Pat Bell proudly stands next to the 1983 Malibu Wagon he rebuilt from the ground up while recovering from a stroke. (Sarah Gawdin/The Progress)

Chilliwack man refuses to let aphasia define him

Pat Bell’s message is simple: love what you do, don’t give it up. Cars to flowers, you can do it!

Aphasia: it rhymes with fantasia, and for those living with the condition, the definitions of the two words aren’t all that different. Living with aphasia can be a truly unreal, weird, or grotesque experience.

Often the result of a stroke, aphasia is a language problem at its core, yet it’s so much more than that for those dealing with the condition. While the word itself doesn’t sound too terrible, aphasia is a sneaky thief that essentially robs its victims of the ability to fully enjoy the human experience.

However, one man from Chilliwack is refusing to let aphasia define him.

With his solid-looking frame, curly silver hair, and a moustache that would make Sam Elliot look twice, Pat Bell boasts that he’s nearly the picture of health—minus a few lingering drawbacks resulting from the two strokes he’s experienced in the past two decades.

Bell was still in his 30s when he suffered his first stroke. But having always been a determined do-it-yourself type of person, Bell worked tirelessly on his recovery, and was back on the job as a boiler maker in less than two years.

Then in 2011, for reasons unknown to today, Bell slipped into an 11-day coma. “When I woke up, I’d lost 50 pounds and my voice was nearly gone,” he explained with some difficulty.

Shortly after waking up, Bell was discharged from the hospital, but within 24-hours he fell into another coma and suffered his second stroke.

Unconscious for four days, when Bell woke up from his second coma he discovered his right side was completely paralyzed and he’d developed aphasia, which had stolen his his ability to speak.

“It’s very good inside,” said the 59-year-old, tapping the top of his head. “And then something comes out (of your mouth) and it’s (wrong). You know what you want to say … but you lose words and you substitute words.”

And it’s not just the words you’re trying to get out that can be troublesome, says Bell. Aphasia can also affect reading and writing, as well as the brain’s ability to process sounds.

“Like when (my wife) is watching a show on TV … most of the stuff they say on the TV is all just a jumble except for (a few) words. It becomes all mumbled and just a bunch of noise.”

But none of that was going to stop Bell from climbing back up on the proverbial horse. “Some days are better than others … but I’ll never give up,” he said while sitting at his dining table in front of the kitchen he completely renovated while recovering from his second stroke.

It’s about learning how to do things within your new scope of capabilities, explained Bell. “I knew I knew it, but everything was about figuring it out again.”

For most stroke patients, the first two years is often considered the honeymoon phase: at the end of that period, patients are less likely to be able continue to improve their skills and lost abilities.

But being the tenacious individual that he is, Bell says the two-year rule didn’t apply because he never gave up on his rehabilitation.

“Every day (for the first year after my stroke), I had one hour of physio, one hour of speech therapy, and an hour of (occupational therapy),” recalled Bell. “But that wasn’t enough for me.

“From the moment I wake up, I start rehab, and I don’t quit rehab until I go to sleep,” continued Bell. And since practice makes perfect, Bell continues until he’s finished what he’s set out to do. Even tasks as simple as washing the dishes took some time and effort to re-master, but he eventually got it, and it helped him regain control over his right arm.

And he didn’t stop at household chores.

Pat Bell’s original 1983 Malibu Wagon. (Submitted)

A self-described “car guy since childhood,” working on vehicles is something Bell says he’s always done and enjoyed. So when his 1983 Malibu Wagon had reached the end of its years due to a rusted out chassis, instead of retiring the automobile, Bell bartered some yard work in exchange for another fairly decrepit-looking ‘83 Malibu that had the parts he needed.

Setting up a make-shift garage in his driveway, Bell undertook the incredible year-long challenge of taking apart the two cars and converging them into a single masterpiece.

It didn’t matter the date, the time, or the weather: be it rain or shine, or snow or sleet, Bell could be found in front of his house every day rebuilding his car from the ground up.

And often, when feeling at the end of his rope, a neighbour would casually walk by and congratulate him on his progress, delivering just enough encouragement to help him lift himself up and carry on.

From top to bottom, the floor rug, headliner, seats, and more, Bell completely remade the second car into the first piece by piece. And not just the nuts and bolts of the car were changed out, Bell even sanded it down and spent nine hours helping tape and paint it.

But it wasn’t finished until Kelly applied the flaming eight ball decals in the wagon’s back windows. A gift from his brother to personalize his cane in the earlier days of his recovery, Bell says he decided to save them for something more fitting.

Bell’s solo restoration of his ‘83 Malibu hasn’t gone unnoticed, or unappreciated. Now travelling the car show circuit through the Lower Mainland, Bell proudly shows off the culmination of his efforts, but not without recognizing how far he’s come with a hand written sign he displays during each show.

The sign Pat Bell displays in his windshield at every car show. (Submitted)

While he’s immensely proud of his recovery efforts, and his accomplishments since suffering his second stroke, one of the most important aspects of sharing his story is showing other stroke survivors they don’t have to give up.

“Love what you do, don’t give it up,” wrote Bell on his sign in big black block letters. “Cars to flowers, you can do it!”

“I’m way above where they thought I’d ever be. All the things I’m not supposed to be doing, I’m doing,” Bell said with pride.

“There’s nothing they can say that I can’t do,” continued the now-retired tradesman, who also added that he has no intention on slowing down anytime soon.

However, now that his car is completed, Bell’s eyes twinkle as he explains he might have another project up his sleeve, but he’s not ready to reveal anything yet. However, he did admit to recently finishing writing a book about his experience that he’s attempting to have published.

“There’s no title yet,” said Bell. “But (a working title could be) Two strokes, the car, and boiler makers, which would cover the majority of his life to this point.

It’s important for people to see the successes of others, points out Bell; and as such, one of his personal goals is to help people like him escape their ‘this is all I can do’ mentality.

Following this, Bell’s Malibu—and the work that it took him to revive it—will be showcased in the upcoming 3rd annual Art After Stroke in the Vancouver Roundhouse Community Centre, on Oct. 25, 2018.

For more information on aphasia and stroke recovery, please visit Aphasia.ca, or StrokeRecoveryBC.ca.


@SarahGawdin
Sarah.Gawdin@theprogress.com

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