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Reflections on Stroke Awareness Month

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Twenty-five years ago, President George H.W. Bush signed an official proclamation designating each May as Stroke Awareness Month. It really didn't mean much to me at the time. However, I soon learned that I would be observing Stroke Awareness Month, not only in May, but each day of the year. I had a stroke 18 years ago, while I was having a manicure and feeling on top of the world. I didn't even realize what was happening, except when I tried to say something cute to Rose about my nails, it came out gibberish.

That's the thing about strokes. They are equal opportunity "brain attacks" -- no respect of age or gender. My friend, the beautiful Patricia Neal, had her stroke in 1965 while she was pregnant with her fifth child. My favorite co-star Burt Lancaster had his stroke while visiting a friend in the hospital. Patricia worked hard to overcome the effects of her stroke and went on to make many more pictures and live a long life. Burt, on the other hand, secluded himself and even his oldest friends were not allowed to see him.

I led a charmed and wonderful life, give or take a few glitches along the way, such as doing stunts that left my spine a mess and suffering a broken back in a helicopter crash. Nonetheless, I was still working and working out as I approached 80. In one stroke, literally and figuratively, it was all gone. All the camaraderie of film sets, all the joie de vivre of traveling the world as an ambassador for the government, all the glitter and glamour of awards shows where I was the honored guest. Now I couldn't talk.

What does an actor do who can't talk? Wait for silent pictures to come back? I contemplated suicide. I found the gun I used in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and loaded it with two bullets. I put it in my mouth, it bumped against my teeth. It hurt so I didn't pull the trigger. I laughed. It was a ridiculous situation. I learned if you can laugh at yourself, you can start to recover.

Just a few months after my stroke, I was encouraged by my family to appear at the Academy Awards to accept my Honorary Lifetime Oscar. I didn't think anyone would understand me when I spoke. The response was amazing. I received hundreds of letters from stroke survivors who thanked me. I received a wonderful letter from King Hussein of Jordan inviting me to his country. I became the new "poster child" of strokes.

Each of these 18 post-stroke years has brought its own blessings and pleasures. I am thankful I didn't give up. My life continues to be rich. I made three films after my stroke, wrote and performed my one-man show, Before I Forget, and added three more books to my literary output. I had a second bar mitzvah, and remarried my Anne for our 50th anniversary. I have seen grandchildren born and thrive. At the end of this May, Anne and I will celebrate our 60th anniversary. I am 97 and I am still here -- impaired speech, bad back and all.

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