very at ease talking with me, and are really eager to open up with questions,” said Foisie. “This has been a very gratifying experience for me.”

Although, the Stroke Peer Visitor Program is still in the implementation phase, positive relationships have developed that may contribute to stroke patients experiencing an enhanced recovery.

“I retired and was spending a lot of time at home and wanted to do something useful. Volunteering for the study allowed me to get involved with stroke survivors, and to help them with their recovery - to do something useful and give back to my fellow Veterans,” said Veteran Edward Flynn. “One of the most meaningful events was the encouragement and support I shared with a Veteran who passed away. Before he died, we developed a strong friendship and I helped him deal with various family problems. I feel like I made a difference in his life.”

Some of the Veterans, who are currently receiving help from peer Veterans, have expressed their interest in becoming peer visitors themselves once they complete the intervention program.

For more information about studies conducted at the Stroke Center, contact the Study Coordinator Barbara Kimmel, MS, MSc., CCRP, at 713-791-1414, ext. 6281.

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