Cymbrowitz is still working to overcome the stroke’s impact on his memory. The stroke initially left him with difficulty associating the right name with the faces of people he met, and had trouble remembering numbers. Upon his return to the State Assembly in Albany, he enjoyed the support and encouragement of his fellow legislators who played an active role in helping him to recover some of these lost abilities. Speaker Sheldon Silver gave him the job of taking attendance at Democratic party caucus meetings, giving him much-needed practice in re-learning how to associate names with faces. Other Albany colleagues would patiently help him when he would stumble over certain words or could not remember a phone number.
Cymbrowitz has learned to compensate for these deficits. He writes more things down now, routinely repeats phone numbers and constantly practices putting names to faces. He has also learned to accept certain limitations. “I need to be reminded more. I don’t recall some events,” he admits. But he also says that in the process of recovering from his stroke, he has gained in other ways. “I have learned that when I am determined enough – when I really set my mind to something – I can usually accomplish it. But I have also become more accepting in myself of those shortcomings that I know I can’t change,” he said.
Cymbrowitz does not claim to be a religious person, but he says that since his stroke, “I thank G-d every morning that I can put both feet down on the floor – and people who know what I went through understand.”
Cymbrowitz’s conscious reaction during the first moments of his stroke was confusion and denial. In a published account of the incident, he recalled waking up one morning feeling fine, and trying to go outside his house to pick up the newspaper.
“[My wife] Vilma, in the other room, heard me struggling to walk [and] immediately suspected that something was wrong. She saw that I couldn’t keep my balance as I lumbered awkwardly toward the front door. Once there, I couldn’t even grasp the doorknob. My left hand and entire left side were beginning to go numb although, incredibly, I didn’t even realize it. . .
“Vilma turned me around to face her and, alarmed, saw in my face that paralysis was beginning to set in on the left side. Calmly she told me, “I think you’re having a stroke,” and helped me over to the sofa. She then ran to the phone to call 911.
“Refusing to believe I was actually having a stroke, I attempted to get up from the sofa. It was an ill-conceived plan. After Vilma got off the phone with 911, she was then faced with the arduous task of trying to get me off the floor and back on the sofa.”
The cognitive effects of stroke can be even more difficult and frustrating than the physical disabilities it causes. A stroke can leave its victim still in full control of their limbs, impacting only their cognitive abilities and their power of speech. That is what happened to a young mother we will call M. She woke up one morning early last year with an uneasy feeling that something was wrong, even though physically she felt fine. She then discovered to her shock and horror that she had lost the power to say the words she wanted to. When she tried to say, “But I feel fine,” all that came out of her mouth were 3 random words in Hebrew.
Unable to express herself verbally, M. tried to write a note with the word “stroke” on it to explain to her husband what was going on. Instead, it came out on paper as “skrote.” When she realized that she had lost her ability to communicate easily with those around her, she became truly concerned. “I was used to being a step ahead of everything, not a step behind,” M. wrote.
She remembers “feeling frustrated that I had so much to do – I didn’t have time to deal with all this. I wanted to be done with it so I could get back to what was really important and pressing in my life.” M. finally burst into tears when she realized that she could not even say the names of her two young children.