Al, right, and Louise Mendrala go for an evening walk with their dog Rocky on Friday. Al suffered a stroke two days after Christmas in 2005, and now walks with a brace on his right leg and a cane. Al's speech is also severely limited. "It's like you're trapped inside your body and you can't get out," said Louise, Al's wife of 21 years. Al Mendrala, 60, wakes up cheerful, hangs out with other couples with his wife Louise and rides his recumbent trike or walks his dogs for miles a day.
Seventeen months ago these things would seem like normal, but they’re extraordinary considering he had a stroke near Christmas 2005. Aphasia, a cane and a simplified life are the results of his serious medical condition, but the couple doesn’t let it affect their quality of life.
"He gets up every morning, he has a smile on his face, ready to start the day, I give him a lot of credit," said Louise Mendrala, Al’s wife of 21 years and caregiver. She drives him everywhere. The two are determined to not let Al’s stroke bring them down.
Mendrala, right, readies his helmet before going for a ride on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle operated by longtime friend Andy Hart, left, of Bay City, on Saturday morning. It was Mendrala's first ride on a Harley since suffering a stroke at the end of 2005. "Andy and Al have been all over the country together," said Al's wife Louise.
"People get very depressed … both the stroke survivor and the caregiver," she said. "I guess there’s two roads you can travel, and we’ve chosen the other one."
He was even able to complete the Midland Community Center’s Dow/Run Walk this year, finishing the 5k walk without resting, and serves as an inspiration to family and friends.
Al was a few years from retirement as a research scientist in the toxicology lab at The Dow Chemical Co. in late 2005 when he was hospitalized with heart troubles. This bacteria infection caused his stroke and required open heart surgery days later. At that time, doctors weren’t sure he would gain movement back, Louise said.
"They always give you this scary diagnosis at first, that he’d never be able to walk and never be able to say more than five words," she said. Al spent 10 weeks in hospitals, bounding between MidMichigan Medical Center and St. Mary’s of Michigan.
But to them, it was a worse-case-scenario and they were going to beat that diagnosis. Thanks to hard work and the assistance of physical therapist Peg Essex, he’s walking.
"She told us that you either like her or you hate her," Louise said. "I recall her often telling Al ‘they’re your legs, use them!’
"She rarely let his take the easy road and always pushed him to do his best."
This desire to do his best was apparent when he noticed a flier for the Dow Run/Walk and wanted to enter. The couple practiced, making 5K walks, but stopping when needed at benches.
Louise had planned to walk with him, pushing his wheelchair so he could stop when needed.
"No," Al said, defiantly shaking his head as his wife told the story. He clearly wanted no help and planned on finishing the race upright. Two hours, one minute and 46 seconds later, he did, without stopping.
While being able to walk on his own was a big accomplishment, Al still lost a sense of independence due to the stroke. Al is a former Harley rider, having won several awards in the Iron Butt Association. He’s rode in 50 states, traversed 1,000 miles in 24 hours and even went coast-to-coast in less than 50.
The solution: trade his horsepower for leg power, riding a recumbent trike customized to his physical ability. Bicycle Headquarters in Midland modified it so the controls are on his left side, the hand he can still use.
"It’s a lot sportier," his wife said. Al proudly shows off the machine, which shows clear sign of wear on its tires. The couple took the bike in for maintenance recently, and just about everything needed tightening from heavy use.
Louise still rides with him in case of emergencies, but physically, he could take off on his own.
The couple walk or ride every day, facilitated by their new home, a condo they moved to by the Pere Marquette Rail Trail. They’ve explored new trails, such as the Chippewa Trail, and often take Rocky, their 13-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, on treks.
Al still struggles from the stroke when it comes to communicating, a condition called aphasia. His intelligence remains, but talking, writing, reading or doing simple calculations remain a struggle.
He’s making progress and can usually get his point across to his wife. He draws pictures to ask for specific things, and the sketches have greatly improved recently.
Al is back in speech therapy (his previous therapy had hit a plateau earlier) and despite being out of formal physical therapy, he works out three times a week to keep his muscles strong.
While the stroke has kept the family from retiring somewhere warm, a move to a new condo and the safety net of friends who understand their situation is something they don’t want to give up. They seem happy, especially Al, who walks around with bright eyes and a smile on his face.
"Al is always happy to visit with people, even though it is very difficult to communicate. He still has the same personality as before," Louise said.