Past Stroke Hero Award Recipients
2021 Stroke Hero Awardees
"I’m honored to receive this award and to be recognized by such a prestigious organization. This award is dedicated to my father. My father is the real hero. His strength and courage throughout his battle with locked-in syndrome gave me the strength, courage and inspiration to become an outspoken advocate for better systems of care for stroke patients." Mark Matasic
For a year, Mark Matasic provided around-the-clock care for his dad — his best friend — whose severe brain stem stroke left him completely paralyzed and only able to move his eyes.
It was, Mark said, his “labor of love” until his dad died in 2016.
“I cared for him in hospitals, rehabilitation facilities and at home,” Mark said.
Mark’s experience was also the impetus to become an advocate for improving stroke systems of care in Ohio and to honor his dad, who didn’t get lifesaving treatment at the hospital until almost 19 hours after his stroke.
Since connecting with the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association, Mark has testified before state legislators on the need for stroke transport protocols and a stroke registry. He also writes newspaper editorials and articles for AHA newsletters about his father’s stroke care and his family’s difficulties.
While caring for his dad, Mark said he “emotionally broke down” at times. But family and others supported him and helped him get through it.
“If it’s possible, I recommend finding someone that can step in for you from time to time and provide care while you take a break,” he said. “You need some time away to avoid burnout.”
Mark also suggests caregivers join a support group and learn everything they can from nurses and therapists.
“Ask questions and be a strong advocate for your loved one,” he said. “Make sure they are getting the best care possible at all times. Do your research and find out what your options are. Do not be afraid to speak up!”
"On behalf of our survivors of stroke and their families, ASF staff and Board of Directors, we graciously accept this group award. This recognition gives us hope and affirmation that by supporting each other we are creating an enhanced quality of life for all of us," Jane Savidge, American Stroke Foundation Executive Director.
Just one week after the COVID-19 pandemic closed the American Stroke Foundation’s “Next Step” program, the staff pivoted to a virtual experience.
And it’s been just as impactful.
Resilient stroke survivors and their care partners have adapted to many abrupt changes — staying engaged by using Zoom, reading daily emails with educational content and participating in therapeutic activities while remaining at home.
The nonprofit organization in Overland, Kansas still offers these services through its “Next Step” program:
- Stroke education
- Daily physical and cognitive activities and exercises
- Daily communication classes
- Weekly support groups
- Monthly educational webinars
- Socialization of “still being together”
The services have continued during the pandemic with support from volunteers and academic programs: the University of Kansas Occupational Therapy Program; Creighton University Occupational Therapy Program; Eastern Michigan University Occupational Therapy Program; South Dakota State University Occupational Therapy Program; Rockhurst University Occupational Therapy Program; Metropolitan Community Colleges; Penn Valley Campus Occupational Therapy Assistant Program; Cleveland University Occupational Therapy Assistant Program; Rockhurst University Speech and Communication Disorders Program; University of Missouri, Kansas City Campus Music Therapy Program; University of Kansas Health Systems; Maggie Rodgers, music therapist at Brookdale Hospice Care; and Don Sears, a retired pastor.
"I am surprised and proud to win the Pediatric Hero award. I hope learning about my journey will help others struggling to recover from a stroke; it isn’t easy. I am also excited because the message will allow more people, especially young people, to learn the signs of a stroke," Sarah Weiss.
Sarah Weiss was only 11 when she had a devastating stroke during swim practice.
But it didn’t stop the Omaha, Nebraska resident.
Through extensive physical therapy, she’s regained most of the use of the right side of her body, overcome reading and communication challenges, and even switched to writing from her right hand to her left.
Sarah has now made it her mission to make others aware of stroke — from her classmates to those in her community. She has designed, printed and distributed bookmarks to teach people the stroke warning signs and how to respond to a stroke F.A.S.T.: Face drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulty, Time to call 911.
An ardent advocate for the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association, Sarah also spreads her message through media interviews and shares her story as a stroke survivor at Go Red for Women events and with others her age in support groups across the city.
