On the long road to recovery, Ted Phillips is not giving up
After shuffling unsteadily across the living room of his Niantic home earlier this month, Ted Phillips clutched a cane with his left hand and adjusted an arm sling to grasp a music stand with his right while Judy Mack sat down at the piano.
“OK, Mr. Ted — ready?”
Almost imperceptibly, Phillips nodded.
Mack lowered her hands and a G chord rang out, followed by a progression up the musical scale.
Slowly and softly, Phillips followed the notes: “La-da-da-da-da-da-da ...”
“Good! Now, wide open,” Mack directed, changing keys.
“Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah ...” Phillips responded, pitching his voice higher. After a few minutes of vocal exercises, he directed his gaze toward the sheet music facing him.
“All right, Mr. Ted, here we go,” Mack said, and began playing the introduction to a familiar folk song.
On cue, Phillips began singing:
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shineThis little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shineThis little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shineLet it shine, shine, shine, let it shine!
By the second verse, Phillips’ voice lost much of its quaver. He did not sound like a man who has struggled with speech, along with a host of other devastating impairments, since suffering a hemorrhagic stroke nearly a year and a half ago.
If you closed your eyes, it sounded more like the Ted so many friends and family remember best: the gifted singer whose powerful, rich baritone would fill a room. He also would perform on guitar, banjo, mandolin, trombone, bagpipes and charango — a lute-like stringed instrument of the Andes he learned to play while serving in the Peace Corps in Chile.
While Ted’s ability to sing is slowly returning, everyday speech remains difficult. When you talk to him now, you can see he understands your words but can’t quite articulate a reply — frustrating for someone fluent in several languages and customarily gregarious. A longtime teacher, guidance counselor and special-needs school headmaster, he holds a doctoral degree in education.
Although Ted now labors to walk, at age 77 he nonetheless retains the lean, fit physique of an athlete — a disciplined distance runner who for decades was among the top competitors in local road races, played baseball in a vintage baseball league (no gloves for the fielders) and earned a black belt in karate.
That’s why the morning of July 15, 2017, was such a shock for so many friends and family members.
'We're going to get your life back'
As his wife, Pat, recently recalled, events unfolded soon after she and Ted drove home from a car repair shop. Ted seemed distracted.
“He said to me, ‘I’ve been having a little trouble,’” Pat said.
Ted’s speech sounded slurred, so Pat asked Ted to repeat the sentence. The words were even more garbled.
Alarmed, Pat raced to the phone and called Ted’s doctor, but because it was a Saturday she got an answering service, and was urged to call 911 immediately.
The ambulance arrived a few minutes later and rushed Ted to Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London, where doctors determined he had a blood clot in his brain. After they hurriedly consulted with specialists at Yale New Haven Hospital, Ted was wheeled back into an ambulance that sped 45 miles west on Interstate 95.
Ted was admitted to Yale New Haven’s intensive care unit, where the next day his condition worsened and he lapsed into a nearly vegetative state.
When Pat saw him then, she vowed, “We’re going to get your life back.”
'The renaissance man'
Pat has been a force of nature: Scheduling and driving Ted to doctor appointments, speech therapists, gym workouts, pool exercises and various other treatments that range from traditional to alternative practices, including acupuncture and tai chi. A typical week is filled with up to two dozen appointments — some at home, but most at offices and treatment facilities as far away as Wallingford and New Britain.
When she is not transporting Ted to various therapists and sorting through bills — some procedures and services are covered by insurance, others must be paid out of pocket — Pat is administering therapeutic regimens developed from her background in special and early education.
A former teacher and assistant principal in the East Lyme public school system, Pat, 71, received a doctorate in educational administration and served as head of the preschool program at Mitchell College in New London before retiring to help care for her husband. The couple has been married for 48 years.
The stroke also forced Ted to leave his job last year as a guidance counselor at Saint Bernard School in Montville. Previously, he had been a Spanish instructor at Mitchell College, taught English and then became a guidance counselor at East Lyme High School, served as headmaster of Waterford Country School, and headed the counseling department at Montville High School.
“We called him the renaissance man because he did a number of things, all of them well,” said Tom Amanti, a former Montville principal who now is retired.
Ted cared deeply about the students he counseled, making sure they took the appropriate courses and applied to the best colleges, but beyond that he demonstrated compassion and professionalism in all his interactions, both with students and faculty, Amanti added.
“I always had complete confidence in everything Ted did,” he said.
Like so many others, Amanti was flabbergasted to hear about Ted’s stroke.
“If you were to ask me, 'Who is the last person in the world you’d expect something like this would happen to?' The answer would be Ted,” Amanti said.
Dave Jacobs of East Lyme, a longtime friend and fellow member of the Mohegan Striders running club, echoed those sentiments.
“My first thought was, ‘This can’t be Ted Phillips,'” Jacobs said. “I was just stunned. He’s always been the epitome of a healthy, vigorous person.” Jacobs is encouraged but not surprised by Ted’s slow but steady progress.
“He’s a real fighter. I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as Ted has,” Jacobs said.
Damage to left side of brain
Ted’s rehabilitation has followed a long road with many twists and turns.
After his initial hospitalization Ted spent a month at L+M’s acute inpatient rehabilitation clinic, followed by nearly three months at East Lyme’s Bride Brook Health and Rehabilitation Center. Then he fell and broke his hip, so he had to spend two more weeks at L+M before going back home and resuming outpatient treatment at the Hospital for Special Care in New Britain, as well as five months of outpatient care from the Homecare Visiting Nurse Association of Southeastern Connecticut.
Mack, who provides music therapy once a week at Ted’s home, first began working with him at Bride Brook.
