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Who am I? No one special. Except I died nearly 40 years ago.

By Michael Sugrue

NO EXCUSES: Burns offers tips to stroke survivors.

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By Richard Burns

It was a jolt from out of nowhere, a disaster tearing me from the life I knew. It was a cerebral hemorrhage, a hemorrhagic stroke. The hospital medical staff threw up their hands in surrender. Make him comfortable, the body's paralyzed, the brain's gone and there's nothing we can do.

They advised my wife to make arrangements.

     Richard (Dick) Burns, 38, TV and advertising executive who dressed grown men up as fruit for an underwear commercial and had an airline paint smiles on its planes, died suddenly the day after Christmas. He is survived by his wife, Nancy, and three children, Lisa, Shelley and Richard.

Hold on a minute, I must have asked myself, is this all I have accomplished during my time on this planet? I must have something better to offer than some silly TV ads.

And I guess the Almighty agreed. I didn't die after all.

The first thing that hits me is the smell. It is foreign, peculiarly clean, rather like a garage sprayed with perfumed kerosene. I begin to separate the odors—the antiseptic one, the dry and powdery aroma of pills, the strong smell of patients' sweat tempered by the soap-and-water purification of doctors and nurses as they scurry by my stall.

There are sounds. Constant chatter from the other cubicles. Mindless attempts at communication by scared patients and attempts to soothe and placate by relatives, other visitors and the caregivers.

I guess I'm not dead because I can more or less move my extremities. Yes, they're all there. Thanks. Whoever. Whatever.

There seem to be thoughts, rather muddled—not right, not like it used to be. Am I me? Where do I go from here? What will I do? What can I do?

Then there are sights. I have regained consciousness on a white bed, in a white gown, in a white cubicle. I stretch a pasty-white and very spare form without too much pain. I look around. Everything is out of focus, objects, people just a blur. A fluorescent light hovers overhead. The bed has racks on the sides with buttons and holding controls. A phone and a button to call for help: at least I shouldn't feel abandoned. Gauges, tubes, plugs, thermometer-like things, curtains to protect privacy, a closet and chest with drawers and a chair round out the scenery. My space is small and confining. Beyond, there are lights, larger spaces, more lights, more rooms. They all look the same in the nothingness of the artificial light.

In puzzlement, I run a shaking hand though a mass of unkempt brown hair, then across a lined and ample forehead. I rub a rather angular nose, open an acrid mouth and then run my tongue over full and bow-shaped but stiff and dry lips. I bring that shaking hand up to feel a whisker-scruffy chin, and jut that pronounced object out in subconscious defiance.

Nurses breeze by in their starched gowns, doctors make their rounds, checking vital signs, listening, making notes on charts hung precariously at the ends of the beds. Other people come and go, volunteers, orderlies cleaning, emptying, banging mops and containers. I watch, helplessly try to speak to them, question them. But I guess these efforts are only noises, mixed with those other groans and sighs constantly emanating from my helpless companions. They are sounds to be ignored in favor of business, the business of this place.

A concerned-looking nurse steps up to my side with an inquisitive look, and the wheels that are my brain begin to turn. Maybe she'll help, tell me where, what. I open my mouth to cry out for answers. Dry lips part, a mealy tongue moves.

And only guttural, primal-sounding noises come out.

I'm just out of practice, I hope. Rationalizing, I try again.

More guttural, primal noises.

Oh, Lord. Help me!

You're lying there, staring vacantly at that white ceiling, vaguely focusing on that light that mostly works. You're down, you're depressed, you hurt. You think, maybe if I had a gun, I'd end it all.

Take heart, you don't need to go that road.

With my hemorrhagic stroke, physical as well as mental ability was destroyed, often resulting in partial or total paralysis. There was a need that far exceeded the norm for rest and recuperation after any effort. Speech suffered, slurred from the trauma and exertion that also resulted in mental tiredness. My hand shook; the body wouldn't perform or cooperate in coordination. I felt beyond discouragement.

Over and over I had to repeat: it's my ego that's bruised. And that applies to any devastating physical difficulty. I was just thankful that I could still put my feet under me and feel the floor as I climbed out of bed each morning. And when my legs didn't work properly I reminded myself that I was better off than the man who had no feet.

Doctors had given up on any physical activity, much less any ability. Indoor activities like squash or handball were obviously out. Card and table games like bridge and chess required concentration, memory and analysis, and I didn't have a clue. Team sports—I was too old. Individual outdoor sports? Forget it. Accepted medical dogma of the time said I'd never play any sport, do anything that required any form of balance and coordination. But, as W.S. Gilbert astutely wrote, “Well, hardly ever.”

I learned that physical activities always appear easier before you do them. Compare it to climbing a ladder. You look at what seems simple and start out with confidence. No way. With the first step, your foot quivers, your hand is unsure. So you proceed carefully, slowly, clinging to every support. As you go up the ladder, you're more sure of yourself. The support is there, but you begin to rely on it less. And it gets more comfortable and secure, and easier. That's how it is with life, and that's how recovery works.

