MEET SSA MEMBER JOEL BLOCK

6.8.24

Life Before His Stroke

Joel Block was born in 1948 in Chicago into a family of six — his parents, two older brothers and an identical twin brother. After growing up in nearby Skokie between 1953 and 1966 he moved to attend the University of Michigan. He served as the sports editor for the daily school newspaper. He also worked as a sport writer for the Chicago Daily News and United Press International.

After three years, he dropped out of school because of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. He worked as a janitor and other blue collar jobs at the university while he became very active in the campus labor union. In 1975, he was elected union president and led a 1977 winter strike for a cost-of-living increase.

After his tenure as labor union president, Joel went back to being a janitor and started taking courses at Eastern Michigan University. As a local union president, he previously worked with the faculty to establish Labor Studies as a major. When he completed his bachelor’s degree studies, he became the first graduate in this new major.

Joel then immediately enrolled in law school in southern California at Southwestern University School of Law. He earned his Juris Doctor degree in two years in their unique year-round program and then passed The State Bar of California.

During law school, Joel worked as an intern for Federal Judge Alfred T. Goodwin of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Portland, Oregon. Judge Goodwin later became known for writing the court’s opinion in the notable and fascinating Pledge of Allegiance case in 2002. The judge determined that the phrase “one nation under God” violated the First Amendment’s provisions regarding separation of church and state. The ruling was later reversed by the Supreme Court, finding the plaintiff did not have standing to bring the case on behalf of his daughter, who lived separately with her mother, who had exclusive legal custody of their child.

It was Goodwin who suggested to Joel to get a second, graduate law degree; he was already a specialist in labor law and should get a degree from New York University (NYU). Joel followed the judge’s advice and earned his Master of Laws from NYU with a specialty in labor and employment law. After passing the New York Bar, Joel practiced law there until 1988.

He then moved to California and has practiced law here since, primarily in labor law, and as a labor organizer. One of his roles was the Campus Relations and Dispute Resolution Manager for the California State University Office of the Chancellor.

The Stroke

Flash forward to the morning of November 8, 2020. Joel was in good health, practiced yoga, and had no history of high cholesterol or heart disease, nor no recent history of smoking.

As he was getting out of bed, he became aware that he was slipping, and then sliding off the bed. He ended up on the floor and was not able to get back up. He realized that this was serious. He grabbed his phone with his right hand and called his wife who was in another room. But when he tried to talk, he started slurring his words. Fortunately, as a clinical social worker, his wife Wendy knew to call 911 immediately.

The ambulance took him to Los Alamitos Medical Center where it was determined he had suffered an acute lacunar ischemic stroke in the brain’s motor center, the basal ganglia. The blood flow to one of the small arteries deep within the brain became blocked. He was administered tPA clot-busting medicine and it worked! However, his left-side motor control only lasted 45 minutes. Then, “the power went back off,” recalled Joel. His left-side function had come back, and then went out again. This couldn’t be explained by his doctors.

The next day, Joel was transferred to Kaiser Irvine Medical Center’s intensive care unit for two days. Then he went to Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Tustin for about three weeks. Since this occurred during the pandemic, he was unable to have regular visitors. Joel was released in early December.

The doctors believe the stroke was caused by COVID that Joel had contracted in the prior April. The intense immune response that occurs throughout the body during COVID contributes to the increased risk of strokes. It is not clear whether SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, also affects blood vessels directly.1

During rehab, Joel was able to walk again, with a cane. They couldn’t do much with his left arm and currently it still has no functionality. About a month later, he began to experience severe spasticity, i.e., muscle tightness and ongoing contraction. The spasticity has progressed. Joel tried medication, but he experienced the side effect of brain fog. After about a year focused on rehab and recovery, Joel was back to walking and driving again.

Stroke Support Association

Joel’s wife Wendy heard of Stroke Support Association and told Joel about it. He began attending online support group sessions in 2021 since the in-person sessions were shut down due to COVID. After the in-person sessions started back up in Long Beach, Joel participated in both. He is an active member of SSA.

“Both types of sessions provide a valuable service,” shared Joel. “Since I am an organizer, I believe in peer-to-peer mutual self-help. That is a core value of mine. SSA is a good representation of this. The interactions with our peers help fill in what we lost. I learn a lot from the other participants. It’s very valuable. I like contributing to the exchange of information.”

Moving Forward

Although he was retired when he suffered his stroke, Joel has since renewed his law license and is actively pursuing his passions: getting people to empower one another. For over a year, Joel has been representing a group of PhD researchers and teaching assistants at UC Irvine. He plans to use his new non-profit organization to develop workers’ mutual support via an app.

Joel’s Message to Recent Stroke Survivors

“It’s important to understand, based on your age and life situation, how to spend your time, balancing between rehabilitation, i.e., trying to recover lost function vs. adapting to your new situation and reduced abilities. Be proactive and less reactive in choosing which activities to spend your time.”

One recent learning experience Joel shared was about his first airplane trip after his stroke. Joel went to Chicago with one of his sons. He was very pleased with the ease with which he was able to negotiate the airport. Joel shared his travel tip: “Be sure to notify the airline in advance of any limitations and needs you may have. I found they were very accommodating.”


1National Institutes of Health, Article: How SARS-CoV-2 Contributes to Heart Attacks and Strokes, 10/24/2023

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