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Stroke Smart Magazine

November/December 2007

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Melanie Wheless and the Dance for Dignity

by Lynn Bronikowski

A month before her 25th birthday, Melanie Wheless was camping with her family in Colorado when she woke up with the worst headache of her life. She suspected a migraine, but the next day when she went to stand up, her legs collapsed under her. She was rushed to a hospital in Trinidad, Colo., where she learned she had suffered a stroke.

“It was hard to believe because I was so young,” said Wheless. “I didn't know at the time the warning signs of stroke but when I think about it now, I had several of the classic symptoms of stroke.”

Today she's committed to telling her story — to inform others of the signs of stroke and be a symbol of hope to other survivors.

After several months in a hospital and months of therapy, Wheless learned to walk again and correct her slurred speech.

She still has weakness of her left side and wears a brace, but six years later, in a ballroom of a suburban Denver hotel, Wheless was ready to celebrate her stroke survival. This summer she organized Dance for Dignity, a dance event for stroke survivors, their families and friends.

“I started dancing when I was three; danced in high school and college competitively on dance teams, so when I was thinking of a fundraiser for National Stroke Association, dance was the answer,” said the 31-year-old mother of three-year-old Jillian. She had previously volunteered to help with association events and last fall joined the organization as a data entry specialist and support group coordinator.

Her parents, David and Susan Mindykowski, and brother Eric Mindykowsky, pitched in to organize Dance for Dignity. They sent out letters seeking corporate sponsors and silent auction items, asking Denver radio personality Peter Boyles to emcee. Together, they raised $9,000 during the first-year event that Wheless plans to hold annually.

But most importantly, the event was Wheless' chance to return to the dance floor — an evening to dance with her husband, Michael, and other stroke survivors in a celebration of life.

“I may not dance as gracefully as I used to but it was wonderful to feel normal again being out on that dance floor,” said Wheless, who also gave a motivational speech before the 200 attendees.

“I get tired of hearing people refer to themselves as stroke victims — victims are the people who died of stroke — we're survivors,” said Wheless. “So my message has been that just like cancer survivors, we need to be proud that we survived stroke.”

She admits she was nervous to speak before the crowd but several stroke survivors came up to her to tell her how wonderful it was that she had shared her story.

“But to me, it's not a story — it's just my life and I'm happy to share that,” said Wheless. “I have so many plans for my future and one of them is to give hope to other people.”


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National Stroke Association’s mission is to reduce the incidence and impact of stroke by developing compelling education and programs focused on prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and support for all impacted by stroke.

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