Everyone knows someone like Duane Morrow, a guy who sells you a car then becomes a lifelong friend, a guy who does the little things to make sure his service organization is really serving his community, a guy who so rarely takes a vacation that at his 20th wedding anniversary, his wife put in a request that he take a week off for their 25th.
Laura Jacobs knew a guy just like that. She was lucky enough to call him “Dad.”
When Laura was little, Duane built her a guitar out of a cardboard box and helped with math homework. Later, he taught her football and auto racing. The best lessons, though, came from seeing how he treated everyone who came into his orbit.
About the only person Duane didn’t look out for was Duane.
Years of ignoring his health caught up to him one Saturday afternoon. What felt like a terrible headache was the start of a massive stroke. Two weeks later, the 14,000 residents of Whitewater, Wisconsin, were in mourning.
It’s been 12 years, and Laura still misses him every day. So she does the most Duane-like thing about it: She helps others.
Laura is a volunteer social media ambassador for my organization, the American Heart Association. Via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, as well as her own blog, she offers insight and information for anyone dealing with or trying to prevent heart disease and stroke.
“If there’s some little thing I can do to either help somebody through a similar challenge – to let them know, `Hey, you’re not alone, I’ve experienced that, too’ – or something as big as helping people take control of their health or educating them about what they or their loved one is going through, then I want to be there for them,” she said. “This really bad thing happened to me, but something good is going to come out of this.”
Laura remembers Duane following a typical Midwestern diet, which is to say he ate more meat and dairy than fruits and vegetables.
He rarely missed a Friday night fish fry and enjoyed a few drinks most evenings. As his waistline expanded, he did little about it. Diagnoses of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes couldn’t prompt changes. Ditto for an angioplasty.
Duane also was a workaholic. Perhaps it was a byproduct of growing up the young of nine kids during the Depression, but he clocked in at the car dealership every Monday through Saturday for 40-plus years, rarely taking time off for vacation. He was still working six-day weeks at age 68.
The stroke announced itself while he was at work.
There are actually two types of stroke; Duane suffered the less common, more deadly type. It’s called hemorrhagic and it’s marked by bleeding in the brain. This could be an aneurysm bursting or, as in Duane’s case, a blood vessel rupturing.
Doctors operated on Duane but he didn’t appear likely to regain any quality of life. Laura believes he sensed that. He died the day after her mom made plans to move him to a long-term care facility.
Laura and her mom never imagined a time without “our family’s hub.” Moving on was tough, although Laura’s healing was aided by a blossoming romance. Two years after Duane died, the joy of planning her walk down the aisle was tempered by not having Dad there to give her away.
Laura found other ways to make his presence felt. They included a donation to the AHA in memory of Duane and in honor of all their wedding guests. A card at every table read, “We feel the finest gift is one which helps others live longer and healthier lives.”
At first, Laura found it easy to eat healthy and exercise regularly.
Then life got in the way. Work kept her busy. She and her husband, Jason, moved to Illinois, then to the St. Louis area. His job kept him on the road a lot.
A diagnosis of high blood pressure snapped her back into action.
She’s cut back on sugar and sodium by learning to read labels at the grocery store. (“Why is their sugar in some chicken stocks?” she said.) She forgot to put cream and sugar in her coffee one morning and realized she could live without it. She and a friend trained for a half-marathon.
Every Sunday, she and Jason prepare their lunches for the week: grilled chicken for him, salads with some of that chicken for her. It takes a little more than an hour and it eliminates meals from drive-through windows.
Between her journey and having witnessed and endured the fallout of her father’s story, Laura has plenty to share with her social media audiences.
“I want to be somewhat inspiring and motivating for people to make those small changes themselves,” Laura said. “If you make several small changes, it adds up to something big.”
There’s one more layer to this story, about the type of stroke Duane had.
Only about 1 in every 7 strokes involve a brain bleed (hemorrhagic). The rest involve a blockage in a blood vessel that supplies blood to the brain (ischemic). Fix that blockage and a patient can survive; fix it quickly and they might make a strong recovery.
Because of the prevalence of ischemic strokes, much of the attention in the stroke world has been on that type. It’s paid off, too. Between awareness campaigns, “chains of survival” for rapid treatment and advancements in technology and medicine, far fewer people die of ischemic strokes than a decade ago.
One of the leading funders of research into cardiovascular disease and stroke is the Henrietta B. and Frederick H. Bugher Foundation. Through the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association, the Bugher Foundation has invested more than $48 million since the mid-1980s.
Now the Bugher Foundation is making its biggest single investment to date, and the focus is solely on hemorrhagic stroke. A new research project will put $11.1 million toward fewer outcomes like Duane Morrow’s.
“When someone you love has had a hemorrhagic stroke, the landscape is bleak,” Laura said. “Any bits of progress might provide some light at the end of the tunnel.”