Friday, February 20, 2015

National Stroke Awareness Month

May is National Stroke Awareness Month.

It's an important month for us. We talk about stroke all year but really focus on it then. You know who declared May that? The 41st President, George Herbert Walker Bush. He signed Presidential Proclamation 5975, that declared May National Stroke Awareness Month, back in 1989.

I first interviewed him at the Cheeca Lodge at Islamorada in the Florida Keys. He was there to host his Bonefish Tournament, which had raised thousands of dollars for various charities. This was in the late 90s long before stroke was an important part of my life.

A memory...

I was having dinner the evening before sitting right next to him with Chris Evert the Hall of Fame tennis player at the table as well. A couple of things. He noticed I wasn't drinking wine and when he  saw that he stopped too. Chris knew him so well, he had been to her charity tennis tournament many times, and occasionally she would slip up and call him George.

Like a fly on the wall I was.

She tells him about Pam Shriver's upcoming marriage. He says, "She's a great gal. I'm surprised it took her this long to get married."
Chrissie replied, "I agree but she's lazy. She'd just as soon travel with her suitcase and her...

They both throw their heads back and laugh. I was in aghast mode. Then he remembered I was there and he laughed even harder. It was then I thought he's just a man. Who happens to be a former president.

The next day I did the interview and left, all the while thinking,"I just talked to a president."

We talked four times over the years. Let me set up one of those times.

It was just after 9-11 and the country was in a different place. I was back at the Cheeca Lodge again, to talk about the fishing tournament but I had to ask him about current events. He had been president during Desert Storm but now his son was at the helm.

I remember a question I wrote,"When you see the same names in the news, the same towns, the same countries, what are your thoughts?" That was how it was supposed to go. The night before, I went back and forth and then decided to change the question a little bit.

When we sat down for our national television interview, I decided to go with this--"When you see the same names in the news, the same towns, the same countries, do you have any regrets?"

I'd never, in person, seen a president get red in the face or angry. I saw both.

"Regrets? Was I supposed to go all the way to Baghdad? That would have broken up the coalition because, in their eyes, we would have gone a step too far. Plus, was I supposed to tell parents I was putting their kids in harms way? This is why I don't do interviews like this."

I always tell people to forget that the camera is there. We both did and had what is known as a 'spirited conversation.' Some of what he said, "I give you a four for this interview." "Out of how many?" "Ten." "Ten?!" He amended it to an eight.

It was live television at it's best. When I returned to talking about fishing the air in the room noticeably calmed down.

Afterwards he shook my hand, hard, and asked, "Who's that blonde woman on ABC who does the news?" "Diane Sawyer?" "Diane Sawyer. She's been trying forever to get me to sit down with her. She's gonna have my ass when she sees this interview."

All the way home I wallowed in a 'I sure messed up' funk.  The trip to Miami's airport, the plane ride home, the ride to my apartment in New York. Just inconsolable. That evening, my fax machine began to make noises and out came a hand written letter that changed my whole mood. In it, President Bush asked me for a copy of our interview for his Presidential Library, "pretty please." Apparently people he listened to had seen the interview and liked it. And that helped change his mind. I happily sent it to him.

Enough about that, on to stroke, and the importance he had for me in dealing with mine.

I had left the network and gone to Orlando to anchor for the CBS affiliate, WKMG. There, I had my stroke. After months of grueling rehabilitation my good friend Harry Smith, who also was the anchor for The Early Show, came down south to interview me. After it was over, his producer asked me if I could be on the set, in New York, when it ran. I was, and there were reunions and tears all around. After the show was over I left the studio, stepped out onto Fifth Avenue and my cell phone rang.

It was President George H.W. Bush.

He had seen the interview and told me how well he thought I was coming along. It meant so much to me to hear from him, especially then. It made me want to run to rehab.  He gave me that powerful thing I talk about, hope. We talked for awhile and then he was gone.

It was later I found out he was responsible for National Stroke Awareness Month. It was something that didn't register before because stroke hadn't even been on my radar. That knowledge warmed the heart of this survivor. There was a time that stroke was in the shadows. It affected many people who were never the same again or, even worse, died. We've come a long way since then but there is more to be done. Having this Proclamation was a great step forward.

December 1st, 2018.

I woke up to the news of his passing. There were all kinds of thoughts in my head.

I would call him from time to time and once I told him I just became father to twins. The note he wrote on Kennebunkport stationary telling how happy he was for me is one I still have today.

All together now, "Safe Deposit Box."

I remember when he sky dived at 90 and how cool I thought that was.

A class act.

Always remember that we have a finite time here. He did very well with his.

Rest In Peace George Herbert Walker Bush.

For more on Proclamation 5975-National Stroke Awareness Month go to

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1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post. It is refreshing to hear that a former president can step out of the political arena and offer someone such encouragement. Thanks for sharing the human side of these famous people on your website. It brings them to our world and makes them real.