“I was at the top of the totem pole. I had surpassed all others on my globe-trotting climb to the top of the financial industry. I was a man on a mission—a constant blur of motion as I steadfastly pursued my career goals… And in an instant, it was all gone.”
So, starts Ted Baxter’s book, Relentless: How a Massive Stroke Changed my Life for the Better (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2018). Seemingly out of the blue, Ted experienced a massive, near-fatal ischemic stroke at age 41 that left him unable to move or communicate. Among other diagnoses, doctors told him he had global aphasia – a common condition caused by stroke or other brain injury that can cause the loss of the ability to speak, write, and understand language. Actor Bruce Willis was recently diagnosed with aphasia.
14 years later, Ted volunteers his time at hospitals and other health organizations, providing his expertise and experience as a stroke survivor in a communication recovery program. He’s on the Advisory Council of the National Aphasia Association and speaks at health-related events at hospitals and universities.
“I want to inspire people. I want someone to look at me and say, “because of you, I didn’t give up.” – Ted Baxter
We caught up with Ted to find out his secrets to reenergizing, relearning, and recovering, post-stroke and aphasia. Below are his thoughtful and inspiring responses to our interview questions.
- First, how are you today?
I’m absolutely fine. The past year has been a real achievement for me to share my book and my journey, meet so many wonderful people, spreading awareness of stroke and aphasia to many of the communities I am a part of. When I contemplate my life now, I always come back to the idea I had when I just started to write my book: it’s not the end of my journey, but it’s certainly a far brighter part of it. It’s the beginning of a whole array of new, exciting opportunities and I can’t wait to continue to enjoy life in a more balanced way.
- In your book, you speak of your recovery journey as a “happy and hopeful narrative of determination and relentlessness”. What made you approach your injury this way rather than as a tragedy?
I think I am a positive person and know I have a purpose in the world. Even though I dealt with the tragedy of a massive stroke, I have been able to imagine life beyond this terrible event, and consider all the genuinely good things that could come from it. That’s where faith, hope, and a positive mindset come into play – you have to believe and give it a shot. The world needs more hope. I encourage everyone who’s had a similar situation to give it time – you really don’t know what your brain and your body can do until you try.
- Looking back at your stroke at age 41, do you believe it was your frequent long airplane trips (with their potential for blood clots in the legs) that contributed to your stroke?
Yes. Frequent long airplane trips always contribute to the potential risk for our legs to get blood clots. Although I wore compression socks, anyone who travels frequently should think about wearing compression socks even if they exercise, and see your doctor for a general check-up for varicose veins. Check your family history for DVT (deep vein thrombosis), or heart defects such as a PFO. Watch your lifestyle and risk factors — such as blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, etc. On long flights, keep the circulation moving by getting up to use the restroom, or get a bottle of water.
- You say that your pride “was battered” in your book. What made you feel that way and how did you deal with those feelings of lost self-confidence?
Most people don’t understand the daily challenges of living with aphasia. It’s a silent disability and can rob you of the ability to lead a “normal” life. Here are two examples of how my pride was battered. First, when I was in the hospital after my stroke happened, I really couldn’t communicate with my wife, my siblings, and my friends. The doctors and my wife explained the concept of aphasia to me, but I had to hear it about a hundred times just to comprehend it. It was so hard to be in that hospital bed — listening to my bosses and closest work friends talking and supporting me with words of encouragement — but not being able to participate in the conversation. I lost so much confidence and self-respect then. All my education, all my communication skills, everything I’d learned at Hofstra University, at Wharton, and as a Price Waterhouse Partner, a CSFB Controller, a Citadel Executive — it all seemed lost. After a particularly hard visit, I had to let my wife know that I couldn’t handle visits from friends and colleagues anymore. Second, was what I call the “Starbucks challenge”. Ordering at Starbucks takes a lot of brainpower —what size cup, what kind of drink, the cost, etc. The baristas (like most people) don’t know about aphasia and didn’t know how to help a person with aphasia order a latte. I’d get looks — as if I must be foreign or was mentally slow. I’d hold up the line to get the words out. There’s more awareness today, and it’s really important to continue to provide more stroke and aphasia education to the general population. Now, whenever I come across someone with aphasia, I can jump in and explain what aphasia is. I’ll tell the barista what it means to try and function in the world with it. Life is hard and challenging for people with aphasia so always be patient and kind.
- How should we educate more people about aphasia?
We need more people who can be messengers of awareness — who can educate the general population and advocate for those with aphasia. There are different ways to present the information, such as holding a health event, going on a radio show or podcast, or bringing in a public speaker. You can invite a medical practitioner to speak about the topic or have a first-hand stroke survivor, or a caregiver or nurse.
- Your life pre-stroke was reasonably ordered and predictable. What was it like having to embrace and/or accept more unpredictability and ambiguity?
I actually love my life of being more unpredictable — it’s a self-awakening mode that keeps me present and open to surprises and spontaneity. Now there’s an abundance of information to help me be far less anxious about the unexpected and reduce that element of “negative surprise.” I feel safer and more comfortable, and allow myself to feel excited, challenged, and engaged. When I wake up to my daily tasks of going to a health facility to volunteer, work out, write articles related to my book, or practice my speech for a presentation – I view them as my “focus” topics. I like challenging, new activities, doing things with my wife, supporting her business, and meeting new people. Within these “ focus topics,” I’ve learned to expect the unexpected.
- How important was goal-setting to your recovery?
Goal-setting was very important for recovery. During my career, I was always a guy that focused on strategy or long-term plans; for example, I developed the vision for the Price Waterhouse Tokyo Financial Services consulting practice, and I defined the department of Global Controller for Citadel Investment. But the thing that makes stroke recovery real is to measure how you’re doing, how you’re getting better; and have short-term goals with a long-term overall plan that moves you towards the end result. For instance, my short-term goals included getting better on verbs or adjectives; my long-term goal was to try to get on a small stage and do a small presentation. Learning with challenges means growing. I admit it was hard. It takes discipline, hard work, sacrifice, dedication — and relentlessness!
- You say that your life’s purpose changed after the stroke. What is your new purpose and mission?
I think that God gave me a gift to come back from a terrible tragedy and to help other people recover from similar experiences. Being a messenger, an educator, and spreading the awareness of stroke and aphasia is part of my new life purpose and mission. I learned how to appreciate life in a more balanced way and not be so self-absorbed and focused on one thing only. I learned that having a successful career is perhaps not as important as having a purpose, a mission, and loved ones — my wife, my family, and my friends. Broadly, my life’s purpose is to give back to society, to share my gift with others (by volunteering and sharing my story) to help them to have faith, hope, and a positive mindset — whatever it takes. I want to inspire people.
- Have you used Constant Therapy’s mobile app?
I use Constant Therapy during sessions to help my clients get better at speaking. I also use Constant Therapy’s comprehensive program for my own speech — and 14 years after my stroke, the progress is really encouraging!
- What would you tell someone who is just starting out on the road to recovery after a stroke?
Start with these overarching themes: Have hope and a positive attitude. Without these, you will not have a successful outcome. Next, harness your own determination. Take it slow – remember, you had just a tragic stroke and are still alive – be grateful for the chance to have another life. Go for small achievements. There will be negative outcomes but see them as opportunities to grow and learn. Put a support system in place: hospitals, neurologists, doctors, therapists (PTs, OTs, SLPs), caregivers, your loved ones, and your friends. Find a mentor or confidant so you can bounce off ideas and ask questions. And remember: laugh at yourself – laughter is good for your soul!
Read Ted’s book for more detail into his amazing story!