“Stroking Across America:” One Survivor’s Journey

August 29, 2022
Michael Obel-Omia dips his bike tire into the Atlantic Ocean
Obel-Omia holds his bike during the celebratory "wheel dip" in Revere, Massachusetts, marking the completion of the cross-country bike journey.

IHP S-IHP’s CAP graduate Michael Obel-Omia celebrates the last leg of his cross-country bike ride after suffering an ischemic stroke in 2016.

By Kate Chaney
Office of Strategic Communications

Almost every day this summer, Michael Obel-Omia has gone for a bike ride. While it sounds leisurely on the surface, he’d describe it as challenging yet fulfilling. That’s because he didn’t just ride his bike, he rode roughly 4,000 miles from Montana to Massachusetts. 

Making the feat more impressive is the fact he completed the arduous journey just a few years after suffering an ischemic stroke. 

Excitement and a sense of amazement was in the air last Friday, as he and the other riders arrived to a welcome event at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital to mark the end of their ride. Not only was the ride an impressive physical feat for anyone - let alone stroke survivors – it marked yet another steppingstone in Obel-Omia’s physical, emotional, and personal recovery. 

“While the ride was a journey – literally and figuratively, it taught me what I was capable of,” he said. “I showed people that even if they’re down, they can get back up.” 

Obel-Omia rode with Whitney Hardy, a fellow stroke survivor who completed her rehabilitation at Spaulding. 

Both spoke at the event Friday, sharing their thanks, immense pride, and gratitude they feel towards the community there in the room: Stroke Onward’s founders and their co-riders, families, friends, and numerous members of the Mass General Brigham family. Even the team’s supportive mascot Rusti was there – the founders’ Goldendoodle puppy, a service animal in training who went on the road with the group all summer long.

Obel-Omia was able to get back up thanks to the therapy, support, and encouragement of the students, faculty, and professionals at the Spaulding-Institute of Health Profession’s Comprehensive Aphasia Program, affectionately known as S-IHP’s CAP.

Man speaks with doctors, wearing bike uniform

Obel-Omia speaks with members of his former care team at the celebration event,
including Dr. Marjorie Nicholas of the IHP.

Before his stroke, Obel-Omia had long been a lover of literature and the English language, both in his career as an educator and in his personal life. Following his stroke, he became one of the 5.3 million Americans living with a permanent brain injury related disability, like those resulting from a stroke. After a five-week rehabilitative stay at Spaulding, Obel-Omia came to the IHP because he was suffering from Aphasia, a disorder that makes communication and comprehension challenging.

The S-IHP’s CAP program helped him regain the speaking and comprehension skills and, in turn, reignited these passions that fed his purpose. The intensive five-week program integrates 1-on-1 therapy sessions, group therapy sessions, music therapy, swim group, wellness program, and adaptive sports programs into an individual’s Aphasia recovery. 

“At the program, they respected his areas of strength,” said Carolyn, Obel-Omia’s wife and primary caregiver. “They helped him become more like himself again, especially given that he couldn’t teach anymore, as he had most of his adult life. At S-IHP’s CAP, they laughed and joked, and by the end of the program he was able to give a lecture connecting his personal experience to Hamlet.”

But another key part of Obel-Omia’s life prior to his stroke was cycling – in fact, the trip he finished Friday wasn’t his first-time cross-country ride. But for a variety of reasons, this ride was different. Not only was it a defining moment in his stroke recovery, it was also representative of his personal drive to reach the goals he sets for himself.  

The ride was part of an awareness campaign with an organization known as Stroke Onward, who lovingly calls the ride “Stroke Across America.” While most days were spent riding long distances throughout the country, evenings and off-days were spent at community events in the cities they stopped in, where they shared their stories and inspired hope in others recovering from strokes. The goal was awareness.

Marjorie Nicholas, Interim Co-Dean, Chair, Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders, and founder of the IHP’s onsite Aphasia Center, shared her congratulations at the event Friday. 

“This journey required more physical, mental, and emotional grit and stamina than most of us ever have to muster in our entire lifetimes,” Nicholas said. “Congratulations on getting here and thank you for showing us over and over just how powerful teamwork, love, and dedication can be in making our dreams come true.”

As for Obel-Omia, he’ll take a break from the bike and if history is a guide, set his sight on another goal, another defining moment in his recovery. 

“This ‘stroke’ across America? I did this,” Obel-Omia mused. “The experience has been rewarding and challenging for me, but it is part of my motto - improving, always improving.”