“I thought I was really healthy and I thought I would never have to worry about something like that,” said Sarah, who was active in dance and golf when she had the stroke. “It could happen to anyone. So I feel like everybody should know how to spot a stroke.”
One day she plans to be a nurse or a speech therapist. Meanwhile, she’s back in the pool.
"Winning this award represents recognition of the support and caring that the members provide to each other and the community... an authentic support group," Kathy Morrison, Facilitator.
The Penn State Hershey Stroke Support Group has had a singular purpose for the past 34 years: serving fellow survivors and caregivers.
Partnering with Penn State Health staff in Hershey, Pennsylvania, the group has inspired many and raised awareness about stroke. As a result, their average monthly attendance at meetings has increased from eight to 40 survivors and caregivers.
The group, which adopted the informal title “Stroke Survivors and Thrivers” eight years ago:
- Meets separately with survivors and caregivers quarterly for frank discussions and support without burdening their loved ones.
- Hands out F.A.S.T. stroke warning signs pocket cards throughout the area.
- Participates in community awareness events and screenings and the American Heart Association’s annual Heart Walk.
- Volunteers for research studies to increase knowledge about stroke, including one member who became the third person in the world to volunteer for a deep brain stimulator study at the Cleveland Clinic.
Another member has spread messages about his stroke journey through poignant essays.
Penn State Health published his booklet of essays that members share with family, friends and other support groups. And recently, another member and his wife started the non-profit Stroke Survivor Foundation to grant stroke survivors’ wishes. And all members of the Penn State Hershey Stroke Support Group say they’re driven to inspire and educate others that strokes aren’t the end of their stories — but another chapter.
"I'm honored to be recognized with this prestigious award! I feel this acknowledgment validates the importance of peer programs to support stroke survivors as they adjust to life after a stroke," Judy Crane.
Since her stroke, Judy Crane has been a passionate activist, mentor and peer for survivors. In 2011, soon after she began serving on the Anne Arundel Medical Center (AAMC) Patient and Family Advisory Council in Annapolis, Maryland, she partnered with the stroke coordinator and nursing leaders to obtain and allocate funding for a peer/mentoring stroke program.
She also works with the center’s patient therapy program and other stroke survivors to assign peer mentoring. And she organizes activities such as Work Out Your Words, a program combining speech with movement for stroke survivors. Working with the in-patient stroke unit staff, she helps organize bedside and discharge support.
Meanwhile, she works part-time at the Snyder Center for Aphasia Life Enhancement and coordinates groups for the Young Aphasia Communication Club in Maryland, which she started in 2007.
In 2005, Judy was a 47-year-old mother, wife and medical sales professional when a stroke abruptly interrupted her life. She subsequently had four surgeries related to aortic dissection and stroke.
After a five-week hospital stay, Judy went to rehab before finally returning home with global aphasia as her most prominent deficit.
Now a new grandmother, Judy still actively participates on the AAMC’s multi-disciplinary stroke committee. The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t slowed her down either.
She shifted her support groups to Zoom while encouraging members to also use FaceTime, email and telephone calls to connect. Judy, who also shares her story at local gatherings and in-services for medical professionals, said she’s driven by the desire to give survivors hope and show that life still goes on—even after a stroke.
"I tell Michael that I am proud of him every day. This honor shows him that he has a support system behind him that he inspires," Jennifer Keeble, Michael’s mom.
Michael Keeble was supposed to have a typical birth on April 30, 2018.
But he didn’t.
Michael was having seizures following delivery, so he was rushed to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, where he spent more than a week in intensive care. Michael had a stroke.
Since then, the gritty boy from Quakertown, Pennsylvania has fought hard to overcome the effects of his stroke, including seizures and permanent brain damage that caused weakness to the right side of his body.
Michael has endured various therapies to improve his motor skills. And though he likely will continue to struggle to use his right hand and fingers, he walks and eats independently.
As a testament to how he’s overcome obstacles, Michael was involved in extracurricular activities such as swim lessons and music class. He also loves playing outside, shoveling snow and going on walks.
