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Healing a Divided Life: A Spiritual and Physical Story of Recovery

Michael Mangis

Psychologist Michael Mangis reflects on his recovery from a life-altering stroke.

Clinical Psychologist / Former Professor of Counseling and Wheaton College
June 7, 2019

Many of us have stories of days or moments that changed our lives forever. Michael Mangis taught at Wheaton College for twenty years before a massive stroke sent him on a long journey of both spiritual and physical recovery. Michael sat down with us and shared a part of that journey. Enjoy.

People who’ve had a major trauma or health event like mine will say that it divides your life into two. There was before the stroke and after the stroke. We all live in fear of a moment like that. We know cognitively that it can happen to any of us, but it always really takes you by surprise, of course. I had been teaching for about 20 years when I had my stroke.

We have what, in social psychology, is called a just-world hypothesis. Most people assume that bad things happen for a reason; in some way, we want to make sense of it,  to understand it. I find that when I tell people that I’m a stroke survivor, most assume that I had some kind of a problem with cholesterol, or blood vessels, or something like that. In fact, in 2008, when I had the stroke, I was probably in the best shape of my life because I was regularly exercising more frequently than I ever had before.

In fact, about a week before the stroke, I’d been through a physical exam, and my annual physical, and even a scan of blood vessels and everything. The doctor said I was in really good shape, I’m looking really good, so it wasn’t health related at all.

It was, in my case, an accident that caused the stroke, which taught me how little control we have in life and how much we can be surprised by these kinds of things. I was working in my backyard, tearing down an old shed that had rotted. We were going to be having a garage built back there. I needed to get this out, so I was tearing it down and putting the pieces into a dumpster.

It got to the point where it was so flimsy, and ready to come down that I just hooked a chain to it, thinking I could pull the shed down, but not realizing that rotten wood on the shed was not a good thing to hook a chain to. I was pulling and trying to pull the shed down when, all of a sudden, the board that I’d hooked to broke loose. I went flying backwards and landed on something, and basically, wrenched my neck.

I wasn’t hurt at all. I think for a couple days I felt a little bit of a soreness in the shoulder, something like that, but nothing noticeable. Exactly a week later, I was out there finishing up the project of tearing down the shed, and all of a sudden, I just collapsed.

My stroke taught me how little control we have in life

I lay in my driveway for ‑‑ we don’t really know how long ‑‑ probably an hour or so. Then later, when I was taken to the hospital and they put a camera up my artery to see what it was, they found that, when I had fallen the week before, I had twisted my right carotid artery.

Arteries have an interior wall, like garden hoses have several layers to them. The interior layer had torn just a little bit. Blood didn’t come out of the artery. It was just that interior wall that tore and, so, over the week that little tear had scabbed over just as other places of injury in body scab over.

Finally, at the end of the week, that scab broke loose and that became the clot that caused my stroke. I lay in the driveway for an hour or so, wide awake, not knowing what was happening. It’s interesting. As a psychologist, I should have been able to figure out something was wrong here, but I rationalized to myself “I’m just tired and dehydrated, and I’ll be fine. When someone finds me they can help me up and I’ll just be fine.”

Then when my wife finally came home and came and found me in the driveway, she looked at my face and it was sagging on the left side badly, and she recognized what it was. As soon as I saw her face, and realized what she saw, I knew I’d had a stroke.

There was absolutely no pain at all. I just basically felt like I had just gotten tired and laid down on the ground. When I tried to get up I wasn’t able to, but I wasn’t enough thinking clearly enough to notice it was because my left side couldn’t help at all with the process of getting up.

I tried to call on my phone, and wasn’t able to decipher the things on the screen well enough to really be able to figure out what it was, except that I finally was able to push the right buttons to call my wife, and left a message, but it was garbled and she wasn’t really able to understand it.

Then, the ambulance came. It turns out I didn’t know until then that I lived at that time within a couple of miles of one of the top five stroke hospitals in the country. I was taken right into the hospital and given the best care possible, and, by God’s grace, really came through.

That day, I discovered later from people who worked at the hospital and from some of the staff that were there that no one expected me to live, let alone to walk, and return to work, and be able to function as I have been, now for eight years.

The word that everyone kept using was massive, a massive stroke. Even when I’ve had other doctors look at the scans years later, they look at me, they just shake their heads and say, “Yeah, that was a massive stroke.”

