Mindful change: One professor's vision to transform stroke recovery

Contact: Paul Morgan

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—The smile on Dr. Lori Gray’s face could light up the entire Western campus, but five years ago when she suffered a stroke, it impacted everything from her ability to smile to her ability to move one side of her body.

Gray is an associate professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Health Programs and director of the University’s Integrative Holistic Health and Wellness Program. She also is a mindfulness-based stress-reduction teacher, and she used her practice of mindfulness to help heal from a neurological assault that strikes someone in the United States every 40 seconds. Mindfulness is paying attention in a specific way to the present moment experience without judgment, anchoring it with breathing.

A portrait of Lori Gray. She is wearing a light pink blazer with a white shire underneath and has her arms crossed over her chest.

Dr. Lori Gray, MA '98

Along with physical therapy and other holistic approaches, mindfulness has been key to her emotional rehabilitation, Gray says. As a teacher and health professional, she didn’t want to keep the positive results of the practice to herself. And as a researcher, she wanted to formally study the efficacy of the practice for stroke recovery.

Thanks to a WMU Faculty Research and Creative Activities Award (FRACAA), Gray has turned her own stroke recovery into the nation’s first-of-its-kind mindfulness-based training for survivors.

Her first group of four stroke survivors, in a partnership with a neurological institute in Kansas City, Missouri, has completed an eight-week training program—and that elicited the huge grin on her face.

“When I’m talking to these folks, it’s very surreal in the most powerful way as I witness what has happened,” she says. “The emotional recovery helps us engage in the physical recovery ... years and years down the road. I’m five years post-stroke, and every day I can do something I couldn’t do the day before.

“My vision is to transform stroke recovery care and offer this program to patients who are drawn to it as an adjunct to their care. When I had my stroke, I never thought it would come to this. I feel very fortunate to do this work.”

After Gray had her stroke in 2017, she spent several weeks doing a variety of intense therapies at Mary Free Bed, a rehabilitation hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She also started using her training in mindfulness knowledge, “because I had the background and knew that there would be very little offered that addressed emotional recovery.”

The mindfulness not only helped Gray but also the nurses who were caring for her.

“By the time I had finished at Mary Free Bed, I had nurses that came in and would do little mindfulness stress breaks with me,” Gray says. “I was able to hold a pen and start writing; I was still experiencing dyslexia, but still, I was trying to create mindfulness guides so I could give them to the nurses.

“Since receiving the FRACAA, it’s led to amazing partnerships and the capacity to give some meaning to my experience as a stroke survivor. I hope this work will also propel Western Michigan University in a very positive way.”

After the end of the first eight-week cycle of mindfulness training, Gray couldn’t be more pleased with the focus-group responses from the four people in her pilot study.

“All four say they would highly recommend it for anyone who had a stroke,” she says. “They were glad to have stayed engaged, with the first benefits being increased sleep, reduced stress levels, feeling calm, having less fear—whether it is about having another stroke or health issues—and feeling a sense of community with others who were stroke survivors.”

Gray draws a quote from her mindfulness teacher, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction.

“According to him, ‘As long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than wrong with you, no matter what is wrong,’” she says.

Gray is already looking for another grant to keep the program moving along after the FRACAA expires this year. Her published findings have drawn interest globally.

“I have received many emails from medical facilities and researchers who want to learn more. Just last week, I received an email from someone in Nova Scotia who wants to bring it to a local clinic,” Gray says. “I’m hoping this will take off and move forward because I can’t do it by myself.”

She has done quite a bit already ... and is smiling while she is doing it. ■