Just over a year since a massive stroke, Clay Lee is back at work
It was a normal Labor Day weekend in September 2010 when 53-year-old Clay Lee was visiting his children at a house the family owns in Fresno.
Hollister's seemingly healthy Community Services director, adult recreation basketball player and then-assistant coach for the San Benito High School girls' basketball team recalls feeling "a little uncomfortable" as he did yard work, complaining of a stiff neck and having a "massive headache."
Little did he know at the time that the discomfort would become a life-threatening and life-changing event - but one that he was determined will not stop him.
Lee says ‘things weren't functioning right'
After driving back to Hollister and enduring a restless night, Lee tried to get out of bed in the morning, "but things weren't functioning right."
He fell over when he got out of bed and his wife, Marianne, called 911 for help.
"Once the firefighters got there they were able to diagnose things," Lee said this week. "They saw the droopy left side of my face and all the telltale signs of a stroke."
Lee was flown by Life Flight helicopter to Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose, where further examinations revealed that his right carotid artery had a blockage that stopped the flow of blood to his brain, resulting in the stroke.
While he received immediate medical attention, the situation was still "touch-and-go," he said, as swelling caused his brain to expand and forced doctors to perform a craniotomy, during which they removed a flap of bone from his skull to reduce the pressure. He would have another surgery four months later to put the bone flap back.
Lee was kept in the intensive care unit for nearly two weeks, sedated by morphine and other pain medication to keep him relaxed "and let the healing process do its thing."
A support system
During that time, Lee's wife and four children, as well as his friends and co-workers, kept a constant vigil, both in-person and online.
City Manager Clint Quilter, a friend of Lee's and a fellow assistant basketball coach, drove up nearly every day after work to visit Lee. Development Services Director William Avera and his family and a number of the girls' basketball players visited as well.
"It just made a huge difference, when you're sitting in a hospital setting as long as I was, just to see familiar faces," Lee said, fighting back tears at the thought. "I've never been an overly-spiritual man but the power of all the prayers that were coming my way really made a difference and I appreciate all of them."
The long road back
Once it was clear he was going to make it, Lee left ICU in a wheelchair and was taken to the Mission Oaks acute rehabilitation facility near the hospital. There, he went through physical, occupational and speech therapy, just weeks after the stroke. He had to learn how to walk again and doctors wanted him moving around soon after surgery to get his blood flowing and prevent clots and a potential second stroke.
"Luckily, the damage that was done did not affect my short-term or long-term memory, my speech remained pretty good and my cognitive abilities weren't impaired," Lee said. His left arm remained weak and he had trouble walking, but he was getting better.
After 41 days of in-patient treatment - a record for a patient at the site, according to Lee - he finally got to go home at the end of September.
Back in Hollister, he began another rehabilitation program with Rehab Without Walls, a nonprofit group from the Salinas area. SBHS football Coach Chris Cameron's sister, Claudia, worked with Lee in his house and Lee was visited by a speech therapist and an occupational therapist that helped him get back to what used to seem like mundane tasks of everyday life - such as getting dressed.
Lee still receives therapy on Tuesday afternoons at Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz, driven there by his wife or daughter, Tricia, who lives at home and helps her mom care for Lee.
Back to work
"There's still work to be done and learning to do stuff one-handed has been the big challenge," said Lee, who to the surprise of some returned to his job with the city on Dec. 5, working 7 a.m. to noon five days a week. He plans to extend those hours as his rehabilitation progresses.
Though he had worked long enough to where he could have retired with a state pension, Lee wanted to get back to work.
"I wasn't ready to leave the city," he said. "I have too much invested and a lot of things I wanted to see get done. Even though it's been a challenge coming back and getting into the workplace, my family kind of anticipated that was going to be what was going on. They know my personality. I have enough time on the books that I could have retired if I wanted to, but I'm just not ready to do that yet. I wanted to get myself as much rehabilitation as possible and get back to being as normal as I'm going to be."
During his rehabilitation, an occupational therapist set up a mock office to replicate Lee's workplace so he could practice returning to his job. While his former typing speed of 40 words per minute has been greatly reduced by his single-handed "hunt-and-peck" style required after his stroke, Lee "is making it work somehow."
Avera, Lee's colleague, said he is excited about him being back at work.
"He's come a long way in a relatively short period of time considering where he was a year ago," Avera said. "It's absolutely amazing that he wants to come back. He has a pretty high-stress job, so for him to come back and want to continue to be here is amazing. He loves everything about Hollister and this community, though, so it makes sense."
An emotional journey
As Lee recalls the support of the people in his life, particularly his family, he becomes emotional - more so than he ever was before.
"The part of my brain that was injured regulates your emotions, so that's been a hard thing to get used to," he said, pointing out that he has what doctors call "lability," or a condition where patients with brain injuries may cry uncontrollably at something that is only moderately sad, and they may be unable to stop themselves for several minutes.
"It usually ends up with me getting a little teary-eyed on stuff that wouldn't have made me cry before - even a commercial," he said.
‘Strokes know no age'
Lee was in his early 50s, active and seemingly healthy when he had his stroke.
"I don't think I was in terrible shape and I ate OK," he said. "I learned strokes know no age. I always thought strokes were for older people, but when I was at Mission Oaks I saw people in their 20s that had had strokes. One woman in her 30s had three young children and couldn't even remember their names. A doctor from Salinas had a stroke and she was in her 30s."
Lee acknowledged he should have been to the doctor more frequently.
"Apparently the thing I could've done better in hindsight is I had not been to the doctor for a while to have my blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked," he said. "I would highly recommend to people, please don't be like me. Get yourself to the doctor and get a check-up."
Even though Lee acknowledges having a lot of responsibilities at work - supervising nearly 40 city employees in public works - "I never really bought in to being stressed out over my work," he said. "I probably spread myself out a little too thin trying to make sure things went smoothly and I did put in a lot of hours - that was just my style. I'm trying to regulate that a little bit better now."