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Winter 2011

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A Handbook of Hope

Richard Burns Returns from 
a Massive Stroke to Inspire Stroke Awareness 

Story By 
Jessica Nicholas

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 life.

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.

Later switching 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 born.

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 devastating stroke.

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 on recovery.

“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.”

“I’m 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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