“You had a stroke,” said the ER doctor last Tuesday, as she looked straight into my eyes with an expression mixed with surprise and concern.
At that moment, everything around me seemed to disappear — the doctor, the nurse by her side, the hospital room I was in, even the sounds in the distant background. I felt as if I was alone and very small in an empty, dark, and quiet space. The moments after I heard my diagnosis were strange and uncomfortable. I hope to never experience that feeling again.
Six days later, I am feeling well and immensely grateful for recovering virtually unscathed. I’m not one who believes my life is guided by a predetermined plan, but I do believe life is the greatest teacher there is. So, as I transition back into my daily activities, I am reflecting deeply on what I can learn from this experience and use it to impact my life in positive ways.
Past Experiences Shape Our Behaviors
When I was released from the hospital, my husband and I sat down to talk about what had happened. He asked me, “How did you know? I probably would have ignored the symptoms you had.” This question has sat with me now for several days. The answer to that question is quite simple and it makes me think differently about my students and the faculty I work with. Each human filters external stimuli through her or his past experiences. These experiences deeply shape our behaviors.
Six hours before the doctor informed me that I had a stroke, I was running on my treadmill. About ten minutes to my activity, my left arm and hand went numb and heavy. While most 43 year-olds may not take this incident seriously right away, I immediately reacted with concern. It was a holiday, my husband was out of town for the day and I was home alone with my two boys, ages 12 and 14. I knew if these symptoms were stroke-related, they may progress and I instantly began to prepare for this scenario.
Being the tech geek I am, my first reaction was to document the event on video with my smartphone — thinking if something more happened to me, the video would be important data for the doctors. Then I went downstairs and informed my boys of what was happening, trying to stress (without scaring them) that it was only my hand and arm so they would be clear how things started if I lost more motor function. I called the advice nurse who connected me with an ER doctor. The ER doctor felt quite certain I had a pinched nerve, but encouraged me to come in for testing just in case.
My Past Experiences
Nine years ago, I had a large aneurysm in my aorta that prompted a 5-hour open heart surgery to replace the root of my aorta and my aortic valve. The valve that I received is a mechanical St. Jude valve. I take warfarin every day to protect myself from blood clots — the body’s natural defense to a foreign object.
Since my surgery nine years ago, I have lived in a continuous state of heightened awareness about my body. I react to each twitch, each pain, each irregular heart beat wondering if it is something to be concerned about. I often report symptoms that turn out to be nothing. So, when my arm went numb and heavy, it was natural for me to jump into gear, but I also expected the tests I would have that day would turn up negative. I was wrong.
Why This Matters
As a teacher and an instructional technologist, I create experiences for my students and colleagues. These experiences are intended to challenge, provoke, and initiate the process of learning. I frequently think about how the learning preferences and differences of my students and the faculty whom I work with are impacted by the design of the online experiences I create. I am also aware of the tremendous value the diverse experiences of learners bring to an online class and strive to create an environment that depends on the sharing of these experiences to cultivate meaningful connections between individuals, as well as make learning relevant. Yet, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how a person’s past experiences inform how she or he reacts to particular external stimuli.
When I was a child, for example, I was introduced to computers and networking at a very early age. My father was a research scientist at IBM and he was the first person in our neighborhood to have a computer at home in the early 80s that was connected to a mainframe. My earliest memory of my dad’s computer was anchored in relationships, not high technology. I have a memory of my dad calling me into his home office and saying, “Look at the screen. What do you see?” I peered at the large black display screen and read emerald green courier font that said, “Hi, Jake. This is ____.” I can’t remember the person’s name right now but it was one of my dad’s colleagues writing to him from his own home office. I can remember feeling dazzled, amazed, and totally overwhelmed by the thought of another human communicating with my dad in real-time — from a completely different physical location.
Positive experiences like this one, which anchor technology in human connectivity have shaped my attitudes about technology. Not everyone brings these types of positive experiences to the table in an online classroom or in an online teaching preparation program. This lesson is important, as it highlights one thread in the complex web of human behavior. Understanding how and why people respond to situations as they do is a skill that is very necessary today in education, as technology continues to play a bigger role and hold new possibilities each year.
How Smartphones Can Help Humanize an Experience
Last Tuesday, I had very little control of my left hand. My pinky and ring finger were virtually useless. I already shared how I used my smartphone to document the event on video. As the day continued, I found myself unwilling to put my phone down, even though it was tricky to use it with a single hand.
I used my phone to take photographs of my various environments — the CAT scan machine, the cardiac bubble test, my breakfast tray, my view from the ER bed. Those photographs grew more important to me as I returned home. I can’t put my finger on why exactly, but they are precious reminders of the day that I frequently look back on. I know some of you may find that odd, but I find the images to be important reminders for me as I move back into my routine. I want to remember this event. I want it to stay vivid in my mind, so I continue to live each day with gratitude. I do not want to forget it — and that is what happens over time without photographic documentation.
I used my phone to stay in continuous contact with my husband during the day and my sisters. I sent a text message after each test result was shared. I asked my sister to contact my other sister and my parents after I learned I had a stroke. At one point in the day, a nurse was taking my blood pressure and said, “Put your phone away and just relax.” I turned my phone off and felt more anxious than ever. That phone allowed me to have my family with me. But the nurse clearly did not see it the same way as I.
Finally, I used the voice-to-text feature built into my smartphone to enable me to communicate without the need to type. This was tremendously valuable to me while my left hand was not functioning well.
Why This Matters
I imagine many educators may find it difficult to value a smartphone as a vehicle for enabling human relations, documenting personal experiences, and supporting the diverse needs of users. But that’s precisely how I view them and this experience has reinforced that value for me. Being sensitive to your environment and placing a priority on interactions with humans around you is an essential characteristic for living in a mobile, digital society. But there were plenty of medical professionals who poke me, prodded me, even placed me inside of machines in the hospital without interacting with me at all.
As I watch my two boys grow into teenagers with smartphones in tow, I can understand that their phones mean something very important to them. Their phones are very much a life line. They have friendships with individuals via text, Instagram, Snapchat, Kik, and Vine do not have the same depth in-person. They communicate with people from away — past friends that have moved, friends that are not local, and, yes, and superstar soccer players and golfers. They document everything meaningful to them in photographs and share them with their network of friends. The role a smartphone plays in the development of relationships and human memory takes me back to my childhood memory of my dad’s computer. Yet, today, we hold this potential to connect and share in the palm of our hands. As educators, how can we not embrace smartphones as powerful communication and learning tools?
Finally, as an educator who designs online learning environments, I have a refreshed perspective about the value of voice technologies. I am a long-time user and advocate of VoiceThread, as I’ve discovered many powerful findings about how it impacts learning, the development of online community, and empowers students to become more proficient verbal communicators. And now I see the value of voice-to-text communications, as well. I think about dyslexic students and how this emerging technology opens new opportunities for demonstrating their knowledge and participating with peers in text-discussion — with the challenges of writing greatly diminished.
I do not ever wish to have another stroke. But I’m grateful for what I’ve learned from this experience.