Mark Doak has led a storied life the past 61 years as a standout athlete, successful business owner, railroad conductor, husband, father and grandfather. Standing 6 foot four inches tall and weighing 275 pounds, Mark is still an imposing figure.
A former offensive line tackle for the University of Nebraska football team from 1970-1974, Mark earned two championship rings before turning pro to play for the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos. Mark also owned Sweep Left, a popular downtown bar in his hometown of Lincoln, Neb., for 18 years. He has worked as a conductor the past 15 years with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad. Mark and his wife, Kathy, were looking forward to retirement when a stroke sidelined the gregarious Mark and upended their lives.
Mark jokes that he won’t ever forget his stroke date – 11/11/2011 at 11 a.m. He and Kathy had flown to their vacation home in St. Augustine, Fla., late Thursday night. Mark walked four miles on the beach the next morning before raking leaves in their yard. Suddenly, Kathy heard a commotion and ran outside to find Mark sprawled atop two lawn chairs. “I knew the stroke signs – asked him to smile and when his mouth drooped and his speech slurred, I called 911,” said Kathy.
Doctors at Flager Hospital in St. Augustine determined Mark has suffered an ischemetic stroke. This type of stroke occurs as a result of an obstruction within a blood vessel supplying blood to the brain. In Mark’s case, the obstacle was 100 percent blockage of his carotid artery. The former athlete had gained weight, was a diabetic and had quit taking his blood pressure medication. “Mark was in a bit of denial,” said Kathy, as her husband nodded in agreement.
Ten days in the intensive care unit left Mark extremely lethargic when he transferred to Madonna on Nov. 22. “I was a lump – the whole left side of my body was unresponsive,” said Mark. By his own admission, Mark wasn’t an easy patient. “When you’ve had a stroke, you’re mad!”
Mark’s Madonna team began educating him and Kathy, now his primary caregiver, about adapting to life after stroke. “I learned it’s not just about physical therapy,” said Mark.
“What I love about Madonna is their treatment of the mind/body connection.”
Kathy quickly learned her caregiver role was physically demanding. “My entire life changed in that one instant with Mark’s stroke,” said Kathy, who quit her job to care for her husband. The Doaks gained perspective as active participants in stroke recovery meetings. “When you’re new to stroke, it can be overwhelming,” said Kathy.
Initially, Mark was withdrawn and stayed in his room. Through daily encouragement from nursing staff, Mark began interacting with other patients and discovered their stroke recovery paths were similar. He even organized an on-site Friday movie night as a stress reliever for patients and families. “Mark became a goodwill ambassador on 1 Center and still enjoys participating in our activities and helping others,” said Chandra Lukas, nurse aide.
In February, Mark progressed to the intensive Rehabilitation Day Program. Mark views the relationship between therapist and patient as symbiotic. “There’s a rhythm and flow of two opposites working together,” said Mark, who estimates he’s worked with forty different therapists. “From each one, you gain knowledge from that interpersonal relationship.”
Marin Salisbury, physical therapist, notes that Mark pushes himself, with continual support from Kathy. “I’ve seen a big change in Mark’s ability to adapt to his limitations and not give in to them,” said Marin. “Mark has great awareness of how his body works, likely from his history of athletics.”
Despite his successes, the lengthy stroke recovery has tested Mark’s patience. “The hardest thing about being an ex-jock is realizing a stroke is not a physical injury that you can just ice down and you’re back in the game,” said Mark, who transitioned to outpatient therapy in April. “It’s about reconnecting those neurons damaged by the injury to your brain.”
Mark has made remarkable progress in his mobility — walking 350 feet using a cane and climbing the three flights of stairs in his home. Insurance covers Mark’s biweekly therapy, but he comes in three additional days to push himself on the FES bike.
“The stroke has made me more cognizant of physical limitations and what’s important in life,” said Mark. He is taking better care of himself and doesn’t take things for granted. He and Kathy hope to build memories with their family at their home in Florida. “Right now, I’m focusing on rebuilding my life.”