Rehab after a stroke: Nowhere to go but up for 49-year-old

Nov. 2, 2022
Cory Davidson, 49, and his daughter, Dakota, 6, enjoy their time together as Cory recovers from a stroke in late August.
Cory Davidson, 49, and his daughter, Dakota, 6, enjoy their time together as Cory recovers from a stroke in late August. Photos: Sonya Doctorian, UCHealth.

When Cory Davidson moved into his third-floor apartment in Broomfield, he didn’t give a second thought to his building not having an elevator.

Why should he? At 49, he was rarely sick, in good shape and feeling healthier than he had in years, having lost 60 pounds in recent months.

Then he suffered a debilitating stroke that left the entire right side of his body paralyzed and forced him to relearn how to walk, talk and use his arm, hand and fingers. He soon realized how much climbing those 42 steps would mean to him and his future.

“I was feeling good and things were going great,” said Cory, an architect who has lived in Metro Denver since 1996. “I went from that to laying in a hospital bed thinking, ‘This is terrifying … what am I supposed to do now?’”

Stroke comes from out of the blue

His journey began a few months ago on the last Saturday of August after he picked up his 6-year-old daughter, Dakota, and they went to a Broomfield restaurant for lunch. He had just wrapped up some major work projects – a downtown Denver hotel and an apartment complex in the Pearl Street area – and was looking forward to some downtime.

Cory walks three flights of stairs to his apartment, using it as part of his rehab after his stroke.
Cory Davidson reaches the top of the stairs at his third-floor apartment in Broomfield. There’s no elevator, so he’s incorporated his trips up and down into his physical therapy and rehab after his stroke.

“I had been so busy and just wanted to take a month off and unwind.”

His memories of that day are murky: He’s enjoying time with his daughter; he takes a few bites of his meal; he says hello to a friend passing by the table. Then suddenly, a terrifying moment: “I couldn’t move the right side of my body. After that, I just don’t remember much.”

A series of life-saving decisions quickly unfolded. He credits his friend and the restaurant manager for grasping the severity of his condition and calling 911. Cory was stabilized at a nearby hospital and then airlifted to another, where doctors removed a blood clot that had traveled to the left side of his brain. The left side of the brain controls functions on the right side of the body, as well as speech and language.

After implanting a heart monitor and putting him on a blood thinner, physicians told him they were perplexed at what caused the stroke, as Cory was young, a nonsmoker and in good health.

“We’ll probably never know why,” Cory said.

With Cory out of intensive care and recovering, he and his family realized a difficult rehab lay ahead. He couldn’t move his leg, arm, hand or fingers on his right side, and he couldn’t speak or move his tongue very well. He was able to drink through a straw and swallow, which was encouraging.

“Never should a parent have to watch a child go through this,” said his father, Rick, a constant and steady presence during his son’s medical odyssey. “To see your son like that, oh boy, it was unbelievable.”

The best place for rehab after a stroke

The family quickly decided that UCHealth Broomfield Hospital would be Cory’s best option in his recovery because of the reputation of its physical, occupational and speech therapy programs. A bonus was that the hospital is only a mile from his apartment.

daughter watches her dad lift a weight as part of his rehab after his stroke.
Dakota watches Cory Davidson’s daily physical therapy routine, which includes raising a 15 lb. dumbbell with his right arm. Rehab after his stroke was crucial in his recovery.

So just four days after his stroke, Cory entered the hospital in a wheelchair and began his rehab journey.

“When he came in on Day One, he was really impaired,” said Fara Grabski, a senior occupational therapist who was Cory’s primary therapist.

During the first week of his arrival for his stroke rehabilitation program, Cory found himself on a treadmill with his body suspended by a harness, looking down at his legs and trying to get his muscles to move through sheer force of will.

“I’m saying to myself, ‘What are you doing to me?’ and then I say, ‘Wait, I can move!’ If only a little, but I did it.”

It was a watershed moment for his family: “It was only a baby step, but boy, were we excited to see it,” Rick said.

Pushing himself to the limit in rehab

From the onset, therapists on his care team were impressed at Cory’s determination and grit, as if he were in a race against both time and himself.

“Over the course of his stay, he was incredibly motivated and so eager to work hard. Even when he was exhausted, he kept pushing and made incredible progress,” Grabski said. “He just always kept moving in the right direction.”

Like many stroke victims, Cory regained mobility first in his leg. During his hospital stay he used a wheelchair and skilled therapy or nursing assist to navigate, as well as a handrail in the hall before graduating to a four-legged cane and then a single cane. In addition to the treadmill, he walked the halls, rode a stationary bike and did electrical stimulation, weight-loading exercises and grasp-and-release tasks for his arm and hand.

Then came the stairs. Lots of stairs.

Cory Davidson and his father, Rick Davidson, transformed their Weld County storage unit into a workshop where they build engines and modify vehicles, including this 2004 Jeep.
Cory Davidson and his father, Rick Davidson, transformed their Weld County storage unit into a workshop where they build engines and modify vehicles, including this 2004 Jeep.

“By week four, I was nailing those stairs. I was doing them three times a day, up and down, up and down, up and down. If there was extra credit, I would have gotten it – I wanted that gold star,” he said.

Staff also worked on daily activities such as dressing, bathing and grooming tasks, as well as making a simple meal and doing laundry. Coinciding with gaining strength and mobility, Cory also immersed himself in speech therapy.

When he was admitted, he was experiencing dysarthria, which is slurred speech caused by a weakness in the muscles needed for speech, and aphasia, a language disorder that makes it difficult for a person to communicate effectively.

