AND THE BEAT GOES ON!

4.10.24

Born in Paris, France, Nicolas De Gaulejac, just 18 years old and already an accomplished musician, embarked on European tours with his brother, also a musician. He earned his Master of Music degree from Agostini Private Drum School, France, and also studied at The Toulouse Conservatory in France. To further pursue his career, Nicolas moved to California and attended Musicians Institute Hollywood, where he was bestowed the Jazz Award.

While in Los Angeles, he met his bride-to-be, Naomi. The newlyweds lived in France for several years, then in 1995 moved back to Los Angeles, where Nicolas pursued his professional drummer career, both as a performer and an instructor.

IT BEGAN WITH A HEADACHE

One morning in October 2017, 60-year-old Nicolas experienced an unusually severe headache with nausea. Nonetheless, he drove from Long Beach to teach a drum lesson at the music school he worked at in Anaheim Hills. Since Nicolas had experienced a heart attack in 2010, he became gravely concerned when his headache worsened and asked his boss to call 911.

The paramedics found him on the restroom floor and took him to Placentia-Linda Hospital where an MRI revealed bleeding in the brain caused by a ruptured aneurysm. He was transferred to Providence St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton where his wife found the doctors drilling a hole in his skull to release the pressure on his brain. The next night Nicolas was stabilized sufficiently for surgical intervention.

There was difficulty in identifying the location of the rupture, but fortunately St. Jude physicians happened to be presenting at a medical specialists’ convention in Las Vegas. Pictures of Nicolas’ aneurysm were sent over, and the doctors there were able to pinpoint the exact location for the coil placement.  Dr. Farid inserted the coil on October 30. Then on November 5, a shunt was inserted by Dr. Noblett to evacuate excess cerebrospinal fluid.

Nicolas remained in hospital care for over a month. During his time there, he experienced “altered states” of consciousness, including a near-death experience that felt like “falling into darkness.”  Although much of that time is a fog in his mind, and he recalls only snapshots here and there, he does have a strong, distinctive “memory” of his room that his wife reports does not match reality. He was also found several times late at night, bag packed, waiting for his ride home. Other stroke survivors Nicolas has spoken to have not shared these types of experiences. He was diagnosed with PTSD.

FOREVER CHANGED PERCEPTIONS

On his first day back home, Nicolas began warming up on his drum set. Not only did he realize he had lost much of his muscle mass, but also that his perception of his playing was completely different than it was pre-stroke. In fact, everything around him seemed different. It was a very odd experience. He felt like he was living in a virtual world.

This has become a “new normal” for him.

Realizing that being out of the hospital didn’t mean he was healed, Nicolas began going to Transitional Rehabilitation Services (TRS) in Long Beach three times a week for several months. He needed help and TRS provided it, from physical balance exercises to working on memory to re-adapting to urban life.

Later Nicolas experienced the side effects of the stroke and PTSD, including mood swings, severe insomnia, and profound sadness. The feeling of acute sadness would last for a day or two and then suddenly disappear. Other times he would wake up in the middle of the night, gasping for air, his bones aching as if they were breaking. Sometimes he stared at familiar objects, working to come up with their names.  At one point, he was having suicidal thoughts. Fortunately, he contacted his neurologist, who prescribed an effective medication.  It took two years for Nicolas to feel better and no longer experience the side effects or mood swings. “The PTSD seems to be going away, little by little, like grains of sand from your hand in the wind at the beach.”

Nicolas also attended Stroke Support Association’s (SSA) weekly support group for stroke survivors for about six months. He found it helpful to be able to share his story and listen to others in a similar situation. “It helps to know you are not alone. It is motivating.”

Nicolas feels that being back on the drums played a large role in his recuperation. His mood swings dissipated when playing his drums.  And since playing drums require a lot of coordination, he believes practicing them helped in his recovery. “There are six different things you must focus on at the same time. I think this helped me to improve tremendously.”

Throughout the next several months, Nicolas regained his driver’s license and started playing gigs. He returned to teaching drums and percussion again with Music Maker in 2003.

“It’s been seven years since my stroke, and I am back to life. It will never be like before, but the “new” way I perceive the world is now “old.” I don’t think about my stroke every day anymore. Now, I do just here and there. And when I touch the back of my head and feel the shunt, I am reminded.”

NEW FRIENDS

We asked Nicolas if anything positive came from him experiencing a stroke. He made new friends during this recovery. Nicolas and his wife as a couple stay in touch with one of the St. Jude’s Hospital therapists and her husband. Nicolas also became friends with Gaby, a physical therapy assistant at TRS. Gaby came to hear him play drums at O’Malley‘s on Main in Seal Beach. She invited her friend Michelle Chung, an SSA Board member and physical therapist, to join her. Michelle so admired Nicolas’ motivation and determination to get his life back, that this is how this article came to be!

Video courtesy of Michelle Chung.

“I wish we could bottle up his grit and sprinkle it on some of my patients,” said Michelle. She asked Nicolas if we could share his story. Gladly he agreed.

Nicolas also made friends with other stroke survivors he met while attending the SSA meetings. “They are like a second family to me.” Now that he is back working, Nicolas no longer attends the meetings weekly but does stop by every few months and sometimes attends luncheons to catch up with his friends.

SHARING HIS THOUGHTS

To the family members of the stroke survivors, Nicolas asks that they always be good listeners. He feels very fortunate in this regard. “My wife was tremendous.”

To anyone who has recently suffered a stroke, Nicolas suggests that they find a path to recovery that works for them. “Find a way to heal and exist again. It will be a new life and may be difficult in the beginning to get used to.  Music helped me a lot. Find something you are interested in to create a new path for yourself. Think positively about how to heal; how you can make yourself better.”


Read Nicolas’ Music Maker profile here.

 

 

 

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