By Jade Waddy
Gregg Plunkett grew up with a love of sailing. From the young age of 10, he participated in sailing activities with the Houston Yacht Club. “I’ve always felt a sense of freedom on the water,” Plunkett said. His hobbies included, but were not limited to kitesurfing, freshwater and saltwater fishing, sailing, surfing and boating with his family.
In the fall of 2017, Plunkett’s freedom and passion were nearly taken from him when he suffered a stroke. Plunkett was working on his 26-foot WorldCat boat in the backyard of his Kemah home. Neighbors found him and were able to call emergency medical services who took him to a hospital in the area. The following day his family transferred him to a Houston hospital where doctors performed an emergency hemicraniectomy to relieve brain swelling.
Setting a Course for Recovery
Plunkett spent two months in the hospital before being admitted to TIRR Memorial Hermann . Upon being admitted, he was unable to move much on his own and required assistance.
“It was a challenging time. He was diagnosed with right side paralysis, as well as severe aphasia and apraxia,” said Dawn Plunkett, Gregg’s wife of 18 years. “We knew we would have some hurdles to overcome, but as a family we were prepared to face them.”
Plunkett was under the care of Dr. Christopher Falco, an affiliated physician in the brain injury rehabilitation program at TIRR Memorial Hermann. “When Greg first arrived at TIRR Memorial Hermann, his neurologic deficits were pretty severe, and it was obvious that his road to recovery would be a challenge. But it was clear that both Greg and Dawn were determined to overcome any adversity that came their way,” said Dr. Falco. “They gave off this positive energy that I think the whole therapy team could feel, and it definitely carried over into his therapies. It was really cool to see.”
While at TIRR Memorial Hermann, Plunkett’s therapy team worked diligently to improve movement and regain strength in his hip flexors. “His physical therapist, Libby, never gave up on him and really pushed Gregg during this time,” Dawn said. “His entire therapy team was outstanding and amazingly supportive of our family.”
In addition, Plunkett’s daily care consisted of occupational and speech therapy and his personal favorite, music therapy.
“Music therapy was when Gregg was able to sing one of his favorite songs by the band Sublime,” said Dawn. “However, it didn’t feel like hard work because based on his reaction to the song and music therapy, I just knew he enjoyed it.”
During his stay at TIRR Memorial Hermann, Plunkett met Peggy Turner, Coordinator of the TIRR Memorial Hermann Adaptive Sports Program. Turner learned of Plunkett’s passion and background in sailing and let the Plunkett family know about a local adaptive sailing program in Galveston, Sea Star Base, to consider. The following spring, one of Gregg’s friends gave him a membership to the program.
After eight weeks at TIRR, Plunkett was beginning to walk with assistance, transfer to his wheelchair on his own, use more words and had significant overall improvements. He was discharged from TIRR and continued additional rehabilitation at a facility near his home.
Back on the Water
Less than nine months after his stroke, Plunkett set sail for the first time. “Gregg refused to use the handicap lift once on the boat he sailed as if he’d never had a stroke,” said Dawn. “He docked it under wind, inches from the dock. I was jumping out of my skin from excitement because he was back on the water.”
Plunkett quickly became reacquainted with the sailboats and gear.
“Everyone was so excited and I remember Greg looking at everyone smiling like, ‘Yeah, I still have it,’” Dawn added.
Plunkett was back at home on the water. He quickly excelled and in the summer of 2018 competed in the Judd Goldman Independence Cup in Chicago and placed first. He was walking more on his own but not out of his wheelchair yet. Leaving the wheelchair at the dock and competing on the water gave him a sense of normalcy.
“Gregg is really proud of his accomplishment of becoming a nationally ranked sailor and he is always ready to be on the water,” said Dawn. “To Gregg it is just another race won and to say he is competitive is an understatement.”
Dawn’s advice for any family who is in a similar situation is to keep pushing forward. “This has been a hard journey, there is no way around that. Acceptance and adaption is always at the front of our lives. What we have learned and would stand by is that neuro recovery does not plateau, the patient does. Neuro recovery continues and it is up to the advocates, survivors, therapists and everyone involved to find new ways to move forward.”
Learn more about stroke rehabilitation programs at TIRR Memorial Hermann here.