Stroke Recovery: A Long Game

As an avid golfer, John Rapkowicz of Knoxville, 64, knows that you can’t improve your swing without determination and practice, practice, practice. The retired IT manager played 80 rounds of golf in his first six months of retirement in March 2021. However, in October 2021, Rapkowicz suffered a basilar artery stroke. (The basilar artery is formed from the union of two vertebral arteries and supplies blood to the back portion of the brain.) He then had to focus all his efforts on learning to walk, dress himself and even swallow again.

John and his family at the finish line of the Covenant Health 5K.
John Rapkowicz poses with his family after completing a 5K at the Covenant Health Knoxville Marathon in 2022.

“I was going to play golf in the morning, so I was in another bedroom. I woke up at 4:30 in the morning, dizzy. I had a cramp in my side,” he remembers. “I called for my wife, who called 911. The ambulance crew stabilized me and transported me to Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center. I woke up in the ICU after surgery. “It was a complete surprise. I didn’t have high cholesterol. I wasn’t overweight. I was
in pretty good shape for my age, no blood pressure issues, or anything. I was fortunate enough that Dr. Hixson was working the next day,” says Rapkowicz. Harry R. Hixon, MD, is the interventional neuroradiologist at Fort Sanders Regional who removed a blood clot from the base of Rapkowicz’s brain. “I woke up in the ICU and was there for four days. Then I moved to Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center for three weeks of in-house therapy,” said Rapkowicz.

Headshot of PT Margaret Keele in beige sweater.
Margaret Keele, Clinical Specialist

Rapkowicz’s goals were to walk, drive, eat solid food again, and of course, to play golf. He made tremendous progress at Patricia Neal Rehab Center and had progressed to using  only a walker when he came home in early November. He continued speech, physical and occupational therapy at Covenant Therapy Center-West Knoxville until early March, at first three times  a week and then twice a week as he improved. “When he first came to us, John needed assistance to go up and down stairs,” said clinical specialist Margaret Keele, DPT, GCS, CSRS, CEEAA. “He was walking, but with a walker. We worked on balance, motor control, speed of  movement, getting things coordinated. He progressed to a cane, and eventually he was able to  walk without assistance and even jog.”

“We work as a team here, with physical, occupational and speech therapists looking at the patient together from every standpoint. It’s really a collaborative approach,” Keele said. 

Head shot of Jenna Whipple in periwinkle shirt.
Jenna Whipple, Speech Pathologist

Jenna Whipple, the team’s speech pathologist, worked with Rapkowicz on learning to eat and drink without choking. “A lot of people don’t think about swallowing, but a stroke can impair that. He had some  pretty severe swallowing deficits after his stroke,” she said. “He put in the work and came in with a great attitude every single day. He was very motivated  to get better. It was amazing to watch him progress to eating a normal diet again,” said Whipple.

As he recovered , Rapkowicz set a goal of walking the 5K in the Covenant Health Knoxville Marathon in March 2022. He was joined by his  adult daughters and his wife. They designed and sold blue T-shirts that read, “The Rap Pack,”  and their efforts raised more than $2,500 for Covenant Health.

In summer  2022 , Rapkowicz returned to Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center to take  the center’s comprehensive driving class and he was recently cleared to begin driving again. “And I’m back at golfing – not very well, but golfing!” he said with a laugh,  adding that he also has gone deer hunting with his brothers. Rapkowicz said he would recommend Covenant Health Therapy Center- West Knoxville to anyone  recovering from a stroke.

“The care at Covenant Health Therapy Center was wonderful. They’re wonderful people, and  they treated both Pat and I very well,” he said. “They supported us and pushed me when I needed to  be pushed, and they’ve been just great for us. We just can say enough about them.”

Safe and Effective Treatment

Physical therapy is the treatment or management of physical problems like disability and pain. Specially designed exercises, massage, aquatic therapy and other tools can help reverse damage, return function and restore quality of life. Covenant Health Therapy Center-West Knoxville offers individualized physical rehabilitation, including specialty services like rehabilitation for cancer patients, amputees and survivors of stroke. Covenant Health Therapy Center-West Knoxville is a department of Parkwest Medical Center. For information, call 865-531-5710 or visit


News & Articles

Covenant Health