Positively charged: Stroke generates better life perspective for teacher

Sara Naatz, Managing Editor

t was like any other day for chemistry teacher Neerav Shah. It was 2005, and he and his wife walked around their hometown of San Francisco without a care in the world. After a few challenging months for the couple, it seemed as if things were starting to look up.
Suddenly, their leisurely walk was interrupted. Neerav’s speech became slurred and illogical and he began to stumble. The left side of his body was failing him.
When he and his wife arrived at the hospital, the news was dire.
“When we got to the ER they knew something was wrong,” he said. “I was walking funny and I couldn’t do anything with my left side. The doctor basically said he thought I’d had a stroke, but couldn’t know for sure until they took me to another hospital.”
Neerav was whisked from one hospital to another, unsure if the stroke had left him paralyzed.
“At first I didn’t really know what it meant,” Neerav’s wife Cindy Shah said. “All I knew was my husband couldn’t walk, talk or swallow. I was in disbelief.”
When he finally reached University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, the doctors worked quickly to perform a CAT scan of his brain.
The results were life-altering. The entire right side of his brain. Black.
The entire left side of his body. Paralyzed.
A blockage in his his carotid artery, the essential artery that delivers oxygenated blood to the brain, caused a massive stroke.
Shah arrived at the hospital in time to receive a medicine that would clear the pathway of blood to the brain; however, the doctors were unable to give Neerav the medicine, as he had developed testicular cancer just a few months earlier.
Taking the medicine would have risked spreading any cancer left over in his body, infecting his vital organs.
The doctors believed the blockage and the stroke may have been a reaction to the three-and-a-half months of chemotherapy he underwent in order to wipe out his cancer.
In the hospital, Neerav struggled to accept his condition.
“He was stubborn,” Cindy said. “He had a tube that was feeding him and I think he ripped it out once.”
Neerav’s worried family fought back tears in his presence, warned by the nurses that crying would only make him feel worse.
“It was weird because all my family was trying not to seem upset around me,” Neerav said. “In hindsight [my wife] was very worried. We had family and friends come up to help so she had support, but she was scared.”
During his stay in the hospital, Cindy often wondered whether she and her husband would ever return to a normal life.
“I remember my parents took me out to eat to get out of the hospital,” she said. “We went out to Olive Garden, which was actually where me and Neerav had our first date. A mom, dad and kid walked in and I remember thinking ‘Will I ever be able to do that?’”
Neerav pushed away thoughts of his physical limitations during his time in the hospital.
“I didn’t recognize the fact that my left side was paralyzed,” he said. “It was like my brain was trying to protect me. When I got to the rehab center it really hit me.”
Neerav remained in a wheelchair after his hospital stay. He visited a physical therapist regularly, determined to walk again.
The physical therapists began by moving his leg in an attempt to retrain his muscles. The therapists told them his recovery would be quicker if he spent more time on his leg.
After a year of hard work and determination, Neerav walked again.
“I was just so happy,” Cindy said. “It meant he would have more independence and we could do so many more things together.”
However, Neerav’s motor abilities weren’t the only thing to improve during this time.His entire outlook on life was changed.
“I think if something big like that happens to you, you appreciate life so much more,” he said. “I appreciate every day I’m alive. I appreciate walking into this class and teaching every day. And I think that comes across to students and parents.”
After his stroke, Neerav combined his passion for chemistry and love for others in his teaching career.
“I’m really enthusiastic about [teaching chemistry],” he said. “I’ll be talking and my hand will be flailing around in excitement.”
After working with Neerav for three years, chemistry teacher Manal Siam has come to know him well and truly believes his students benefit from his unique perspective on life.
“He’s just so sweet,” she said. “He couldn’t hurt a fly. He’s always there and he’s so reliable and supportive.”
Siam said she believes Neerav’s concern for his students makes him stand out from other teachers.
“He is awesome to work with,” she said. “He cares so much about the students’ learning — I mean I can’t even emphasize how much — that he’ll do anything in his power to help them learn.”
Ultimately, Neerav said he believes his change in attitude makes him a better teacher for all of his students.
“I’m very sensitive and empathetic to my students and it’s probably because I appreciate life so much,” he said. “Not just my own, but I appreciate everyone else around me, too.”