A stroke survivor finds a new calling as USC volunteer

Karchem Portrait1

David Karchem was a software developer until a stroke changed his life. Now, he is focusing his energies on building a community for stroke survivors.


One morning in 2009, USC Physical Therapy volunteer David Karchem was driving through an intersection near California State University-Northridge. 

While making a left turn at a light,he was suddenly struck by an intense headache. He couldn't manageto press the clutch of his manual transmission car, so he coasted through the intersection the best he could while the other cars honked and swerved around him. 

"I wrote a note that said, 'CALL911' and then I just passed out," Karchem recalls.

When he woke up in the hospital, Karchem learned his world had been forever changed. 

In an instant, he had joined thenearly 6.5 million stroke survivors in the United States today.

Karchem had experienced aright-brain ischemic stroke. Two blood clots over the right side ofhis brain had left him paralyzed on his left side. A third clot near the back of his brain, where the visual cortex is located, left him struggling to see and unable to taste or smell anything. 

It took him weeks after surgery tolearn to walk again. After six months of traditional inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation and intensive work with computer-assisted brain function and vision processing computer programs, Karchem recovered his driving privileges. He also participated in six weeks of occupational robotic training, and soon began to mentor otherpatients. 

I Survived

Once a software developer, Karchemfound he could no longer wrap his brain around programming. 

But he found other ways to keepbusy. For the past seven years, Karchem has volunteered at USC, taking part in studies at the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy and training students. 

He also tries to connect otherstroke survivors to appropriate research studies.

In talking to stroke survivors, Karchem discovered a social media site where people can share their experiences and insights during stroke recovery. Originally called Wohaula (Mandarin for "I have survived") the site, now called StrokeFocus has more than 300 users. He volunteered to be an advisor to the group and has been working with them for several months. 

It is designed for honest and in-depth conversations, Karchem says, and can also connect survivors with expert lectures and trainings. The site even received a 2017 Small Business Administration (SBA) innovation award by the Los Angeles District Office of SBA.

"It's a private group, which makesit more valuable than Facebook," Karchem explains. 

"People are sometimes afraid to posttheir problems. If they're fighting with a spouse or struggling, it's hard to talk about."  

The Myth of Stroke Recovery

In addition to building a community, Karchem has continued to strengthen his own knowledge, having earned a master's degree in assistive technology from California State University-Northridge in 2014. 

And his journey to recovery hasn'tstopped. Last New Year's Eve, something surprising happened: Karchem tasted food for the first time since 2009. 

"It really speaks to what happens with people when they go through multiple phases of recovery," Karchem shares. 

He says there's a myth in physical medicine: If a patient doesn't recover the functionality in thefirst 90 days, he or she never will. But Karchem has experiencedhis recovery in waves. For example, he still can't raise his arm above the shoulder on his left side. 

"But a few days after regaining the smell and taste, I regained some control of my left wrist and fingers for the first time," he says. 

"Get 'Em Moving"

Karchem says he will continue to do whatever he can to support USC, particularly in his role as a division volunteer, where he hopes to encourage other stroke survivors to take part in the many stroke studies being conducted at the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy (See below for current studies). 

"One of the problems the division was having is that they didn't have enough subjects for their research, so I had the idea to visit the stroke support groups and recruit subjects for research projects," says Karchem who credits participating in research at the division for improving his life.

Whether reaching out to participate in studies at USC or taking part in support groups, Karchem's advice to other stroke survivors is simple: Avoid isolation. 

"Get 'em moving," he says with agrin. "There are so many things that are going on you can do, either with family or with support groups. And of course, there is the Internet, where you can stimulate your brain."

 To get involved inresearch taking part at the division, send an email to david.karchem@strokefocus.net.


Stroke Studies

A round-up of the stroke-related research being conducted at the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy

Computational Neurorehabilitation Lab

Associate Professor Nicolas Schweighofer's lab is the leader in the developing field of computational neurorehabilitation, which seeks to develop computer models of motor learning and plasticity to improve movement recovery in individuals post-stroke. Schweighofer is also investigating how much physical therapy is necessary for meaningful arm and hand recovery after stroke and how brain lesions and initial impairments can predict the effect of personalized arm training.  

Locomotor Control Lab

Assistant Professor James Finley's lab currently has two studies investigating potential interventions to improve walking ability in post-stroke individuals. The first study uses a novel treadmill, a virtual reality headset and biofeedback sensors to train post-stroke individuals to reduce fallrisks. The second study involves applying non-invasive stimulation to the spinal cord to improve coordination and enhance muscle function in post-stroke individuals.

Motor Behavior and Neurorehabilitation Lab

Professor Carolee Winstein's lab is conducting several studies to improve stroke survivors' lives, including developing a mindfulness program to help increase stroke survivors' feelings of control over their health and quality of life, looking at brain connectivity patterns used to learn computer games as a way to predict neurorehabilitative learning in stroke survivors and exploring how physical therapists can personalize interventions to maximize meaningful recovery. 

Neural Plasticity and Neurorehabilitation Lab

Two studies in Assistant Professor Sook Lei-Liew's lab involve brain imaging - one looking at MRIs from around the world to better understand physical brain changes related to stroke recovery; the other developing a tool to better analyze stroke-damaged brains. Two studies investigate the ways in which virtual reality might aid motor rehabilitation. Finally, Liew's lab is studying how non-invasive transcranial stimulation might help stroke survivors recover motor function.

Posted 05.05.2017