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Stroke Smart Magazine

Fall 2009

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A Stroke Story of Strength & Struggle
Obama Advisor Keeps Mom’s Faith and Faith in Mom

By Rick C. Wade

After my mother had a major stroke last winter, the sadness and anxiety my siblings and I felt were tempered by the fact that she was still alive and that the prognosis for her recovery was optimistic, cautiously so, but optimistic nonetheless.

The doctors told us that the road to our mother’s recovery would be long. They said there might be complications along the way. They warned that she might not reach full recovery, but they also didn’t discourage expectations that she might. In our family, hope carries as much weight as faith. We have plenty of both.

Even at age 77, my mom, Ellen S. Wade, is no fragile wallflower. She raised six children, helped rear nine grandchildren, worked a full-time job and ran our household like a drill sergeant. She has a great sense of humor and a quick wit. In her younger days, she was an incredible cook; it was just as much fun to watch her cook as it was to eat her food. She exercised regularly and liked to do power walks at the local university gymnasium. She has always been active in her church and the community. But since the stroke, she hasn’t been the same. We now call on our faith, rely on our prayers and stay hopeful that she will be back to her old self soon.

A New Learning Curve

Mom had her strike in January. Her road to recovery has been indeed long and winding, and full of detours we never expected. Along the way I have learned much about hemorrhage strokes and the intricacies of the damage they cause.  For her, the impact has been lethargy, sleepiness, confusion, loss of appetite and reduced ability to swallow. As is the case with many stroke survivors, her mobility and communication skills have been impaired. After initially spending a month and a half in the hospital, she had to be hospitalized again due to the onset of pneumonia. All of these conditions have contributed to an inability for her to participate in much needed physical therapy.

I never imagined how hard it would be for her and for us. Our hopes have risen and fallen with every step forward and every setback; with every good day and bad night. But our faith, the very faith instilled in us by our mother, has remained steady. Though I sometimes worry that mom has grown weary and become doubtful that she will get better, we are harnessing our collective sense of hope to help her carry on.

In the interim, I’ve learned that it’s very important to be patient with stroke survivors.  Its ironic how the word “patient” applies to the sick person, but must be practiced by the caretakers. Its important to measure a stroke patients progress in small steps and understand that each patient is different. One treatment does not fit all. I’ve learned:

  • the value of establishing regular communication and collaborative relationships with doctors.
  • to learn as much as I can about strokes so that I can understand what mom is going through and help her understand as well.
  • to know what questions to ask and make informed decisions with her doctors about her course of treatment.

We’ve pursued many medical opinions, tried various procedures and therapies and consulted with professionals at various stroke associations and medical centers, including Duke University and Johns Hopkins.

Excitement and Sorrow

It’s hard to believe all that has happened this year. Through it all, I feel as if I lived in two parallel universes; one as the worried son wanting so much to help his wonderful mother get better, and the other as a busy public servant excited about being a member of the administration of a historic new presidency.

I’d spent the past two years before moms stroke working on the presidential campaign of then-Sen. Barack Obama traveling across the country as a national senior advisor. I returned home as frequently as possible to be with my brother John, a proud veteran who served in the U.S. Army for 25 years, who was suffering from lung cancer. Unfortunately, John lost his battle and died in July 2008. Though our father passed away in 1985, losing a sibling a childhood playmate and a lifetime friend was especially difficult. Witnessing the deeply painful process of a mother burying a son was one of the most heartbreaking experiences of my life.

In fact, it was shortly after my brother’s death that Moms health started spiraling downward. Six months later she had the stroke. I was in the throes of helping to prepare for the inauguration of President-Elect Barack Obama. Like many African-American seniors, my mother was elated about the swearing-in of the country's first African-American president and never thought she would live to see such an occasion. Before her stroke, she had followed the campaign like a laser, always zeroing in on the televised rallies with hopes of catching a glimpse of me. For me, nothing would have been more exciting than to have celebrated this historic event with my mother and dance with her at an inaugural ball.

Reflections of Past; Hopes for Future

Today, glimpses of the “old” mom come and go. She had always been strong, vibrant and energetic and once in awhile shell say or do something to remind me of this. Sitting by her bedside, I can’t help but recall how well she mothered us and the countless ways she nurtured our dreams. When she was younger, she worked in a school kitchen and later became a nurse’s aide at the local hospital. As kids, my younger brother and I would stay awake until midnight, awaiting her return from a long day’s work. In her purse was a treat ╨ a carton of chocolate milk, a cookie or a piece of fruit.

On Saturday mornings, mom loaded us boys into the car to go get haircuts. On Sunday mornings we were off to Sunday school and church service.╩ On one occasion she was hospitalized and every day after school, I rode my bicycle several miles to see her.╩ She attended all of our graduations and helped set up my first college dorm room. When home for weekends, she'd tuck $10 or $20 in my pocket to help me with college expenses, even if it meant borrowing the money from a relative or family friend. I took her on her first and only airplane trip, to visit my brother who was stationed in California.  It was fun watching her dance, doing her version of the electric slide at the bi-annual family reunion.

My mother has always been my proudest supporter and I her greatest fan. In every life endeavor, she has been there for me.  That’s why I am here for her during this difficult time.  That’s why I sit by her bedside throughout the day and night, cheering her on to recovery.  Some days, she sleeps so deeply and for such long periods that she can’t even have short conversations. Other times, she turns a painful physical therapy session into a laugh-a-thon, cracking jokes about how the therapist is trying to kill her.

Her life has drastically changed and so has ours.  But our love and support of her will always remain the same and that’s why we’ve tried to keep a sense of family normalcy around her. We still gather at her house for our traditional Sunday afternoon dinner. On her birthday, we bought her gifts, ate cake and sang Happy Birthday. We laugh, play and reflect on the good old days. We lean on our faith and cling to our hope and find joy in just knowing that mom is still here. 

Rick Wade's mother resides in the stroke belt of the United States. The stroke belt is made up of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., where stroke death rates are consistently more than 10 percent higher than the rest of the country.


Rick C. Wade is a former National Senior Advisor to Senator Barack Obama.  He currently serves in the Obama Administration as Senior Advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff to United States Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke. He can be reached at rwade@stroke.org.


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