At Chapman's Stroke Boot Camp, small steps add up to richer lives

At Alison McKenzie's summer camp, her counselors organize all the usual activities: arts and crafts, dance lessons, Olympics-style competitions. Like at any summer camp, people blossom, lose their fears, find strength they didn't know they had and make new friends.

McKenzie's campers are stroke survivors. Some are in wheelchairs, some can move well but struggle to speak clearly, most are somewhere in between. The youngest is still in his 30s.

As rehab costs soar and outpatient services dwindle, the 10-day Stroke Boot Camp at Chapman University is McKenzie's solution on a shoestring.

Forget sailboats and tennis courts. There are horses — but they're made from swimming pool noodles and yarn, used for a walking exercise on Western Day. For Around the World Day, the Great Wall of China is a bunch of gym mats and hurdles about a foot off the floor. On Winter Wonderland Day, there's a pile of yarn "snowballs" ready for a fight.

Most of the supplies are cobbled together from found items and 99 Cent store bargains. Campers bring their lunches.

McKenzie and her colleagues think that the camp's intensive, interdisciplinary therapy, combined with camaraderie and plenty of silliness, will make a difference in the lives of people who often face lifelong disabilities, isolation and even a second stroke.

"There are a lot of people out there who are not engaged with the world," she says, "people who could benefit from intervention and are not getting it."

Mike Nojavan was 34 at the start of Memorial Day weekend in 2011. He had done smog checks on 20 cars when he noticed his speech was slurring.

It was a hemorrhagic stroke, which occurs when a blood vessel bursts in the brain. He spent six weeks in the hospital, and then moved back home with his parents.

To him it was no mystery; he worked way too hard, smoked way too much and weighed 40 pounds more than he does now.

"I never went through that pity party stuff," Nojavan says now. But who would blame him if he had? After his stroke he couldn't move his left side, couldn't even swallow.

His friend, business partner and chief cheerleader, Amy Sharif, says doctors held out little hope. "They told me take him home and read to him. That's it."

But Nojavan and Sharif had other plans.

"The life I had before my stroke? I knew I couldn't get that life back. So I decided to get a life I could have," he says.

He's had three brain surgeries since. And he feels like he got a second chance: "You can mess up your whole life, and as soon as you decide to change, you can," he says.

Nojavan walks with a slight limp now, but he works and works out several times a week. When he watches TV, he's also working his hand to get his fingers to move on command, or stretching his leg. He's seen every YouTube video he could find about stroke recovery. He's repurposed yard sticks and swimming paddles for rehab tools.

At camp, Nojavan works with a counselor, a physical therapy graduate student named Rick Yoshikane.

Yoshikane has Nojavan place his hands on the arms of a chair, bend slightly from the waist, shift his weight forward, and stretch one hand out as far as possible. It takes sweat, strength and balance.

"Five more of these, 1, 2, 3, 4 … one more," Yoshikane says. "Nice and strong, nice and controlled."

Nojavan purses his lips as he exhales, and his brows furrow with the effort.