“When Cory first came in, he had no usable language skills – he couldn’t say hello – he couldn’t even use language to give a yes or no answer,’’ said Caurel Gulbranson, the primary speech and language pathologist who worked with Cory. “When you can’t communicate, you really lose the essence of who you are.”

He had to begin at the beginning: pointing to pictures, reciting 123s and ABCs, and practicing simple reading. He followed along as Gulbranson told him to watch her mouth and “Do what I do.” He worked on enunciation and articulation, building his vocabulary and repertoire of words from one syllable to more complicated verbiage.

“For someone to come in with that level of impairment, sometimes they never get to the level of where Cory is, or if they do, it takes a long time. His progress has been remarkable,” she said.

Cory and his family have nothing but praise for the care he’s received: “It’s been amazing,” Rick said. Added Cory: “UCHealth has been straight up great.”

During his month-long stay, Cory had time to mull over a few pressing concerns as he pressed on through rehab after his stroke. A divorced dad with shared custody of his daughter, Cory is a self-employed architect, and that brings certain inescapable requirements: being on site for jobs, having computer dexterity, presenting ideas and communicating with clients.

Strengthening and gaining control of his right arm and hand have been more elusive than walking and talking. He is right-handed, with a right hand that is not always cooperating.

Several months after the stroke, he can raise that arm parallel to his shoulder, but fine motor skills in that hand are challenging.

“Until you lose your ability to use parts of your body you took for granted, you don’t realize how it will affect your life. Like how much you use your right hand: I didn’t realize my left hand was so stupid. It’s maddening.”

Cory starts the engine of the 1970 Nova SS he and his dad, Rick, built. It was just a shell when they took on the project. The rack also holds a 1972 Chevy pickup, which Cory rebuilt in high school. The Davidsons display their finished work in car shows throughout the West.
Cory starts the engine of the 1970 Nova SS he and his dad, Rick, built. It was just a shell when they took on the project. The rack also holds a 1972 Chevy pickup, which Cory rebuilt in high school. The Davidsons display their finished work in car shows throughout the West.

His dad gently reminds him: “It seems like forever to him, but from week one when we saw him lying there not being able to feel his arm and leg to what he’s doing now – it’s amazing,” Rick said.

Cory tries to rein in his tendency to hit the accelerator on his healing. Still, he’s given himself a deadline of the new year to be back to work.

Aside from getting back to a career he loves, Cory’s main motivating factor is his daughter – to be healthy and back to “normal” for her as quickly as possible. He tears up momentarily when talking about the ordeal she has endured along with him, especially since she was there during the stroke.

“She tells people ‘Daddy’s arm and leg are broken,’” he said. “She’s such a good little helper – she keeps her room neat and will even put plates in the dishwasher and try and clean up.”

If it had wheels, he’d drive it

Cory’s resolve and purpose, with a bit of impatience thrown in for good measure, is no surprise to his family members, who remember him as a boy with drive and work ethic to spare.

Born and raised in Langdon, N.D., population 1,900 and just a few miles south of the Canadian border, Cory was mechanically inclined from the get-go, building engines at 13, driving a truck at 15 and mastering an 18-wheeler at 18.

His father, or “Pa”, recalled a time when a coach told him not to bother to bring Cory back to practice, as he had spent the whole time on the field watching the skies, fascinated by the planes flying overhead.

“I loved mechanics, I understood mechanics – sports, I just didn’t get,” Cory recalled.

After receiving a degree in architecture from North Dakota State University, he moved to metro Denver where his sister had relocated, and his parents eventually followed.

He brought his passion for all-things-with-wheels with him to Colorado. A self-described gear head, his garage holds his two Harley-Davidsons that he uses for annual trips with Rick to the Sturgis, South Dakota motorcycle rally. The bikes keep company with a tricked-out Jeep and a Chevy Avalanche pickup truck that he takes off-roading; and a “mancave” in eastern Colorado stores his ‘70 Nova, ‘72 classic pickup, old Chevy diesel truck and a Mini Cooper.

“It’s killing me not to drive,” he said, after listing his many cars and trucks. “It’s driving me nuts. I’m just waiting to get behind the wheel again.”

His yearning to get back to his “toys” spurs him on as he engages in weekly PT, OT and speech therapy. He walks, climbs stairs, lifts weights and exercises his hand with an electronic glove that pumps air to help open and close his fingers into a fist.

“You can lay there and feel bad about what happened, or you can get the hell out of bed and do the work, do the exercise and push yourself. And that’s what I did and continue to do every day.”

Stoke recovery: the climb continues

Back to those 42 stairs.

When he was discharged from UCHealth Broomfield he left with a wheelchair and a cane. The wheelchair is in his garage. It never made it up the steps, though Cory did, without any assistance.

As for the cane, he did use it once … to open a heating vent on the ceiling.

“Every day I say to myself, I can do it. I just want to accomplish something, and when I do, it feels good. The faster you can get ahead of something like this, the better. I will get there. I just have to take the extra step, and then take more than the extra step. I’ll do it till I can’t do it anymore.”

About the author

Mary Gay Broderick is a Denver-based freelance writer with more than 25 years experience in journalism, marketing, public relations and communications. She enjoys telling compelling stories about healthcare, especially the dedicated UCHealth professionals and the people whose lives they transform. She enjoys skiing, hiking, biking and traveling, along with baking (mostly) successful desserts for her husband and three daughters.