The incredible art of a stroke survivor

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The Miller family: Su, Pauline Lewak (Su's mother), Nathan, Jeff and Shana

By Tali Feinberg

Before Cape Town resident Jeff Miller had a devastating stroke at the age of 65, he was an active and strong person who enjoyed running, hiking, kayaking, cycling and martial arts. He was also very artistic, always dabbling in a variety of different art forms.

Yet in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2017, Jeff was found by his wife Su in his study, and she knew immediately that he was having a stroke. “We were told that he had suffered a massive stroke and that the likelihood of him talking or walking again was minimal. There was, without a doubt, going to be residual and long-lasting damage,” adds Su.

Yet last month, the family celebrated Jeff’s remarkable progress and recovery since that day, with an exhibition of intricate, inked artworks that he has created.
“The brain is an amazing thing — it can rewire and forge new pathways when damage occurs”, Shana explains. “The most progress is often made in the first six months following a stroke, so right from the beginning my dad received physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy, and still attends all three almost two years later. He now also does hydrotherapy as well as music therapy — amazingly, stroke survivors can often sing even though they cannot speak.”

At the exhibition, entitled ‘Black and White Drawing’, several of his works line the walls, each one a unique, mesmerising pattern of black ink on white paper. It is of the standard that even an able-bodied person would struggle to draw if they did not have his talent.
Each artwork takes many hours, so one can only imagine how much time it has taken Jeff to create them.

Jeff has come a very long way, albeit slowly. He walks with the help of a walking stick and custom-made AFO (ankle-foot orthosis), and continues with therapies. He practises daily functions so as to re-integrate himself into normal life.

“He continues to have severe apraxia and global aphasia though, so his speech and cognition are still, unfortunately, fairly limited. He has also trained himself, with the help of his OT, to write and draw with his left hand, which is an incredible achievement,” says Su. And this, in many ways, has been his saving grace.

“Because he is unable to talk, art has become his mode of communication and an outlet for him to express his ideas and emotions. To be honest, he was always a man of few words, so art has always been his way of expressing himself,” explains Shana. “He is actually far more controlled with his left hand than he was with his right, and because he is now creating with his other hand, his works look slightly different to his previous ones, although you can still see they’re his — he has a unique ‘signature’ that is undeniable if you look at his old and new work. By wanting to be able to still create, it has forced him to use his left hand which has greatly aided his progress on that side.”

The exhibition is a bright and beautiful gathering of family and friends, celebrating the joy of Jeff’s progress, recovery and resilience. In fact, in the past, his work has always been very colourful and vibrant. “Who knows why he’s turned to black and white. It’s just how his art has come out since his stroke. Perhaps it’s just evolved given his limitations,” says Shana.
Speaking to the crowd gathered, she said: “When you love something so much, you fight to find a way to keep doing it even if it means veering slightly from your previous path, making adaptations and tackling incredible adversity head-on. You make a plan because it’s your dream and a piece of you. Even when the rest of you is changed and somewhat broken, nothing can destroy this shining fibre of your being. It guides you, gives you strength and acts as a link to not only your past, but to your future as well. You hold on for dear life and you continue to create, shape and express.” The drawings have been received by family, friends and the community with much excitement and amazement. “People are so happy for him that he is able to carry on with his passion and we are all just taken aback at how wonderful and detailed his current work is. We’re grateful that he can still express himself in this way,” explain the family.

Their hope for him is that his progress continues and that he remains happy and healthy. “Of course we hope and pray that his language returns one day, as well as the use of his right side. Mainly, we just hope he continues to live a happy and full life, as much as possible.” Their message to others is just to be grateful for your health, and to learn to recognise the signs of a stroke so that you are able to get help faster should someone close to you find themselves in the same position — time is of the utmost essence when it comes to strokes. Also, for people to be more aware of disabled people and their needs — for instance, the amount of non-disabled people who park in disabled bays is astonishing.

Finally, Su says, “You can triumph over the trauma you experience, both as the individual and the family. It takes lots of hard work, a strong will and incredible determination, but you can make the best possible life for yourself given your new circumstances.

Life will be different and at times incredibly difficult, but it can still be happy and full.”

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