Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Raise Awards

Raise stands for Raising Awareness In Stroke Excellence. That pretty much says it all. 

The Raise Awards is the brainchild of National Stroke Association and they’re like the Academy Awards, but different.  I’ll let the Association tell it, “a national awards program that annually recognizes individuals and groups for taking stroke awareness activities to new heights.”

However you say it, that’s pretty cool and I’ll tell you why. To have people get their hands dirty, to get in the trenches to help stroke survivors, and to help combat stroke? That SHOULD be applauded.                                   
And these awards do just that.            

I was honored to host the inaugural event held in Denver, in October of 2011. (National Stroke Association is headquartered in nearby Centennial)  I was excited to be part of it, I know how much they helped me, I couldn’t wait to see them in action helping others.

I landed in Denver and it was at the airport that I met Tom Watson III and his lovely bride, Elizabeth. But I didn’t know his importance at the time. They picked us up, all the Raise Awards people, and carted us downtown to the hotel where we were staying. Strangers. Tom and Elizabeth took that ride with me and I didn’t know he was one of the honorees, in fact I was surprised to see him at the dinner that night.

The Raise Awards were held that evening at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  A great affair and I’ve been to a lot of affairs. One of the recipients was Henry Winkler aka The Fonz.  He 's always been one of my favorites. Would you believe his mother suffered a stroke and lost her hand and upper arm mobility?  Because of that she lost her independence. I didn't know that. That stroke connection helped us bond.

He introduced Tom.

Tom is from Dayton, is an artist, a graphic designer, a father (he and Elizabeth have two wonderful children-Alden and Gabe), and is a stroke survivor. He’s also tough as they come and an inspiration. Tom had a massive brain stem stroke and doctors thought he would not live through the weekend and if he survived they expected him to be a quadriplegic.

He proved them wrong on both counts.

After much rehab Tom is back walking, painting, driving and playing with his kids. He showed us that his will and determination won out over stroke and for that he was awarded the Raise Award for Outstanding Individual.
Me and my friend Tom Watson III
There were other honorees, each one a hero, helping people who NEED that help.

The Raise Awards are important. It's important for other survivors to see what can be done. It's important to trumpet the 'good guys' out there. It's also important to celebrate their good work.

They say you sleep like a baby when you do the right thing. I slept very well that night.

I hosted the second Raise Awards in 2012 but that's another story for another day. 

The Raise Awards are still on, they are now an online event. Go to to find out more.

You can also find out more about Tom and his art at

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Miles and Griffin

I have twins.

 I also have two of everything…two bikes, two baseball gloves, two cell phones, two backpacks, two lunch boxes, the list goes on and on.

Miles and Griffin or Griffin and Miles, either one works.  They are identical twins which might lead you to believe they’re pretty much the same. You’d pretty much be wrong. They’re as different as night and day.

Or day and night.

This picture always makes me laugh
Griffin is a quieter, more solitary type, although he loves his friends’ and his brother’s company. He's also into art, kick ball and Jimmy Kimmel's Halloween videos. The ones where the parents pretend they ate all their kids' candy. He thinks they're funny.

Miles is into cartoons, math, and told me he believes UFOs are real. He's fascinated with Super Mario and ghosts.
Also with a certain girl at school but we won't go there.

They both shall we say bend the truth, but it's kid stuff like, "Did you brush your teeth?" They both will say yes, when it's really no, which leads me to saying something I never dreamed I'd say, "Let me smell your breath."

They’re both smart and sweet and I love them to pieces.

I remember when they were born.

We knew beforehand we were having twins and I have to give a
shout out to their mother, my wife Denise. I love her very dearly. This whole experience was her idea. We both had daughters when we got married and she said we should try, once, to have a child between the two of us. If it didn't happen, no harm no foul, we tried. So off we went to the in vitro clinic. The doctor there told us we had a 3% chance of getting pregnant. That 3% chance turned into the twins Miles and Griffin. I have sons because of her.

Back to the day they were born.

I was in the delivery room that day. Crying. The doctor was busy delivering my kids, and said, ”Baby number one" as he delivered Baby number one. Then, “Baby number two.”  They came into the world crying, mad as hornets, because they had been taken from the warmth of their mother’s womb and met the world in an air conditioned hospital.
As the saying goes, a day that will live in infamy.

After all the hubbub had died down and the newborns were taken care of and Denise had fallen asleep, I went downstairs to leave and to head home.

The hospital had valet parking and I had become friends with the guys who parked the cars.  I was so happy and proud that day and I told them that my wife had just given birth to twins. One guy said something I’d never heard before or since, “Well ain’t you the boss with the hot sauce.” 