“He could not speak any words at the time, but his emotions and connections were completely intact,” she said. Mack, music director and organist for 41 years at Niantic Baptist Church, not only holds a doctor of musical arts degree but also is a registered nurse.
“As with most students, not all learn the same way. Some by doing, others by seeing and still others from hearing, experiences and memory, muscle or otherwise. Ted is no different, other than the left side of his brain being damaged. The right side is compensating for him, much as a 20/20 eye would do for a lazy eye,” she explained.
Mack said Ted’s aphasia — a communication disorder resulting in loss or disruption of language or the ability to find the right words — results from a stroke or lesions in the brain’s left hemisphere, which is the language-dominant area responsible for speech.
“Lesions in this area only affect his speech, while he can still sing. The right hemisphere is more active during singing,” she noted.
Mack was responsible for one of the many heartwarming “Ted moments” that have sustained Ted and Pat throughout their ordeal. Realizing that Ted could not easily attend church choir practice, she had the entire group march into Bride Brook to sing.
'Never give up'
Ted had been a regular performer at an annual Pete Seeger tribute concert at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation in New London, and brought the audience of more than 200 to its feet last February when he showed up in a wheelchair. There were smiles and tears when Ted, Pat and their son Simon sang, “You Have to Walk that Lonesome Valley.” Another son, Brennan, also has been hugely supportive, helping to make his parents' home handicapped-accessible and setting up a website to keep a wide network of friends and family informed of Ted’s progress.
These online dispatches underscore a prevailing theme: Never give up.
Such intense determination was on full display the other morning during a session with certified massage therapist Rich Cochrane at G’s Fitness and Nutrition in Waterford.
The workout began with a warmup walk on a treadmill, with Cochrane standing close at hand to make sure Ted didn’t slip off the moving belt.
Pat also hovered nearby but then zipped up her jacket.
“I’m going out for a run,” she announced. “This is the only time during the day I can get away.”
After Pat trotted out the door, Cochrane joked, “Good, she’s gone. Now we can go have a beer.”
No such break. After about 10 minutes on the treadmill, Cochrane led Ted to a padded bench and positioned him to begin a series of seated weight pulls. Next came leg lifts, a stationary bike and free weights, all in rapid succession.
Throughout the workout, Ted’s gaze remained focused while Cochrane kept up a motivational patter: “Doing great! Keep it going! Good job!”
Cochrane said some stroke patients he’s worked with — even those with less-serious impairments — haven’t seemed as motivated toward recovery.
“That’s the difference between Ted and other people,” Cochrane said. “He doesn’t give up. He’s gone from being in bed to a wheelchair to a walker, and now is walking on his own, using a cane.”
After he and Ted continued another half-hour of exercises, Pat returned from her run, bringing in from the car a broomstick-like pole with a sliding collar that is designed to help stroke patients strengthen their grip and arm mobility.
While Ted lay on a mat and began maneuvering the sliding mechanism, Cochrane held the pole and counted repetitions: “One ... two ... three ...”
This was clearly the most difficult exercise, the last one of the session, and Ted began to fatigue.
“Come on!” Cochrane urged.
Ted grunted and twisted his torso. The grunts became groans but he didn’t stop until he finished the exercise, panting.
“He does more training than high-performance athletes,” Cochrane said while helping Ted out to the car. Pat would next drive him to the Hospital for Special Care in New Britain for another treadmill workout, followed by aqua therapy in a pool. Then, it was on to Shoreline Physical Therapy in East Lyme for occupational therapy.
A full schedule
That was a Tuesday. Monday’s schedule began with chiropractic care by Dr. Chris Connaughty in Old Saybrook, after which Cochrane led another workout in Waterford. Next came treadmill and stationary bike exercises at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford.
On Wednesday, another chiropractic session was followed by an eye doctor’s appointment in Waterford, another fitness center workout with Cochrane, and more treadmill and stationary bike exercises at Gaylord Hospital.
Thursday’s schedule included a swim and treadmill workout at the Hospital for Special Care, followed by acupuncture treatment administered by Dr. Kaitlyn N. Staal, a naturopathic practitioner in Waterford.
Friday began with another chiropractic appointment, and then a fitness center workout, a checkup with his general practitioner in Mystic, and then stationary bike exercises at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford.
On Sunday Ted practiced tai chi led for an hour with instructor Dave Chandler, a certified deep hypnotic therapist. Tai chi originated as a Chinese martial art but devotees also tout its health benefits.
The following Monday, the lineup of sessions began all over again.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” Pat said with a weary smile.
She glanced at her watch — time to drive to the next appointment.
Pat clutched Ted’s arm to help steady him as they exited G's Fitness Center.
“He knows if he goes down, I’m going with him,” Pat said.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every year more than 795,000 people in the United States have a stroke — about one every 40 seconds.
Stroke kills about 140,000 Americans each year — that’s 1 out of every 20 deaths — making it the fifth-leading cause of death in this country. The CDC also reports that stroke is a leading cause of serious long-term disability, reducing mobility in more than half of stroke survivors age 65 and over.
Medical authorities urge people to know the warning signs and symptoms of stroke so that you can act fast if you or someone you know might be having a stroke. The CDC notes that patients who arrive at the emergency room within three hours of their first symptoms often have less disability three months later than those who received delayed care.
Here are symptoms:
• Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
• Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or difficulty understanding speech
• Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
• Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or lack of coordination
• Sudden severe headache with no known cause
The CDS advises those who think someone may be having a stroke to administer a simple test, following the acronym “F.A.S.T.”
Face: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
Arms: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
Speech: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is the speech slurred or strange?
Time: If you see any of these signs, call 911 right away.