To his kids, Josh Crandall-Morgan is a living jungle gym—a fun-loving dad who loves to get on the ground and play.

A stroke changed that in an instant.

Suddenly, Josh lay in a hospital bed, separated from his wife, Caitlyn, and their four children.

With his left side paralyzed, he began the tough task of regaining strength and control of his leg and arm.

Making his recovery especially challenging: Visitor restrictions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. His family couldn’t be by his side during much of his stay at the Inpatient Acute Rehabilitation Center at Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital.

Along the long road back, he clung to his goal—to return to his family—for the strength to keep going.

“They are everything to me,” said Josh, a 30-year-old from Grand Rapids, Michigan. “That is the whole reason I wanted to get out of the hospital—to see my kids.”

High blood pressure and headaches

Josh never expected to suffer a stroke at age 30.

He has always been active. He grew up playing baseball in the Kentwood Baseball League, and still likes to play ball. He works for his dad, Jim Morgan, in his heating and cooling business.

He also has dealt with high blood pressure for most of his life.

In early February, about a week after his daughter Neveah Rae was born, his headaches became severe.

“He said he felt it was about to explode,” his dad, Jim, said. “We sent him to the hospital and they said his blood pressure was way too high.”

While in Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, Josh suffered a stroke on the right side of his brain, in the middle cerebral artery, which affected his ability to move the left side of his body, said Shastin Shull, MD, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist.

“He was extremely, profoundly affected,” she said.

His dad recalls looking at an MRI scan of his son’s brain.

“Almost the whole right side of his brain was shaded in white,” indicating damage, he said.

When Josh arrived at the Inpatient Rehabilitation Center, he couldn’t sit up without help. With a tracheostomy keeping his airway open, he couldn’t speak.

His family members remained by his side at the hospital every day until March 9. That’s when the state enacted visitor restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Josh had a hard time comprehending why he was in the hospital—and why he couldn’t see his family.

“At first, I was a little delusional,” he said.

He used a whiteboard to write his thoughts. He scrawled the words: “I need help.”

Sometimes, his messages proved hard to read, but his care team understood his struggles and did all they could to reassure him, said physical therapist Linda Rusiecki.

As the swelling in his throat subsided, Josh received a speaking valve. The one-way valve allowed him to breathe air in through the tracheostomy and exhale through his nose and mouth—which made it possible for him to speak.

“That made a huge difference because he was able to communicate and make his needs known,” Rusiecki said. “He also could better comprehend what was going on.”

He also could talk to his family—and kept in constant contact with phone calls and video chats.

“I got to see my wife and kids—that was amazing,” he said. “I knew if I could talk to them and see them, I was going to be all right.”

The family watched through the video screen as he went through therapy sessions.

“That was a blessing,” Jim said. “We wish we could have been there, but that was the next best thing—to see his progress.”

Working toward independence

Rusiecki described Josh’s steady progress toward mobility.

At first, he worked on keeping his balance while sitting on the edge of a mat table.

He also used a tilt table, which gradually raised him from a lying to a standing position. This helped his body—and blood pressure—adjust to being upright after so many days of lying in a bed.

Once he had the tracheostomy capped, and later removed, Josh developed enough trunk control to stand.

He began to use a Rifton E-Pacer support device as he took his first steps. Josh also received electrical stimulation to his leg muscles from a device called a Bioness L300 Go.

Speech therapy helped him relearn to eat food, after having a tracheostomy and a feeding tube. He started with thickened liquids and progressed in stages, until he was able to eat enough solid foods to have the feeding tube removed.

And occupational therapists helped him work on using his left arm. Although he will need to continue therapy, “he does have motor function in his arm,” Dr. Shull said.

Josh especially liked working on his ability to walk. He drew on the persistence he learned as a pitcher, pushing himself to go farther each day.

“He has a very colorful personality,” Rusiecki said. “He was always joking, always very determined. And he always said thank you.”

By the time he left the hospital in early May—three months after his stroke—he could walk using a four-pronged cane. Returning home, his spirit soared at a welcome sight.

“My kids ran up to me and gave me a hug. They were hugging my legs and stuff,” he said. “It felt amazing.”

“That’s his life right there,” said his wife, Caitlyn. “He is a wonderful dad.

“I am very proud of him. He has been through a lot. But he is strong, very strong. I love that about him.”

Dr. Shull praised Josh for his willingness to work hard and persevere, day after day.

“It’s really phenomenal determination on his part,” she said. “That’s part of what got him through this. Given where he came from and the severity of his stroke, it’s amazing he is able to be out in the community and home with his family right now.”

Forging ahead

Josh hopes to share his experience with others who have high blood pressure, to encourage them to treat the condition seriously.

“I want people to know it’s not a joke. Take your pills and get checkups,” he said. “I didn’t do that at all. But I’m making better choices now.”

With help from his parents and wife, Josh plans to continue rehab at home, improving his ability to walk and regaining the use of the left arm and hand.

“I am determined,” he said. “I will push myself to the limit.”

And he looks forward to playing with his children, Aiden, 10, Joshua, 4, Mikayla, 2, and his newborn baby, Neveah.

“I’m so glad to be alive for my kids,” he said.