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After a stroke, keep on strummin’

September 13, 2013 1:09 am

How playing your instrument – or keeping on with any of your favorite pre-stroke hobbies –  can help heal those hands


Size Queen Drew Podgorski guitar

Last night, Drew’s new band Size Queen made its debut at the Hamtramck Blowout. In his two decades of playing music and performing in punk bands, this was Drew’s first time playing guitar in his band, as usually he’s the front man.

He played on his black and gold hollow-body and he owned it. He played so fast, so hard and with the most confidence I’ve ever seen.

This is especially remarkable because after his stroke in December 2010, his right hand was greatly affected. It was weakened. It couldn’t open up. It would have spasms and lock up, fingers sharply pointing down toward the wrist. His ring finger and pinky finger burn constantly like he has frost bite and don’t join the others when they attempt to open up.

Drew continues to work on his hand with his occupational therapy exercises and by using it for daily activities. His hand his much stronger and more functional. But it’s going to take sweet time for his hand to heal and until then, several of these symptoms remain.

When the stroke first occurred, we wondered if he would ever be able to play guitar again. It didn’t take long to figure out the answer was YES. He just had to adapt the way he played. And going through the familiar, repetitive movements of playing the guitar would help his brain react, and therefore help him regain function through neuroplasticity.


Drew’s occupational therapist in the hospital suggested he play with a banjo pick on his thumb to strum, since his hand wasn’t yet strong enough to hold tight to the traditional guitar pick (Now it is!).

To keep his fingers together and controlled while strumming, Drew was given a sock-like bandage to wrap around his hand as it was closed. Think of a glove without fingers that’s made of a light, bandage-like material. You could even take a tube sock and cut off the top to have the same effect.

Dunlop plastic banjo thumb pics

Guitar Center had banjo pics, also called thumb pics. But they weren’t the right size. Drew’s thoughtful cousin Jerred wrote Dunlop, told them about the predicament, and days later, we had a slew of banjo pics of different sizes, all for free. Thank you Dunlop!

Tip: Try reaching out to companies if you need a product that can help with your recovery but cannot afford it. If it weren’t for Dunlop’s generosity, Drew would not have started playing the guitar so soon and his occupational therapy via guitar would have been postponed.

His playing was garbled and rocky at first. He felt a tremendous loss and said he missed palm muting like he did effortlessly pre-stroke. But he kept at it.

Now he plays better than he did before. The stroke didn’t stop him or take away his passion for music and guitar.

The stroke also inspired a lot of his new music.

Here’s his song “Roadblock” sounds like it’s about driving, but it’s all actually a metaphor for the roadblock that stroke damage leaves by killing brain and spinal cord cells, and how the body has to find a new route to keep on keepin’ on.

And I have to mention “Nattlesnakes.” This touching gift was for me.

Jason Crigler and Tony “Muggs” Denardo – two more stroke survivors who are still strumming

There’s a documentary about young stroke, family and guitar called Life. Support. Music. It’s the story of Jason Crigler, who was a successful New York guitarist with a wifey and a baby on the way, when he suffered a massive brain hemorrhage on stage. The documentary follows Jason’s tremendous recovery thanks to all of the constant family support. His parents, sister and wife made it their full time jobs to help him recover and give him the physical and occupational therapy that insurance denied him once his caps were reached.

Jason’s recovery and the devotion he received from his family really gives you something to believe in, and is truly humbling. And through all of his therapy, Jason was able to play guitar again. All of his music never left his brain. He just had to be re-trained and it all came flowing back.

Stroke survivor Tony Denardo on bass keyboard

Closer to home, our dear friend Tony Denardo, who is a bass player for world renowned The Muggs, had a hemorrhagic stroke and was actually “locked in.” His band, which was taking off big at the time, waited for Tony to heal. As his right hand was deeply affected, it was suggested to Tony that he learn how to play bass on the keyboard with his left hand. He did and now he plays all the time in Detroit, and tours around the world with The Muggs.

Not a musician?

Drew’s occupational therapists and physical therapists told us that keeping up your hobby post stroke is one of the best things a stroke survivor can do to regain dexterity and function.

So if you paint, pick up that paintbrush. If you can’t hold on tight to the brush like you used to, there are spongey-tubes you can get from your occupational therapist  called cylindrical foam padding. They wrap around things like forks, toothbrushes, makeup brushes, drumsticks and paint brushes.

Even when Drew had the tools he needed to start playing the guitar again, it took him a while to pick it up. It was beyond frustrating for him to know his music wasn’t going to sound like it did, and that he was starting over in a way. But he did it.

You can too. And you will be even stronger and better at your talent because of it.

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