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A Handbook of Hope
Richard Burns Returns from
a Massive Stroke to Inspire Stroke Awareness
Doctors desperately tried to revive
an unresponsive Richard L. Burns, 38, on the night after Christmas in 1968.
Burns had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. The massive stroke damaged his brain,
and the doctors threw up their hands in defeat. They recommended that his wife
make the final arrangements. Burns was as good as dead, they said. But the next
morning, after his obituary had been prepared, Burns woke up from a coma. No
one could explain his sudden recovery. He was afforded a rare second chance at
Burns has became a
spokesperson for stroke awareness and recovery. He believes it is his duty to
write and publish his memoir, Live or Die: A Stroke of Good Luck, which
he calls “a handbook of hope.” It chronicles life after stroke and offers
readers advice on how to come out victorious after suffering a major illness.
Burns is a retired
ad man. Painting the smiles on Pacific Southwest Airlines airplanes was his
idea. Prior to his stroke, Burns worked in broadcasting and as an advertising
executive. He had always known he wanted to work in television—it was the new
and up-and-coming medium of the time. After serving almost three years in the
Army, he landed his first job as a driver and delivery boy for a local
California TV station, KPIX. With determination and hard work, Burns soon moved
up from go-fer to marketing and sales.
from television to advertising, Burns moved with his wife, Nancy, to New York City, the nucleus of the industry. He was
a “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” as
people in his business were called—a real life
“Madison Avenue Man.”
“It was very
exciting working on Madison Avenue. I was just a little guy from California in
this big city with all the big people and the big names. There was no time for
relaxation or fooling around,” said Burns.
Burns likes watching AMC’s Mad Men,
although he says the show doesn’t have all the facts straight. In a recent
interview he said, “We did drink too
much and smoke too much, but we weren’t that sexist. They’re trying to get
viewers. Hey, I get it—I made commercials.”
Perhaps Burns’ greatest success
was a campaign conceived over cocktails at Manhattan’s famous Oak Room in the
Plaza Hotel. His team had a dilemma: How could they communicate the need and
usefulness of their product to consumers when that product was men’s underwear?
In 1964, making underwear socially acceptable and inspiring millions to buy
them was a challenge, since showing briefs on television was definitely not appropriate
at the time.
Burns and his team
of “Mad Men” came up with a solution.
Instead of featuring men in their underwear, they would dress men up in silly,
full-coverage fruit costumes. In his book he jokes, “You should be the
banana... and you can handle being a pear rather well… and a fig for you!” The legendary Fruit of the Loom campaign was
Burns and his
family returned to northern California in 1965. In his new job as a partner at
an advertising firm, Burns was on top of the world; creative juices were
pumping through his veins.
“Life was a
cornucopia of riches, and I didn’t have to think about the future. I was taking
life for granted,” he said.
But his life was
about to change. After his stroke, Burns found himself in the hospital unable
to move, unable to speak and barely able to think.
In the days before
his stroke, Burns had eye surgery for a detached retina, during which doctors
turned his eye around in its socket to reach the retina for repairs. Something
went wrong—and unnoticed—during the procedure, which eventually led to his
The family doctor told Burns, “An artery burst in the back of your head
flooding the whole cranial cavity, systematically destroying your brain
cells—top to bottom.”
Over the next year,
Burns was in and out of four different hospitals. His slow recovery had begun.
He couldn’t walk, but eventually, like a child on his way to his first steps,
Richard crawled and then graduated to walking upright with a cane. But that
wasn’t good enough for his wife. Out for a walk together one day, Nancy kicked
the cane right out from under him and broke it in half over her leg. By golly,
he would walk on his own, she insisted. And he did.
If he could walk,
Burns knew he should try to go back to work. Advertising was what he loved and
that’s what he returned to. However, because of the stroke’s damage to his
brain, Burns wasn’t the same man. “I
couldn’t do the job I wanted. People didn’t understand why I slurred. I wasn’t
ready,” said Burns. He felt as though his creativity had expired.
It hadn’t. Instead
Burns began writing, and what started out as a diary turned into his most
rewarding endeavor. In his early writing, Burns pieced together what had
happened to him with input from his wife and doctor.
In 1971, Burns took his writing to the next
level and rented a home in Carmel, Calif., where he wrote undisturbed. There,
he turned his diary into a book he thought could help people. However, the
first try was “terrible,” said Burns. He
put the idea to rest, but with his newfound sense of purpose, he focused again
“I felt some
bitterness at first. Why me? But then, this job of coming back took over, and
it was all I could think of. Every waking moment was spent trying to make
myself whole again. It was a creative challenge to recover. Each step I took
along the way, I would make an improvement, and it was such a satisfaction to
have a breakthrough, to realize success. In many respects, that’s creativity.
Whether it’s a book or a commercial—whatever it is—if it helps you, and you know
it will help others, there’s a great satisfaction,” said Burns. Recovery wasn’t
just about regaining dexterity; it was about becoming a better person. It was
about coming back to life.
Unable to “do nothing,”
Burns re-entered the workforce. He worked in development, consulting and
fundraising and for nonprofits. He recalls proudly leading the Council on
Foundations on their successful mission to lower the tax base for operating
foundations from 5 percent to 2 percent.
More than 30 years
later, Burns revisited his book idea.
“When it boils down to it, life is the inspiration, before and after the
stroke. My late wife, as a person, was my creative inspiration. She was my
raison d'être (reason for existence),” he said.
In 2003, Burns’
agent read what he had written years ago and offered him some advice: Rewrite.
So Burns did just that and cut it down from 30-plus chapters and 300-plus pages
to the current 168-page book it is today, Live or Die: A Stroke of Good Luck.
“It’s written to
read like fiction. It’s sugar to help the truth go down,” he said. “Just like advertising.”
alive because I’ve learned to be a better person in spite of, and because of,
my infirmities,” he said. Burns took his
second chance at life and used it to help others understand stroke and
recovery, and, most importantly, to inspire hope in his readers.
Jessica Nicholas, account executive at Armanasco Public Relations in Monterey, Calif., has an MA from Georgetown University and a BA from the University of Southern California.
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