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Summer 2011

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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.” 

 Washington 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 level.

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 marveled.

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 me.”

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.

Motivation for Washington

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 people’s stories.”

Other tactics that keep him going on tough days:

Talk to other people who have been through it to get support and encouragement.
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.

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