Alison’s Story

Dec 14, 2017

Alison Bonds Shapiro was a busy business owner and aspiring illustrator when, at the age of 55, she experienced two brain-stem strokes within 24 hours. Alison lost her ability to live the life she had known. She was partially paralyzed, uncoordinated, and unable to swallow, focus her eyes, sit up, or even to take a deep breath on her own. Doctors told her that there was only a 50% chance of surviving one brain stem stroke, much less two.

While still in the hospital, Alison received extraordinary care and support from the Kaiser Foundation Rehabilitation Center. “There is not enough gratitude in the world to express my thanks for what Kaiser did for me, particularly my lead physical therapist. There was a place of safety in his hands, a refuge when I needed it the most.” As Alison recovered, she continued to pursue therapy to increase her mobility. Gradually she created a new life for herself, including fulfilling her dream of illustrating a children’s book. She drew some crucial insights from her experience, and now travels the United States teaching stroke survivors, caregivers, and medical professionals how to support and increase patient understanding of and engagement in recovery efforts. She has written a book, Healing into Possibility: The Transformational Lessons of a Stroke about her recovery experience, created a DVD, What Now? Sharing Brain Recovery Lessons, and developed an eight-week course called “Mindful Stroke Recovery.”

Alison visited The Gait Center in Richmond, VA to teach at the request of David Lawrence. “[David] wanted me to teach the therapists and some clients about the effect of internal narratives on patients’ ability to engage in the necessary work that is required by rehabilitation and re-learning patterns of movement. I was deeply impressed by two things in this request from David. The first was that he was genuinely interested in what patients have to teach therapists. The second was that he recognized and worked with the impact of the relationship between a therapist and a patient. This impact is profound and very, very few therapists I have ever met understand how profound this is. We patients recognize ourselves and our potential in the hands, the eyes, the words, the emotional care of the therapists who work with us. Whatever that therapist believes about him or herself and believes about us will be immediately translated into the interaction with us and will shape how we recover.”

Alison’s experience at The Gait Center was not just that of a guest speaker. She also came back to visit as a patient to continue to strengthen her body and to improve her walking and balance. “The Gait Center is so different from a patient’s perspective because the staff at The Gait Center understand both how critical [walking is to all aspects of one’s being], and how utterly unique each person’s approach to movement is. Each person’s movement patterns are an expression of his or her genetic structure, the development of his or her body, the emotional patterns stored in the body, the person’s social interactions and the person’s view of themselves and the world. Having the sensitivity to see this and to understand that gait is the centerpiece of all this movement, allows the staff at The Gait Center to work directly with the essence of each patient.”

With this in mind, Mission Gait does not just offer courses to increase knowledge and skill about gait pathology. Our entire approach is centered on the patient and understanding their bodies, their motivations, and their needs. We believe that partnering with patients in their care, and understanding the nuance that each person brings to treatment, is of the utmost importance to success in therapy.

Alison says it beautifully: “There is a lot of talk these days about ‘patient centered care’ but few medical professionals understand that this means the patient has as much standing in the relationship as the medical professional. Few professionals understand that the relationship is one of mutual teaching. If I, as a patient, can teach you, the therapist, the exquisite nature of who I am and how I approach life as you work with me, then my rehabilitation will flourish in ways neither of us can imagine until we open to it. But you, the therapist, must be alive to this ability to learn from me and be open to the possibilities this interaction between us will bring.”


“[Physical therapy at] The Gait Center changed my life in more ways than I can yet describe. I walk now like I walked before the stroke. My whole body is changing in response to this ability to move freely. As my body changes, my energy increases. As my energy increases my sense of myself stabilizes and expands.”