His perseverance — and progress — has inspired many, including his mom and dad and especially his little brother, an infant botulism survivor. Besides playing a major role in helping Michael recover from his stroke, Jennifer and Brett Keeble raise awareness and funds for various efforts related to perinatal stroke, which usually occurs between the middle of pregnancy and one month of age.
Even the pandemic hasn’t halted the Keebles.
In May 2020, Brett ran 100 miles to educate people about and raise funds for pediatric stroke. They’ve raised money for and volunteered at the Children’s Hospital stroke camp. The couple also held their annual holiday toy drive for children at the hospital.
To raise even more awareness, Jennifer and Brett purchased and distributed bracelets benefiting the Pediatric Stroke Warriors nonprofit.
And to celebrate Michael, the family proudly wears pediatric stroke shirts.
Caregiver Hero - Mark Matasic
Group Heroes – American Stroke Foundation
Pediatric Stroke Hero - Sarah Weiss
Support Group Penn State Hershey Stroke Support Group
Voters’ Choice Hero – Michael Keeble
2020 Stroke Hero Awardees
“Prior to our daughter having her stroke at only 8 years old, I didn't even know the signs of a stroke, let alone that they could happen to a healthy child. We will continue to educate people about the signs of a stroke and that they can happen to anyone at any age,” Jill Veach.
On what Jill Veach thought would be an ordinary day in July 2017, her daughter, Claudia, suddenly could not walk or talk and had a severe headache, right arm weakness and facial drooping. An ambulance arrived quickly and the paramedic shared his initial diagnosis with Jill: “I believe your daughter is having a stroke.” Jill replied, “but she’s only eight years old!” He said, “anyone with blood pumping through their veins can have a stroke.” Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center quickly confirmed the paramedic’s suspicion, and Claudia was diagnosed with Focal Cerebral Arteriopathy, a condition where blood vessel inflammation leads to a narrowing of a major artery in the brain.
When Claudia left the hospital, Jill took on her new role as a stroke survivor’s caregiver with tenacity and grace. She balanced administering daily medications and taking Claudia to doctor’s appointments and tests with her regular day-to-day demands of family and work. Nearly three years later.
Claudia has made a full recovery, and together, Jill and Claudia are working to raise awareness of pediatric stroke in their community. Jill reconnected with the hospital that treated Claudia asking how she could help raise awareness. This led to participation in the International Pediatric Stroke Study and filming an educational video for the hospital and participating in a news story on Claudia’s stroke. Jill has also written a blog for the International Alliance for Pediatric Stroke, is active in the Greater Cincinnati Stroke Consortium and is always looking for opportunities to share the warning signs of stroke.
Jill’s determination knows no bounds. She is now inviting friends and family to walk in the American Heart Association’s Heart Mini-Marathon & Walk in honor of Claudia as part of the team “Claudia’s Crusaders.”
"The choir members are truly amazing, and they inspire me with their positive attitudes, good humor, and tenacity. I can't think of a better way to honor them!” – Karen McFeeters Leary, Director
Making inspiring music together is the Aphasia Choir of Vermont’s goal. While helping its members express themselves more freely through singing, the group also educates the community about communication disabilities and provides a supportive community for stroke survivors with aphasia.
Karen McFeeters Leary, a retired speech-language pathologist and singer/songwriter, started the group and has directed it for six years, growing it from 22 members to more than 50. The first aphasia choir in Vermont, the group includes stroke and traumatic brain injury survivors, family members, caregivers, physical therapy assistants, speech-language pathologists and University of Vermont students studying communication sciences. They rehearse for months during the spring to prepare for their annual performance in June for National Aphasia Awareness Month, and they also take time to highlight members’ victories and support each other.
The concert attracts more and more people every year, with the 2019 performance entertaining nearly 600 attendees. The music ranges from Broadway hits to Motown classics, including pieces where members play instruments such as kazoos and a one-hand adapted guitar. Choir members also educate the audience about aphasia, including tips for communicating with someone who has aphasia.
The Aphasia Choir of Vermont’s members may struggle with aphasia, but when they make music together, they communicate in a beautiful and inspiring way.
“Our group has worked very hard to make stroke education and awareness a focal point in our rural communities of eastern Kentucky, and I am very honored that our efforts have been recognized by the American Stroke Association," Keisha Hudson, coordinator/leader.