I had to concentrate on making this scenario possible, so I set up a calisthenics routine and followed it faithfully, even when it was inconvenient. I instituted a healthier diet, thanks to my wife, Nancy (a dietary and culinary professional), and trial and error. I reduced rest time and made the waking hours count for more. I forced myself to retire and rise at regular hours just as I had in my working years.

I practiced reading out loud, spoke to groups, spoke in public. By stimulating my mind, educating myself in business, politics and economics, I found ways to better myself and discovered I could practice and improve on my new knowledge by teaching others.

After some years of recuperative existence—testing, growing in mind and physical promise, and finding that traveling helped mind and body—we moved from Piedmont, Calif., south to the Monterey Peninsula and a new life. I knew that I had to do something, be something besides a liability and a presence to be tolerated.

Deciding on the sporting way was obvious. Golf had a handicap, too—fitting. Balance and coordination? Well, I could try. It would require eons of time, but I had time to spare. It would take practice, practice, practice teaching the body how to do what the mind thought and communicated (and the mind was getting better).

The first time was a disaster. I was on my own, hooking to the right, slicing to the left, readily finding trees, traps, water and other obstacles—when I managed to hit the ball. Putting was easier: just point, push and pray, I thought. Hopefully a lesson or two would help.

“Now, you hold the club loosely but firmly, thus,” the pro admonished. “No, not with a death grip. Hands like this. Fingers hold the club. Let it rest in your hands, thus. Imagine you're holding a bird in your hands. Too loose, he'll fly away; too tight and you'll crush him. Form a V with your thumb and first finger. Now the other hand. Line up the Vs, thus.

“Now, just watch me. This is how your swing should be. Plant your feet about shoulder width, stand about this far back from the ball, about the club length, make sure that it's just inside the left foot, the left elbow pointed toward the left hip, right arm loose, left arm straight as you take the back swing, and make sure that your hands at the top of the swing are high and the shaft points along a line parallel to the ground, and when you swing through remember that the weight is 60 percent on the left side and 40 percent on the right, and as you come through you turn the left knee in towards the right as the left heel comes off the ground and make sure that the hands are over the right foot . . . Now you try.”

This guy just didn't realize that I couldn't do it that way. But the basics are the basics and you do it right, follow the rules, use reason [to compensate] for your particular needs, or don't even try. Feeling sorry for myself, I wondered how I came to deserve this? How was I going to remember all this? How could I possibly “coordinate” in my condition, I thought, manufacturing excuses in advance. Then I realized that excuses just lead to that nemesis, frustration, which leads to stress, and that just disguises the reality I've got to face.

Picture, if you will, the amateur chump, tense and uptight, attacking that tiny white sphere. The wooden club is raised, poised, forced downward toward the small white ball, and, with a mighty stroke to send the ball hundreds of yards down that stretch of immense and gorgeous green grass, the club rends the air and misses the ball.

With the patience of a good teacher, the pro began anew. He observed and commented as I did it again and again and again and again.

“See, practice makes perfect,” he said, handing me the biggest bucket of balls I'd ever seen. “Just go to that range over there and hit the rest of these.”

That first day of professional help was a long one, but I knew it marked a turning point, the beginning of a very satisfying and fulfilling life. There were many more “growing pains” to laugh at and laugh with. Best of all, I could laugh again.

As I adjusted to life, the energy and competitiveness necessary for the thoughtful and practical process of living returned. There was always time to do it right, and I let the situation be my guide.

Golf and golfing friends also have made for a more fruitful life, a life of some accomplishment. They have led to service as a board director—the National Football Foundation, the county SPCA, the Stanford Buck/Cardinal Club; to the organization of a successful golfing group of retired individuals (SIRS); and to marshaling and other duties with PGA tour events.

When my story began, it was common belief that brain cells cannot regenerate and that other parts of the brain take over functions. But I began to think it would be impossible for remnants of an almost totally devastated brain to assume all the complicated functions of human existence. If time and proper treatment can repair other parts of the body, why not the brain? There are many, many cells in the brain. How many were destroyed? Were some merely damaged and reparable? Did others absorb new functions? A combination?

I am functioning now, much as before. Pressure and fatigue wear more easily. I'm older. The mind has been tempered with the experiences of hurt, adversity and disaster and shaped by the realities of this world. And molded and bent by the need for a better existence for myself and those loved ones who sacrificed and suffered so much. Small wonder I view this whole process as a “stroke of good luck.”

I came to the conclusion earlier than most scientific and medical professionals: brain cells can and do regenerate over time. How else to explain the slow, steady progress of regrowing abilities, regrowing functions, regrowing the mental to match the physical? That I can write these words, maybe philosophize a bit for the benefit of others, participate in an almost “normal” lifestyle—I am the living proof.


RICHARD BURNS, '52, lives in Carmel, Calif. This essay is excerpted from his self-help memoir, Live or Die: A Stroke of Good Luck, to be published in December by Unlimited Publishing.  

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