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Merlynn Lowry was 38 when she had her stroke two years ago.

"I was young and thought I was in good shape," she told me. "I was fairly athletic and active."She'd just taken a shower and was on her way into the bedroom when the stroke occurred.

More than three hours later, her secretary, who had been leaving messages on her answering machine, became alarmed and got the manager to let her into the apartment, where they found Lowry.

Lowry is a success story, not only because of her recovery from the stroke, but because of the things she said she learned from it and what she's determined to "give back."

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Waking up in the hospital was a frustrating time for Lowry. At first, she was too sick to realize how much trouble she was in. But too soon she had learned: She had no use of the right side of her body.

She couldn't walk, she couldn't talk and she was frightened. She hated the wheelchair in which she found herself. And communication was a nightmare.

"It was scary," she said. "I didn't know what was going on with me. Everything changed and I didn't understand it."

The hospital she had initially been taken to transferred her to St. Mark's Hospital. Later, she went to the Quinney Rehabilitation Institute at Holy Cross Hospital, where she relearned, with difficulty, how to do the things she'd always done so easily.

The regimen included comprehensive therapy in the hospital, followed by outpatient therapy for about nine months. She had occupational, speech and physical therapy on a regular basis.

"The speech therapy was more than just speech; it helped me find ways to approach problems," she said. "The occupational therapy helped get me ready to get back into real life."

She's completely through with the therapy, although she still works hard on skills that have been lost or diminished. But Lowry now spends more time at the institute than she did during her rigorous therapy schedule.

She wanted to give back some of what she got, and she chose to do it by becoming a volunteer in the institute - the department where she received so much help in rebuilding her life.

She works 40 hours a week there, "doing anything anyone wants done." Staff members laughingly try to recall the days before Lowry was around to help them and claim they can't think back that far.

"I don't know what we'd do without her," one of them said.

Lowry isn't sure what she'd do without them, either. Besides allowing her to "give back" some of what she gained, the experience will, she hopes, help her when she's ready to make the transition back into a paying job.

Best of all, she said, she is working with people who truly care about her and her recovery. They are people who understand when she can't quite form the words that are so clear when she thinks them, but lose their shape when she tries to say them aloud.

"I'm almost as good as I was before. But there are a couple of things. I can't drive a standard because my ankle is still very weak. I'm working on that. And it is sometimes hard to form words.

"But people are very patient and understanding. They help me out if I need it. And I'm happy to say that about half of them don't even know I've had a stroke. I've improved that much."

Merlynn Lowry's gone through some incredible phases in the past couple of years. She's been healthy, then deathly ill. She's been disabled but was lucky enough - and determined enough - to fight her way back.

Some people, she said, don't have that option. And she's not going to take it for granted.

She's involved with the Stroke Support Group at Holy Cross Hospital, where patients and former patients get together to share their experiences and offer each other a helping hand as they struggle with a stroke's aftermath.

She's still struggling to overcome her weaknesses. But it seems to me that she may have found some secrets to a successful recovery from almost any setback:

Don't give up. Get expert advice and follow it. And stay actively involved in life.

"There are some things you have to do for yourself. No one else can," she said.

That doesn't just apply to people who have had strokes. It's one of life's universal themes.