Since 2015, this diverse group of stroke survivors, caregivers, family members and healthcare professionals has been working to increase stroke awareness and provide stroke education to all ages. They have made it their mission to ensure that prevention education is offered and quality services are available for everyone affected by a stroke. Their passion is palpable, and their commitment is strong.
A traditional support group with monthly meetings featuring camaraderie, support and education by local experts, they also actively work to raise stroke awareness in under-resourced rural eastern Kentucky — a region with one of the highest stroke rates in the nation — through outreach efforts, local radio and TV appearances and stroke screening events.
They have worked with city and county officials to establish proclamations for stroke awareness for several years. For American Stroke Month last May, the group educated over 600 elementary, middle and high school students about the signs and symptoms of stroke, stroke prevention and how to become advocates within their communities. In October 2019 they hosted their first stroke lunch and learn for World Stroke Day, where they performed 50 stroke risk screenings and were featured in a local news story. The Hazard Stroke Survivor and Caregiver Support Group works relentlessly to make a positive impact on members’ lives and their community.
"Pediatric stroke is one that is not often talked about and I’m glad that I can use the voice that was given back to me to raise awareness and educate about stroke,” Gracie Doran.
Ten-year-old Gracie Doran was surfing when she had a stroke caused by a brain stem bleed. Surgery saved her life, but she was in a coma for several days and woke up partially paralyzed. Then she began her recovery journey. In inpatient rehabilitation, Gracie relearned how to eat, speak and walk, relying heavily on the discipline and determination she’d developed as a competitive dancer to help her persevere. After rehab, she continued with years of therapy and had three more brain surgeries. Though she still faces challenges, including loss of the use of her right hand and a speech impediment due to facial paralysis, Gracie doesn’t let anything stand in the way of her goals.
In the 10 years since her stroke, Gracie has dedicated herself to helping others and raising awareness as an American Heart Association volunteer and advocate. She speaks at Heart Balls, Go Red luncheons and Go Red STEM events, telling audiences, “I had a stroke, the stroke does not have me.” She has been a panelist at the White House Health Care Summit and participated in the You’re the Cure Lobby Day on Capitol Hill.
Gracie also started a dance company, the Rising Stars, for children with disabilities. They’ve been dancing for seven seasons and are an all-inclusive group, allowing siblings to participate as well. Gracie is now in college working toward a master’s degree in social justice and leadership. She hopes to go to law school and pursue a career as an advocate for stroke and people with disabilities.
Mark is very honored and grateful for this award voted on by his peers. His testimony continues daily and he gives all the glory to God and his amazing support system in his family and friends.
The above quote was a collaborative effort from Mark and his wife, Tonya, since he still struggles with aphasia and apraxia.
Over a decade ago, Mark Kincaid experienced a catastrophic ischemic stroke at age 42 due to undiagnosed high blood pressure. Doctors predicted that Mark might not survive surgery to treat the stroke, and if he did, he would live the rest of his days in a vegetative state.
But Mark defied the predictions as soon as he woke up from surgery. After weeks of intensive inpatient therapy, he began regaining some of his cognitive and physical abilities, and after three months in hospitals, he was finally able to go home.
Mark continued working hard on his recovery, almost always doing double what was recommended. By playing brain games and doing speech therapy activities, Mark continued to improve his cognitive and communication skills, although he still struggles with expressive aphasia and apraxia to this day. His stroke heavily impacted the right side of his body, so his therapy included using a leg brace and electric stimulation units for his leg and arm.
Mark joined his local stroke support group and has been an active member for years. He regularly participates in stroke education activities in schools, helps provide stroke awareness education at local events and works with a rehabilitation center to help patients learn to cope with the aftermath of a stroke. Mark also helps educate graduate students at Eastern Kentucky University on the stroke survivor experience and works to achieve local and national recognition for Stroke Awareness Month and World Stroke Day.
Mark’s undeniable fighting spirit helps make him a great role model for stroke survivors. Read Mark's story, Given a grim prognosis, stroke survivor proved doctors wrong.