By ELAINE ALFARO
[Editor’s note: May is Stroke Awareness Month. For more information about strokes and recovery, visit the American Stroke Association at www.stroke.org.]
In 2010, San Diego State University professor Patricia Geist-Martin approached stroke survivor Bill Torres on his daily stroll to feed the ducks at Lake Murray. Little did they know that this first encounter would morph into a timeless friendship and eventually a book covering Torres’ life story and journey in recovering from a massive stroke.
In 2020, Geist-Martin and her previous student, now Rollins College professor Sarah Parsloe, published the book ‘Falling in Love with the Process: A Stroke Survivor’s Story.’ Nearly a year later and during Stroke Awareness Month, Bill Torres, the real life champion of the tale, continues to advocate and help fellow stroke survivors — even at age 85.
‘Falling in Love with the Process’ is a written collage of fond memories, humorous stories, and San Diego history, revolving around Torres’ fight to recover and turn his story into an opportunity for advocacy. It is woven together with the voices of Torres, his friends, caretakers from the hospital and co-authors Geist-Martin and Parsloe.
“I knew I had to fall in love with getting better. That’s how the title came about,” Torres said. “I’ve met hundreds of people and the growth in myself has made me feel good. Many times I have felt like superman.”
It was not always mountaintop moments of superhuman strength, however, and that is the beauty of the book according to Geist-Martin.
“The thing we learn from all of his stories is that he made this shift in his mind,” she said. “He originally just wanted to crawl under the covers and hide because he didn’t like to see himself in the mirror. The book really talks about his life story of resilience.”
At age 69, Torres had an Ischemic stroke that shut down the right side of his body and affected his speech. However, he decided his disability would not deter his journey in recovery, instead, he exercised for the next 1,000 days and became fully mobile with no physical impediments.
“This man doesn’t give up. He just doesn’t,” Geist-Martin said.
Advocacy and helping others are at the center of Torres’ recovery process.
“I said if I ever got better, I would dedicate my life to help other people get better,” he said. “I would talk to rotary clubs and stroke survivors at the hospitals. It felt good. It felt like I was accomplishing something, that and feeding the ducks.”
It is the little victories threaded throughout his story that demonstrate his resiliency. From regaining mobility first in his hand, to simply feeding the ducks everyday at 6:45 a.m. in Chollas Lake, the small triumphs are what made him love the journey to recovery.
“For Bill, progress looked like being able to put a key in a lock or it meant just trying to tap a foot to a favorite piece of music,” Parsloe explained. “The key is that those tiny advancements add up.”
“In my mind, I said ‘I’ve got to get better’ — the little engine that could,” Torres said.
But also part of his story revolves around the stigmas and pressures stroke survivors grapple with in relearning to tie their shoes and becoming independent again. “I felt that I didn’t want to be disabled. That’s for someone else. Not me. I am not going to go through my life disabled,” he said.
Parsloe explained that the book discusses the struggle between dedication to recovery and internalized stigmas perpetuated against disabled citizens.
“Sometimes some of the things Bill told himself, ‘I don’t want to be seen,’ is internalized ableism,” he said. “That fear of being seen as disabled is what motivates, but that can be toxic as well. To some extent, yes, be as consistent as possible. But it’s not always possible to improve to the extent that Bill did. Focusing so much on the physical can actually stigmatize people even further. There’s this tension between wanting to keep pushing and going, but also in recognizing we have to accept people for who they are. That acceptance creates a safe environment for someone to embrace whatever gains or not that they experience post stroke.”
In order to change the stigmas and societal pressures that disabled stroke survivors struggle with, Torres, Geist-Martin and Parsloe all agree that meaningful relationships drastically impact the road to recovery.
“Over and over what the research is showing is that when you have meaningful connections, you can heal the traumas of your past and you can create healing and resilience,” Geist-Martin said. “When people have strokes, they have physical disabilities or mental disabilities. People can say things and do things to stigmatize you. You end up closing up shop and retreating. [However] Bill didn’t do that and his friends didn’t allow him to do that.”
Parsloe added: “One of the things we noticed about Bill all through his life is that he forms really close relationships with people that he feeds over time. We saw that with Bill going to feed the ducks. That was one of the major connections he formed after the stroke. He meets this duck named Curly whose beak is all twisted then he feeds him. A big part of the recovery shifting from ‘why me’ to ‘what now’ is starting to form those relationships and feel that other people are dependent on you — that you still have something to give.”
The advice Torres has to give is a reminder of hope: “Hope springs eternal. Hope for the best. You can do it. Just don’t let things stop you.”
— Elaine Alfaro is an editorial intern for San Diego Community Newspaper Group and a student at Point Loma Nazarene University.