A pretty large percentage of my brain is actually dead scar tissue. We’re born with all the brain cells we’ll ever have in our life. When they die, they’re just gone.

I don’t know what percentage, but a pretty large portion of my brain is dead scar tissue. The fact that I can function as well as I do, and drive, and do all the things that I do is completely a credit to just the amazing power that God has put in the brain to compensate for areas that are damaged or injured in any way.

The rest of the brain just basically takes over. There have been instances of people through history who have had major portions of their brain damaged and, yet, are able to continue on with a fairly normal life. A lot of it depends on where it is.

I’m really thankful that, for years before the stroke, I had been studying and practicing in the contemplate of spiritual tradition, especially the Desert Fathers and Mothers. I had developed a personal discipline of whenever something really surprising and upsetting happened in my life, I reminded myself to stop and say, “I wonder what God has in mind for this,” because I know and I believe, and scripture tells us that we use everything together for good. No matter what comes along in my life, I know God can well use it for something good.

I remember, in the ambulance on the way to the hospital just saying it in my mind. I was praying to God, “I wonder what God has in mind for this.” Even then, kind of planting the seeds that something good can come of this, even though right now it feels really overwhelming and awful.

I had to go through a craniotomy, which means, basically, removing most of the right side of my skull and putting it in a Ziplock baggie and deep freeze at the hospital for a few months. That was to relieve pressure of swelling inside the brain. Most people who die from a stroke actually die because the brain swells and essentially crushes itself inside that small space in there.

Then, in the rehab hospital, after I’d been there a few weeks and the team was evaluating my progress and my potential, and everything I remember. One day the doctors and different trainers and professionals came in, and said to my wife…Which is interesting how they always do that. They talk to the spouse, the caretaker. They didn’t say it to me.

They looked at her and they said, “We don’t think Michael is going to be able to return to teaching.” My spunky wife said, “Well, no disrespect, but only God and Michael know what Michael’s going to do.”

With the help and support of the administration and my colleagues at Wheaton, I was able to go back to teaching half‑time for the first year, and then full‑time the second year and from then on.

Really, the reason was ‑‑ and this is really key for traumatic brain injuries ‑‑ for 20 years, I had taught exactly the same classes, exactly the same order and sequence the same time of year. Everything the same for 20 years, really unchanged other than minor improvements along the way. So, I was able to step back into a very much of a rut, something very familiar to me.

That, and the support of people around me for the areas of weakness I did have, I was able to really function well. That went well for seven years until there came a point in our graduate program where we had to make some changes to the program.

We thought we’d make minor changes to be able to make it more possible for our students to achieve licensure, but they were having a lot of trouble with that. We thought it’d just be some minor changes. It turned out, essentially, we had to scrap the program we had and start over. Create new classes, all‑new preparations, and everything.

I just found myself having more and more difficulty keeping up with the responsibilities ahead. My colleagues were having to do things for me and pick up the slack. It just became more and more difficult until I finally realized that wasn’t going well.

I had a professional evaluation of my work and competency. It was determined that it really was beyond my abilities to function in that way of a full‑time professor, creating new classes and creating a new program. Everyone agreed that I would step down because of disability.

But again, I’m thankful to the administration for this past year. My last year teaching, I was able to teach half‑time and that went very well. Then, for a variety of reasons, when I asked to not actually to leave entirely, but to be able to continue halftime, the administration wasn’t able to make that work.

What does God have in mind for this? 

I am on disability but functionally retired now after 27 years and still enjoying other ways to teach and to share the things that I’ve learned, like this and other kinds of opportunities that I look for.

God has brought a lot of growth and healing through the stroke. Right at about the time of the stroke, my first and, so far, only book came out, “Signature Sins ‑‑ Taming Our Wayward Hearts.”

In that book, I talked about how each person has a pattern of sin that’s unique to them from their own personality, upbringing, culture, biology, everything and how we can turn those areas of our life over to God, and allow God to take to change and transform us to remove those sins.

In the book, I openly talk about that I’ve always struggled, that my greatest area of struggle in terms of personal sin has been pride. The first and most obvious thing was that, after having been a professor for 27 years, now I was a stroke survivor and limited in some ways.

Some of my cognitive abilities are diminished, some of my physical abilities. It was very humbling to have so much taken away or, at least, diminished from what I used to. That was one of the first things God really did with my full desire ‑‑ bring a lot of humility through this whole process.