- Associated Press - Sunday, January 15, 2017

YANKTON, S.D. (AP) - In unforeseen setbacks, untapped strength can be found. Tom Cihak has been building that strength one LEGO brick at a time.

In 2013, Cihak suffered a stroke that was caused by atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat, a condition he wasn’t aware of at the time. The irregular heartbeat created a blood clot that prevented blood from flowing to his brain.

The stroke affected the left hemisphere of Cihak’s brain, which weakened the right side of his body, making it difficult for him to walk and grasp objects.

However, the worst effect of the stroke was the loss of his ability to speak. The condition, also known as aphasia, makes it difficult for a person to produce language, both written and verbal, the Yankton Daily Press and Dakotan (http://bit.ly/2i78IhQ ) reported.

This impairment was all the harder on Cihak due to him working at and owning Cihak Insurance in Yankton at the time of the stroke.

According to his wife, Rogene, he led an active social life.

“He was golfing several times a week and we were planning a big trip to Europe,” she said.

He also had had several hobbies, including photography and golf.

After the stroke, Cihak began working with speech, occupational and physical therapists at Avera Sacred Heart Hospital, which he continues to do regularly.

During his early recovery, the question was raised of what he could do to occupy his time.

Fortunately, an answer was soon found.

The Christmas before his stroke, Cihak received a LEGO kit from his son, Mike, of a Frank Lloyd Wright model house. Tom enjoyed putting together. The following Christmas, he received another LEGO kit from Mike, this one of the Sydney Opera House in Australia, which contained 2,989 pieces.

Rogene was apprehensive that her husband would be able to complete it.

“After a stroke, there’s a lot of emotional damage that occurs,” she said. “It was a big question mark of whether he’d be able to figure out the instruction manual and not get frustrated.”

To her surprise, Tom was indeed able to comprehend the thick, detailed instruction manual for not just the Sydney Opera House, but each of the LEGO kits he received afterward. He’s completed models ranging from basic buildings to a ship to the Disney castle, which is his favorite project to date.

Tom doesn’t seem too picky in selecting a kit to work on, as long as it is complex. He is currently working on a LEGO model of the Death Star from the “Star Wars” film franchise, which has 3,449 pieces.

According to Rogene, he works on the model 2-3 times a day at 20-minute intervals. Completing a full model typically takes him 2-3 months.

In addition, all the models contain pieces, like LEGO people and items, meant to go inside them - for example, a model of a bank may contain a banker at their desk and a safe.

This work has helped Cihak along with his physical therapy.

“It works his fingers and strengthens his hands, his hand-eye coordination and his dexterity,” Rogene said. “It’s really supplemental to the therapy he receives at Avera.”

She estimates that he currently has more than 60,000 LEGO bricks and pieces.

This level of dedication makes Cihak an AFOL - Adult Fan of LEGO - an official term that refers to adult hobbyists who build or collect LEGOS.

He proudly displays his finished projects in his Yankton home.

“He finds it rewarding and a little challenging,” Rogene said. “It’s fun for him to show it off.”

This activity has undoubtedly helped him cope with the aftereffects of his stroke.

“With a stroke, there is so much anxiety and a lot of frustration that comes from that,” Rogene said. “Doing a hobby like this really helps with his recovery.”

___

Information from: Yankton Press and Dakotan, http://www.yankton.net/

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