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My Stroke of Luck



When the school year commenced last fall, I was reminded of that common first assignment we all faced as students when classes resumed each year: Write a short paragraph about what you did during your summer vacation. I didn’t look forward to this assignment during my days as a student, not because I didn’t have exciting summers but because I struggled with writing. One year I just stared at a blank sheet of paper as my 6th-grade teacher, Mrs. King, walked by and whispered, “Just write the title about the best part of your summer and the rest of the words will come easy.”

Taking her advice, I am writing about my recent stroke of luck. This might qualify as my most important back-to-school essay if it promotes awareness of stroke, the third leading cause of death in the United States, according to the American Heart Association.

On graduation day last spring, I suffered a stroke. My body was making it clear. My balance was off, and I was walking like a duck. I had a difficult time driving to work and began to slur my speech. I even gave an elementary principal three hugs at an end-of-year assembly. That was three more than I had given him during his 12 years in the district.

By the middle of the day, I felt so sick I went home, threw up and got in bed. Although my body was trying to tell me something was really wrong, my mind was arguing back. It was saying, “It’s just a bug. You have graduation; buck up, buddy; just get some sleep and you will rally by graduation.” Unfortunately, my brain won the argument for the day, and I slurred and mumbled my way through my graduation address. I am sure attendees figured I had gone to the bar before the ceremony. Not exactly the impression a superintendent wants to make — especially with a public budget vote on the horizon.

A Critical Choice
My first stroke of luck is that on the following day, I listened to my family and co-workers who recognized I was demonstrating stroke symptoms. At their insistence, I finally called my physician and was directed to proceed immediately to the closest hospital emergency room.

My good fortune continued. The Northwest Hospital Stroke Team quickly went into action, determining I had suffered a pons area stroke and admitting me for treatment. The pons area is part of the brain stem that contains bundles of nerves carrying movement and sensory messages between the brain and body. A small stroke in this area can have significant consequences because of the concentration of electrical circuits, which lose blood supply as a result of a clot or hemorrhage.

Again, I was lucky to have my family and an entire medical team devoted to helping my stubborn brain understand I had two choices — I could be a stroke victim or a stroke patient. I chose patient, a critical decision for recovery.

Being a stroke patient means you commit to a recovery plan, which means staying away from work, along with undertaking rigorous physical and speech therapy. I was lucky to have an understanding and prepared board of education, which allowed for a quick transition of leadership to my exceptional associate superintendent.

I also was fortunate that early in my superintendency, my board had requested a crisis plan that could be put in place immediately if I should become unable to work. This plan allowed me to turn off my smartphone and be really smart by resting and focusing on rehabilitation.

Personal Learning
Relearning is humbling and frustrating. I was lucky to have great therapists, who helped me work on balance and eye-hand coordination, along with regaining my speech and cognitive reasoning skills. More importantly, they gave me a deeper perspective and understanding of the fine line between frustration being a motivator for learning and frustration making me cry and shut down because I couldn’t do what I thought was a simple puzzle or name words that start with the letter P.

Having been an educator for 36 years, I thought I knew everything about teaching and learning. Luckily, my stroke helped me discover I still have more to learn. Now, each time I walk into a classroom, I have a new appreciation for how important it is for the teacher to be patient and caring while teaching students a new skill. This stroke also made me aware of the power of the teacher’s approval when students make even small progress toward a goal.

I was really lucky last summer because I took time to learn about how to prevent strokes. We need to know the risk factors, which include some you can control, such as tobacco smoke, obesity, diabetes, physical inactivity, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and some you can’t, such as family history and increasing age.

Do something about the factors you can control and make some changes in your life. Don’t sweat the small stuff, and be sure to hug your family and friends more than three times a day. I wonder how Mrs. King would assess this essay. I hope it deserves an A, because I can’t handle a B right now. Just ask my speech therapist.

Nicholas Clement is superintendent of the Flowing Wells Unified School District in Tucson, Ariz. E-mail:


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