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A Blueprint for Recovery
Leading Architect Rebuilds His City and His Life After Stroke
Story By Joan Christensen
For James Washington, an
award-winning architect from New Orleans, Jan. 16, 2006 was scheduled to be
another busy day helping his city and parish (county) recover from the
devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Despite five feet of flooding that forced him
out of his home in Eastern New Orleans, he was committed to helping others
repair and rebuild. Little did he know on that particular January morning he
was about to start on a journey of recovery himself as intense and challenging
as the one facing New Orleans.
“It came along so unexpectedly,”
says Washington. “I was in a meeting the night before and had a slight
headache but I drove home, watched TV and went to bed,” he recalls.
“But the next morning when I reached over to get my slippers, all of a
sudden, I just fell backwards and the next thing I knew, I was on a gurney.”
Washington had just been hit by an ischemic stroke
that paralyzed the entire left side of his body. Although emergency responders
arrived quickly, the closest hospital was in another parish much further away
than the nearby hospital that had been closed due to Hurricane Katrina. “The stroke might have been less severe if
there had been a closer hospital that was open,” he reflects.
But there is no complaining from this resilient
man who returned to work just eight weeks later. According to one of his
interns, “while this [a severe stroke]
might have stopped many, it only made him work harder,” claims Jamila Coleman. “He continues to come to work every day,
including the extremely difficult and painful days, and he remains a huge force
in the architecture world.”
has spent most of his 39-year career working in his own firm, Hewitt and
Washington. He started the company with partner Lonnie Hewitt in 1978, less
than a decade after both had graduated from Southern University School of
Architecture in Baton Rouge. Washington has been actively involved in his
profession at every level working on both public and private buildings. He is a
member of the American Institute of Architects, an organization that awarded
him with their most prestigious honor, admission into their College of Fellows
in 2009, for making contributions of national significance.
Washington also belongs to the Louisiana Architects
Association, and prior to his stroke, he served three terms as president of the
National Organization of Minority Architects. He was inducted into their
national council in 2006.
One of his primary concerns after his stroke was
his inability to help the citizens of New Orleans following Katrina. Most of
his family members including his mother, four adult children, and many of his
siblings were left homeless by Katrina so his need to focus on his physical
recovery was a source of great frustration.
“It was totally different for me not to be able to
get around,” he recalls. “There were
people I could have helped and I was really sad I couldn’t help them find good
contractors to work with them.”
However, passion for his work is what keeps him
moving forward despite very limited use of his left arm—even after five years
of rehabilitation and therapy.
“I want to continue my career and I want to be a
mentor,” Washington explains. “I’m only 64 years old and there are a lot of
things I want to do. Quitting isn’t an option,”
he states firmly.
Ramping Up Rehab
Because of his determination to continue in his
career, Washington pushed his rehab program to a more intensive level last
November. He checked into one of the premier stroke rehab hospitals in the
world. After seeing a story about the facility on CNN, Washington signed
up—determined to take his strength, mobility and self-sufficiency to a higher
For three grueling weeks, he worked out on
specialized equipment for four hours every day.
“The equipment was like stuff I’d never seen before and I’d been in
therapy for four years,” Washington
Midway through the program, his brother visited.
“It was a beautiful fall day and I got out of the car and started walking. I
walked into a restaurant and then around a department store and went the whole
day without using a cane,” he
reminisces. “The following Monday when
Dr. Taub came by to check in and encourage me, I was told I was going a little
too fast, but his words gave me the encouragement I needed.”
Back in New Orleans in his newly restored home,
Washington continues on a series of six different exercises he learned at the
rehab center for two hours every morning, seven days a week. Additionally, on
Friday and Sunday evenings he has stretching therapy on his upper extremities
and on Wednesday evenings he receives deep tissue massages to loosen his
muscles for the rest of the week.
The progress is measurable and meaningful. “I do pretty well walking and yesterday I
walked outside with a trash bag, put the trash in the can, and walked back
inside without the aid of a cane and that is something I couldn’t do a year
ago,” he says.
The challenges continue on tasks both large and
small from dressing to cooking but Washington remains optimistic and despite
frustrations, has found ways to cope. “I
still haven’t figured out a great way to put on my socks,” he says with a laugh. “But when I’m having a problem or getting
discouraged, I just take a minute, laugh a little and try again.”
Professional Pursuits Prevail
Mentoring young architects is something
Washington has always loved and continues every chance he gets. “My life work has been mentoring young
architects about building design and in the business of architecture,” he offers.
“It’s what I did before and what I do now. If a young intern needs
advice, I always find time for a phone call or an email.”
His firm reached its 33rd anniversary last January
and Washington is now focused on another long-term goal—celebrating its 40th
anniversary in 2018. He reports they have a lot more work than before Katrina
and right now they are working on several schools, including a $16 million
elementary school and a $53 million high school renovation.
“We have a lot of contracts and projects
going,” he says with pride. “My drive is
to keep working because this is my business. It is more than a job, it’s my
life. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t come in here and laugh and talk
and tell stories to the young people and encourage them, while they encourage
Washington considers himself fortunate to have all
the support he gets from family and co-workers. “I have four great kids; one
daughter is working on a PhD in nursing, another is a licensed civil engineer,
another daughter is a CPA and Associate Dean at a local university, and working
on a PhD in financial management, and my son is an attorney and CPA. Those are
all amazing accomplishments.”
Washington takes pride in everyone’s achievements
including the accomplishments of his children, the success of his firm, the
young people he has mentored, and the design awards he and his firm have
earned. But there is something even more satisfying. “I’ve found out that it isn’t
about doing business and making money, it is about helping people,” he says.
How does Washington find inspiration to keep
working on days when pain, fatigue or spasticity present obstacles to progress?
“First, I do a lot of reading on strokes and about stroke therapy,” he explains. “I’m encouraged by reading other
Other tactics that keep him going on tough days:
Talk to other people who have been through it to get support and
Remember the scripture saying, “faith without works is dead.”
- Focus on the things accomplished.
Go back to work if you can—the job helps provide focus on tough days.
Remember that recovery is a process that requires hard work.
Joan Christensen is a freelance writer based
in Winter Park, Colo. She earned her masters degree in health education from
the University of Utah.