“Breathe in. Notice how your breath fills your lungs, expanding your abdomen, and follow your breath as it leaves the body. Let your breath be your anchor, noticing any wandering thoughts and gently bringing your awareness back to the breath.”
I look around the room as I begin to lead the meditation session – we’re a group of some 25 individuals, a mix of stroke survivors and caregivers. We’re at the monthly meeting of the MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital Stroke Support Group, and Monika Gregory – a cheerful force whose energy and enthusiasm are contagious – has invited me and Stephanie to facilitate a meditation session for the group.
The African American community has a strong presence here – seeking and providing support for one another. The tone for tonight’s meeting is set by an elderly woman in a beautiful hat who says a prayer with the group before we begin.
Before Monika took over the monthly support group meetings, only a handful of individuals would attend. Since she has taken on this organizational role for MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital, the group has blossomed, and tonight our room is full. When Mike and I shadowed with the Southern Maryland’s stoke team the day before, we heard her calling stroke survivors to remind them of tomorrow’s support group. “I love you too,” she said hanging up the phone; turning to us, she laughed, saying that many really view her as a pillar of support. Watching how warmly the group embraces her, I can’t help but feel the palpable sense of appreciation for Monika.
My intention in guiding the meditation session is to share a technique people can use to relax, bring down their stress levels, be mindfully present, and practice acceptance. Many stroke survivors are incredibly resilient, and I want to add to their toolkit. A few group members express some interest both in the aromatherapy technique I introduce (lavender essential oil diffusion to promote relaxation) and the brief overview of studies showing how meditation can help manage hypertension (together with any prescribed medications, of course). One stroke survivor approaches us at the end to share how he used meditation practice after his stroke as part of the recovery process.
Our overall impression from the support group is that it’s the sense of community, rather than any specific activity, which brings people together. In the beginning, participants shared very heartfelt and open introductions. This sense of shared purpose and experience serves as the most powerful unifying force for stroke survivor support groups.
I feel very fortunate to have had an opportunity to interact with this close-knit community and hear about their experiences with stroke. We’re now in the midst of ideation – generating dozens of ideas and ultimately narrowing to 3-5 promising leads that we will explore throughout the latter phases of our ideation time. Spaces such as this stroke support group meeting are invaluable, as they form the perfect platform for us to embrace a crucial component of human-centered design – connecting with users and hearing feedback on the design and thinking behind our rough prototypes and sketches of ideas. It is this feedback that will allow us to shape and modify our ideas to address real needs and solve the most relevant problems in stroke care.