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Stroke Smart Magazine

Winter 2010

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Mark McEwen
Sharing the Hope, Lessons and Insight in His Journey Back to Life

He had no idea.

When Mark McEwen, beloved former weatherman and entertainment reporter for The Early Show felt numbness in his right leg and arm, he had no idea what it might mean.

When McEwen felt weak and nauseated to the point of seeking treatment at a Baltimore-area hospital, where he was told he had the stomach flu, it didn’t occur to him that it could be something more serious.

And when two days later, on Nov. 15, 2005, McEwen suffered a major stroke on a flight to Orlando, Fla., he felt he was alone. He had no idea he was one of nearly 795,000 Americans each year to have a stroke. In fact, it was McEwen’s second stroke; the first was misdiagnosed two days before.

”I thought I was the only person in the world who’d had a stroke, he said. I thought it was just me.”

McEwen, whose stroke was caused by a blood clot in his cerebellum, now knows better. Since his injury he has been a stalwart spokesperson for stroke awareness and a catalyst for stroke prevention as a speaker and as a writer.

McEwen released After the Stroke: My Journey Back to Life in May 2009. The book was originally published in hard-back as Change in the Weather: Life After Stroke in 2008. The book is an inspirational outreach to stroke survivors, an educational tool about risk and a testament to one mans spirit in the face of great adversity. Published by Gotham Books, the book is a snapshot of McEwen’s recovery after stroke, the people who supported him and the adjustments he has made to ensure that he and those whose lives he’s touched can avoid future stroke. “When I talk to stroke survivors, it’s like being in a sea of people who know of what you speak. They’ve been there. They understand,” he said. “I want people to know there are survivors just like them out in the world.”

Life in the Limelight

An enigmatic character whose optimism and exuberance exude across the airwaves and the phone lines, McEwen spent 15 years at CBS at The Early Show in various positions starting in 1987. In his prestigious career, he has interviewed U.S. presidents Bill Clinton, George Bush and Gerald Ford and celebrities such as Bill Cosby, Tony Bennett and Tom Hanks - three of his favorites, he confesses.

McEwen was chosen in 1995 as one of the 10 Most Trusted TV News Personalities in a TV Guide survey and served as a correspondent on the CBS News show 48 Hours. He covered three Winter Olympics and even anchored the morning broadcast from Nagano, Japan, during CBS Sports coverage of the Olympic Winter Games.

In 2002, McEwen left his position to be closer to family in Central Florida, anchoring at WKMG in Orlando. Months after having his stroke, McEwen said in an interview that he hoped one day to return to the television station.

McEwen notes now, though, that there’s no going back. The breakneck pace of being an anchor or being in news in general is no longer his thing. “I haven’t been back on TV. I’m doing more good giving speeches and raising stroke awareness,” he said. “What I’ve found out is, if a doctor tells you something, you might listen. If a person who has gone through something like this says it, you’re all ears.”

A Man at Risk

As with most stroke survivors, McEwen’s life has changed dramatically. Uncontrollable factors, such as having high blood pressure — although it was being treated — and being an African-American male put him at higher risk for a stroke. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that:

  • African-American adults are twice as likely to have a stroke than their white adult counterparts.
  • African-American men are 60 percent more likely to die from a stroke than adult white men.
  • African-American stroke survivors are more likely to become disabled and have difficulty with activities of daily living than their non-Hispanic white counterparts.

However, McEwen also realizes that his fast-paced lifestyle was a contributing factor. “

Getting up at 4 in the morning for decades, you get used to just grabbing things to eat, things that are easy,” he said. “I used to not be concerned with what I ate. Now my diet has changed.”

Pastas and pastries have given way to fruits, vegetables and fish… which is not to say McEwen doesn’t give in to the occasional indulgence. “I know when I’m being bad now,” he says. “If I can’t remember when the last time was I had a piece of chocolate cake, I might have a piece of chocolate cake.”

McEwen exercises every day and “is in better shape now than I was 10 years ago.” He continues to work hard on his recovery, trying hydrotherapy and acupuncture in addition to continued physical and occupational therapies to strengthen his muscles. He’s hired a trainer to keep him motivated and optimistic. Physically, he considers his recovery on a scale of one to 10 at eight.

