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A WGVU initiative in partnership with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation using on-air programs and community events to explore issues of inclusion and equity.

Two West Michigan cousins lean on each other, after suffering strokes one week apart

Stroke victims holding hands in their wheelchairs with support staff behind them
Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital
Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital

Two West Michigan cousins say support from their family and each other are helping them in recovery, after each suffered a stroke last April.

Ruben and Heriberto (Joe) Sauceda are two Hispanic men in their 60's. They were born within six months of one another and according to Ruben have been by each other's sides every since.

"Joe and I grew up together. We went to school together. We did a lot of things together, and we had strokes together," he said.

Ruben suffered a stroke while he was at work driving a fork-lift at work.  He started to lose control and his legs went numb.

"My blood pressure was up, and I couldn’t walk," Ruben recalled, "I didn't know what was going on."

Heriberto, who goes by Joe, was with his family when they noticed Joe start to slur his speech before collapsing.

While both men are similar ages and their strokes occurred at similar times, the effects were vastly different. Ruben had a non-hemorrhagic stroke, where there was a blockage in a blood vessel of the brain. Joe had a hemorrhagic stroke, where there was a bleed that occurred in the brain. While Ruben's stroke impacted the left side of his body, Joe's stroke affected his right side.

Joe's stroke caused more damage, leaving him unable to speak clearly and formulate sentences. It's left his wife, Viola, to be a voice for them both.

"We do everything together so when he’s in pain I know something’s wrong," Viola said, adding that their 43- year marriage has helped her communicate with Joe beyond words.

Ruben and Joe were both undergoing recovery therapy at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, just down the hall from one another.

"Having two people that are of the same family, I felt very privileged to be able to have the opportunity to work with both of them and see their progress and see them motivating each other and work with their family," Marjeanne Bothma, Mary Free Bed physical therapist for the Inpatient Stroke Team said, "There was definitely a sense of appreciation too on my end, being able to be apart of their recovery. It was something special for me too."

While they did individual therapy sessions apart, they came together for recreational group therapy, where they were able to play games like pool and bean bag toss, pushing each other on.

"We've always been competitive," Ruben joked.

Viola and Ruben's wife, Tammy, said it was reassuring to know that their husbands had support from each other when they couldn't always be present.

"The nurses would go look for Ruben, and they'd find him in Joe's room. It felt good that Ruben was there to share those moments with him and let Joe know that you're not in here alone," Viola said.

While the two are now home with their families, they each have long roads ahead. Ruben is getting used to maneuvering a wheelchair, and Joe is re-learning how to feed himself and speak, among other feats.

Their loved ones say Hispanic culture often centers around big families and being there for one another. As both continue on their paths to recovery, they say it's a journey they'll take together.

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