From One Survivor To Another
By Barbara Shelly

Bob Velander gripped the arms of his wheelchair, focused his damaged vision on the man across the desk, and delivered his progress report.

"I thought I'd be more well by now," he said. "I try hard. My speech is pretty good but my left hand doesn't work very well. It makes my very angry."

None of this surprised his listener. Patrick Caffrey met Velander in a hospital room just before New Year's. The day before Thanksgiving, Velander suffered a life-threatening stroke while undergoing heart bypass surgery. His condition has stabilized, but his impairment was devastating. He couldn't walk or use his left arm. He could barely speak.

Caffrey, a neuropsychologist, recognized a despondent man. He also saw insight and determination. Velander has been his patient ever since.

Before his stroke, Velander was a workaholic anesthesiologist who drove a sports car and
flew airplanes.

His life changed in a day, and Caffrey understands what that means. Thirty years ago, during a high school wrestling meet, Caffrey got slammed on the mat and heard his neck break.

He spent five months in a hospital, initially on a respirator. Functions returned to his right side, but he has difficulty using his left arm, and he wears a brace on his left leg.

"That was basically my introduction to the field of neuropsychology," Caffrey said.

On the staff of the Mid America Brain & Stroke Institute, Caffrey does psychological testing to diagnose brain malfunctions. He also counsels people with brain injuries, and he understands Velander's frustration.

"The anniversary of your stroke is coming up," Caffrey told Velander. "I find that about one month before that date, people get really down. You put a lot of emphasis on the one-year anniversary."

Velander nodded.

"Your program is just taking every day one day at a time," Caffrey said. "Think of it as building something. In history there are stories about cathedrals that took 100 years to build. You tell yourself, 'I'm going to build on what I did yesterday. This is a project that is worthy of you attention."

Living well with a disability has been Caffrey's project since he was 17. It has taken courage, resolve and humor. While attending Central Missouri State University, he related to Velander, he and some friends found themselves walking toward a group of young women. Not wanting to stand out because of his limp, Caffrey instructed his friends to mimic his gait. Everyone ended up laughing.

Caffrey obtained a doctorate in psychology from the University of Missouri. He met his wife, a physical therapist, while both worked at a brain-injury clinic. Caffrey also worked at the Rehabilitation Institute of Kansas City. He recommended that program to Velander.

Velander finished treatment at the institute in August and now does therapy at home with a caretaker while his wife, Jan, teaches school.

Every day is hard work, and the results aren't always apparent.

"Did you ever consider, Bob, that you survived all you did because you're strong?" Caffrey said. "I like referring to you as a survivor. Not like the dumb TV show but in a good sense."

Velander approved of the image. He made an appointment to see Caffrey the following week. Then he wheeled his chair down the hallway, charged with the task of building a life.

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