“Some days are better than others, he admits. Living is hard work. Some days I tell survivors, 'If you don’t feel like doing anything today, don’t do it. Save it ‘til tomorrow.’”

Because talking has been his livelihood, McEwen has been especially impassioned about strengthening his speech, noting he feels he’s at a level six or seven. Reading aloud has helped.

“When I first had a stroke, people Id meet knew Id had a stroke,” he said. “Now people I meet don’t know anything has happened, and that’s kind of a good thing.”

Spreading the Word on Risk, Prevention

McEwen’s memoir is peppered with insights, discovery, optimism, wit and humor. “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” he said. “I like being like Johnny Appleseed. I think spreading the word about stroke is important.”

McEwen, his wife, Denise, and twin sons are living and thriving in Orlando. Still, McEwen realizes that having a stroke and being a caregiver can be isolating experiences, even if you’ve attained celebrity status. McEwen has not only spread comfort, knowledge and hope to stroke survivors and their families, he’s also found his own hope and power in these kindred spirits.

“Seeing someone who is gung-ho allows them to hope,” he said. As he speaks of his symptoms, his experience with stroke and his journey to recovery, McEwen sees other survivors nodding, reaffirming, “I’m not the only person this has happened to.”

A Glance at
‘After the Stroke: My Journey Back to Life’

By Mark McEwen with Daniel Paisner

I walked onto the plane with the pre-boarders. Looking back, I think I must have grabbed onto the seat backs a little too tightly as I made my way to my seat. I was a little wobbly on my feet, and needed the extra support. There was no one else in my row when I sat down, but I was soon joined by an attractive woman who sat next to me. She wanted to talk. I wanted to sleep ­ or, at least, to stare blankly through my window and try not to throw up. It was my seatmate’s first trip to Orlando. She was concerned about the humidity. I smiled and told her it wasn’t the humidity she had had to worry about, it was the heat, which of course was an odd piece of insight from a former weatherman, but she seemed to take it in stride. After a while, the talk trailed off, and I don’t remember too much about the flight after that. I might have slept, but I don’t think so. Mostly I just zoned out. The flight attendants didn’t pay much attention to me, as I recall. If I could have curled up in a tight ball and disappeared, I would have surely done so, but as it was I could only wait out the rest of the flight.

When the plane started its descent, I suddenly found I couldn’t talk. I tried to say something to the woman sitting next to me, to ask her if she too was experiencing the same strange sensation, but no words would come. I couldn’t even think where to start, to make myself understood. I tried to move, to reposition myself in my seat to get more comfortable, but my muscles wouldn’t respond. It was as if I was paralyzed, and it was a terrifying realization, but then the terror left me as quickly as it had appeared. Then I just closed my eyes and hoped I was having a bad dream, but when I opened them I saw it was no dream. I was right there in my seat, confused and disoriented and unable to move or even communication. I was there and not there, all at once. I learned later that I was experiencing a massive stroke compounded by the stroke Id experienced two days earlier, but of course I couldn’t know any of this at the time. I could barely tell you my own name.

I have one clear memory of our descent. I was trying to make sense of a senseless thing, this sudden sickness and weakness and paralysis, when I looked out the window and saw the sun looming over the horizon. It struck me just then as the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. There I was, unable to move a muscle without tremendous effort or even to speak, and alongside this agony was this picture of sheer beauty and wonder. Really, I was fairly lucid and coherent, and it was one of those bizarre freeze-frame moments that pass over you with a thousand tiny story lines attached to it, and you have a thousand possibilities to consider about what it might mean, and another thousand to consider once you run through the first batch. Probably it just lasted a second or two, until I zoned out all over again, but it has stayed with me. It’s like a picture postcard I carry commemorating my descent into months of rehabilitation and recovery. I close my eyes and see that beautiful skyscape, a backdrop that gave no clue to the stroke that was trying to kill me.

That’s the thing about stroke. It’s like a stealth missile. It sneaks up on you, often without warning, sometimes right in the middle of a joyful or beautiful moment. Even if you see it coming, you don’t know what it is. You don’t know to get out of the way.

Published by Gotham Books, a member of the Penguin group: Change in the Weather: Life After Stroke (2008); After the Stroke: My Journey Back to Life (2009)


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