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HEART Insight:
doi: 10.1097/01.HEARTI.0000319861.41460.15
Features: Cover Story

Weathering The Storm

Collier, Andrea King

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This Beloved Media Personality Is Lending His Voice To Educating Americans About Stroke

Mark McEwen, 54, has had nine lives — no, really. He's been a stand-up comedian; a top disc jockey in Detroit, Chicago and New York; the former weatherman — then co-host — of CBS' morning show; the host and lead writer of A&E's “Live by Request,” featuring top recording artists singing songs requested by viewers; host of Food Network's “Celebrity Dish,” which featured celebrities cooking their favorite meals; the news anchor at WKMG-TV in Orlando, FL, and ... well, let's pick the story up from here, just after he landed that gig in Orlando.

During a flight to the Baltimore, MD, area to see family and friends in November 2005, Mark started to feel sweaty and ill. “When we landed, I felt so out of sorts that I went to the counter and asked for help,” he says. Mark was taken to an area hospital by ambulance, diagnosed with the flu and released. He stayed with friends for a few days to rest before heading back to Orlando.

Figure. SUNNY McEwen...
Figure. SUNNY McEwen...
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He felt even worse on the return trip: “I couldn't talk, and was so weak.” When the plane landed, “I tried to call my wife Denise on my cell phone to tell her that I needed help, at least seven times.” Finally, Denise told him to hand the phone to someone else, who called 9-1-1. He was rushed to Orlando Regional Sand Lake Hospital.

After testing, doctors determined that he had suffered a mild stroke in Baltimore, and that he was experiencing a second — this time, massive — stroke. Mark's neurosurgeon, Max Medary, M.D., at Sand Lake Hospital, says that a blood clot that caused both strokes was preventing an adequate supply of oxygen from reaching Mark's brain. Medary explains that nine out of ten times, people don't survive this kind of stroke. Before his strokes, Mark suffered from high blood pressure and had struggled with his weight, putting him at higher risk. Black Americans also have a higher risk for stroke than their white counterparts.

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Mark slipped in and out of a coma several times during his first two days in the hospital, and almost died. “When I finally woke up, I looked up and saw my father, my brother and both my sisters, that's when I knew something was wrong.”

“My brain wasn't able to get my voice to say the things I wanted to say. In my head, my mind and body were in perfect alignment.” In reality, he was unable to make his hands do what he wanted them to when he tried to scratch an itch. And he needed to be fed by tube for several days because he was unable to swallow.

A week later his condition had improved enough that his doctors discharged him to Orlando Regional Lucerne Hospital, a rehab facility. “The staff suggested that I register under my wife's maiden name so that they wouldn't have to lie if the media asked if I was there,” he says. “But people would still look at me and say, ‘Hey, you look just like Mark McEwen!’”

“I couldn't walk, had no use of my right hand and could barely talk,” Mark recalls. “I had to relearn all my movements. I was tired. And it just hurt to talk or to breathe.”

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Perhaps worst of all, the jovial, self-assured, pleasant voice that was his ticket to success was weak and high-pitched — and his speech was slurred. “My mind was sharp, yet I was having a hard time expressing myself. It was like being an observer and participant in your life all at the same time.”

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Mark's speech therapist Tommi Ann Wilde was the point person for his care, coordinating his physical, occupational and speech therapy regimen, and keeping track of his progress in these areas. She became his lifeline as well. “She was really that constant voice in my head, encouraging my recovery.” He had another voice in his ear as well — his sister Karen, who called every morning on her way to work urging him not to slack off during therapy.

Mark's family helped out in other ways, too. In addition to acting as Mark's bedside advocate during his hospital stay, driving him to daily therapy sessions and continuing to be a Mom to their young family, Denise wrangled all the bills and health insurance paperwork. His sister's husband, Chris, who manages a radiology practice in Maryland, helped Mark and Denise navigate through the maze of decisions they needed to make about treatment options, rehabilitation facilities and health insurance issues.

Mark had to learn how to talk all over again. “I had to figure out where to put my tongue and shape my mouth to form words,” Mark says. His homework was reading a list of words while looking in the mirror, watching the placement of his tongue and modulating the pitch of his voice. He now reads children's books every day to keep up his progress.

Mark also worked with physical therapist Walter Caldwell, who would have made a fine drill sergeant. Putting him through a daily two-hour physical therapy session, Caldwell got Mark out of the wheelchair and back on his feet within two weeks. The grueling routine included doing leg lifts on a mat, riding a stationary bike and walking on a treadmill while strapped in a harness to keep him from falling.

Mark says the sessions were exhausting, but he was focused on his goal to get his life back — to being a husband to his wife of three years and a father to stepdaughter Jenna, then nine-years old; Miles and Griffin, his twin sons, who were two at the time; and his then 10-year old daughter, Maya, who lived in New York with her mother.

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So now one of Mark's nine lives is “stroke survivor.” He is confident that by continuing to work hard at his therapy, he will be able to resume a full schedule at WKMG-TV. “My bosses at the station have been just great about holding a spot for me,” he notes, adding that he has been the host for several short health segments for the station. His wife was also the voice of “The Miracle of Love,” a special program that aired last year that described Mark's ordeal through her eyes.

Mark admits that some days can be challenging, but says, “I'm too busy to be angry” about the hand he's been dealt. Instead of spending time thinking about the things he can't do — yet — he focuses on the things he can do. He vividly recalls the first time he was able to shave and shower by himself, and to get back behind the wheel of the family van (a month after the stroke) — but the two milestones he savors the most are putting his walker in the closet and being able to make love to his wife.

Mark attributes his steady progress to his therapists. “I have regained my ability to walk unassisted, and am fully independent,” he says. He exercises six days a week, and is undergoing therapy at the Brain Injury Rehabilitation Center in Orlando to regain the fine motor skills in his right hand. It was tempting to use his left hand to pick up loose change or to dial a phone, but with continued therapy he finds it's getting easier to use his right hand for such tasks. And he taught himself to type on a computer keyboard using both hands.

And Mark has one other life, too: author and lecturer. His book, Change in the Weather, written with Daniel Paiser (Gotham, 2008), details his post-stroke life, and he shares his story as an American Stroke Association “Power to End Stroke” Ambassador. He travels around the country educating people about stroke prevention, risk factors and recovery. “I didn't know anything about strokes before I had one,” he says, adding that not knowing the symptoms delayed his treatment and nearly cost him his life.

If Mark has one message for stroke survivors, it's this: “If I can do it they can, too. Don't ever give up.”

© 2008 American Heart Association, Inc.