Babs McDonald, 69, has always had boundless energy and a can-do attitude, qualities she has desperately needed since a stroke in 2017 left her totally paralyzed on her left side, her dominant side. Employed 33 years with the U.S. Forest Service in research and development, McDonald had spent much of her leisure time in long distance swimming and marathoning.
So, when her first doctor told her “You’ll never run again,” she didn’t believe him. When another doctor told her she wouldn’t improve after three months, she didn’t believe him either, or the one who told her she wouldn’t improve after 18 months. Finally, she found an Emory physician who agreed to take on her care and her attitude.
“He said my experience has completely changed how he looks at stroke recovery,” says McDonald.
Stroke recovery, not stroke survivor
McDonald says she has done extensive reading and tried many different therapies over the past six years, 35 in all, including meditation, music therapy despite having no musical talent, lasers, a mind-body therapist, Rolfing, sauna, walking backwards, box jumps, chiropractic, as well as the more typical physical and occupational therapies.
She has also volunteered for various clinical trials, none of which have worked for her but from which she says she’s always learned something valuable.
What has worked is not thinking of herself as a stroke survivor but as being in stroke recovery. With that attitude, she has pursued every opportunity to increase muscular strength and to promote neural plasticity, which is the capacity of the nervous system to modify itself, functionally and structurally. She’s tried everything from a tuning fork to promote that plasticity to buying a recorder with the goal of getting her fingers to move.
“I can put a finger on a hole and make one strong note,” she says, adding that hands and fingers are the last to come back. After six years, her little finger and ring finger still don’t move.
It would turn out to be painting that caused the greatest improvement in her left hand. She had enjoyed drawing as a child and wanted something to do when she was sitting around. Her doctor suggested she use her affected hand since it hadn’t moved in the year after the stroke, and it would help her fine motor movement.
Art as a way to push limits
In a publication for Emory University, McDonald shows her various artistic efforts and explains her evolution over two years through various techniques, using brushes, pencils, and chalks. She says she used art to explore her brain’s neuroplasticity, to develop fine motor control in her affected hand and wrist and to create art, no matter the result.
She started off painting a boat from a photograph using brush strokes but decided to do the next one by dabbing paint, which was easier as her wrist wouldn’t bend, and it allowed her to rest between “dabs.” The first paintings were 9” x 12” and, as now, painted on a table.
Next, she tried charcoal on large paper on an easel to give her entire arm an opportunity to practice control but all she could do was “scratch and scribble; drawing small shapes was out of the question.” Then she tried colored pencils, but she couldn’t press hard on the paper or extend her wrist to complete the lines. Despite finding the effort exhausting, she says it was much more rewarding to her than handling jar lids or folding clothes, typical recommended exercises for stroke patients.
After painting her own brain from an MRI and feeling what she describes as “an almost imperceptible improvement in my overall condition,” she decided to try drawing the brain-muscle connection.
Her first drawing was an attempt to show her brain that she wanted to be able to lift her arm more than 10 degrees. The physician who had tested her deltoid using electromyography told her she would never have use of her deltoid again. Within a few days of completing the drawing, she was able to lift her arm about 45 degrees.
McDonald named her technique autophysioartistry or APA and has used it to create a variety of drawings of what she wants her brain to help her body do, whether swimming or walking or smiling.
McDonald says that while she has found many examples of the emotional, spiritual, and social benefits of art therapy, she has not found anything using drawing and painting to facilitate neuroplastic changes with a direct motor benefit. She hopes that APA will get the attention of physical and occupational therapists and researchers. Along with writing about her journey, she’s also donating her paintings to the neurology floor at Emory Hospital.
“I have learned so much about the brain, about myself,” she says. “I feel strongly that the stroke rehab process needs an overhaul –
therapy needs to be ongoing, life-long, not just in the first few months. I had no idea it would take me six years to recover to where I am today but If I live long enough, I’ll come back 100 percent!”
McDonald and Murphy team up for art exhibit
Babs McDonald and Chuck Murphy have known each other for years and both live in rural Jackson County where they enjoy the surrounding countryside.
Murphy is a renowned nature photographer and photography instructor, with over four decades of experience. His photos have graced the pages of local newspapers, several national photography and wildlife magazines, and have been showcased in many galleries around Athens and Atlanta, including the Georgia Museum of Art. He’s well known for his photographs of birds.
After her stroke, “I asked Chuck if I could paint his photographs,” McDonald recalls. That’s how the collaboration began that has become the exhibit “Camera and Canvas,” which opens July 9 at the State Botanical Garden.
In the exhibit, each pair of images consists of either a photograph by Chuck, inspiring Babs’ corresponding painting or one of Babs’ paintings, which inspired Chuck’s subsequent photograph. The first two paintings that she did of Chuck’s work will be in the show as well as her latest effort – a swan, which she painted with her fingers to improve finger dexterity.
“Camera and Canvas” will run from July 9 – Aug.12. You can meet the artists at the opening reception at the Garden’s Visitors Center on July 9, from 2 to 4 p.m.