 I laughed out loud.  

I’ve always said jokingly that if you feed kids they will grow. True that. It was fun watching Miles and Griffin go from infants to toddlers to kindergartners to boys. And we made some friends along the way…The Wiggles, Thomas the Train, Phineas and Ferb, and Kipper, to name a few. Good friends all.

I’ve got to tell you a few things…

Griffin’s middle name is Dane. One day I asked him did he know what his whole name was. He said sure and proceeded to say, “Griffin Dave.” “Griffin what?” “Griffin DAVE!”  This is the same guy who said Justin Bieber was Justin BEAVER.  Miles is still afraid to go upstairs or go to his room, by himself. We have a dog named Lola and he puts a trail of her treats on the floor that mysteriously lead to the place he wants to go. Pretty tricky.
Lola the Dog, Miles and Griffin

You may ask what these punkins and dealing with the aftermath of a stroke have in common.

Unlike Maya and Jenna, they don't remember me pre stroke. They were too little. Griffin and Miles would hear me reading out loud and that was normal for them.  I almost drowned the first time I was in the pool after my stroke but they were just glad I was in the water. With them. I would come to their school, their cafeteria, to eat lunch with them and everyone else seemed to know about my stroke. Miles and Griffin were just happy their dad came. 

Coming back from a stroke takes on a whole new meaning when you have little kids. I wanted to get better, to improve, for them. I wanted to show them that their father is just like the other kids fathers.That's a reason, a strong reason, to get better. 

Miles, Me and Griffin

I'm not going to lie, having a stroke takes you to a dark place.

Miles and Griffin are the sun that lights up that place.

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Thursday, November 13, 2014


Let me tell you a story about my stepdaughter, Jenna. Jenna is currently a senior in high school and was a cheerleader both in tenth and eleventh grade. I heard, over and over, that all she wanted to do, lived for actually, was to make varsity cheer. She went through the tryouts and made it. Her dream came true and then…she quit. The whole experience wasn’t what she thought it would be. She thought it was going to be more team than me, me, me. It wasn’t and she quit. I said then, everyone said then, “Are you sure?” She was sure.

She walked away and never looked back.

I was so proud of her and loved her even more.  That’s Jenna.

Jenna was five when I married her mother. She moved from the only place she’d ever known to New York. That’s daunting for an adult much less a little kid. She also left her father, who she cherishes, behind in Florida. All that to follow her mom’s love for me and to come north to join this new family.

Jenna, Me, Maya 
She and her new sister went to the same grade school and I would drive them there every morning. In the car I would play CD’s of all my favorite songs and we would sing along. Mostly off key, but singing our hearts out, Jenna included.

I tell you that to tell you this.

Jenna is fearless.

We’d moved to Orlando and at her school she had to get up and sing in front of parents, her teacher and fellow students. Talk about tough.  And remember she was maybe, nine. Jenna was very nervous but she did it. She sang a song WE used to sing, “Give me a ticket for an airplane, ain’t got time to take a fast train…” When I was nine, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near there. Show her something she’s not supposed to be able to do, and she does it. Jenna has always put her head in the lion’s mouth.

When I had my stroke all the kids came to the hospital to visit. That meant so much to me. Jenna rode around the hospital corridor in the wheel chair I used. It was big fun for a kid and a great reminder for this guy to start getting busy getting out of that bed. So I did. She's told me time and time again how important to her it was that I did my rehab and fought so hard to overcome this bad thing. Coming from Jenna, that touched my heart. It also inspired me to keep working even when I was ready to give in.

I call this next part 'getting to know you.'

Jenna loves popcorn, our house smells like it all the time. She also loves Chinese food, in her words, “I could eat it everyday.” Not everyday for me, but close. She’s grown from a little kid to a fine young woman. She's smart, pretty, a wonderful big sister and a wonderful daughter.

She's also a great athlete. When she was younger Jenna played softball and basketball. Now Swim Team is the thing. Jenna has also been reading the news at her school via television since fourth grade. In college, she wants to major in that direction.

I know a bit about that.

The twins next.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

My Kids

Like a lot of Americans I have a blended family. I have four kids that I love with all my heart and who I think are as precious as diamonds.  They are my reason for not giving up. Oh yeah, the cliché is you want to dance at their weddings but that cliché becomes even more profound after you have a stroke.

They are Maya 19, Jenna 17, and the twins Miles and Griffin, who are both 11. One thing I say about the twins is that I know way too much about Sponge Bob and Patrick and Mr. Krabs. If you have no idea who they are, good for you but if you do, welcome to the party.

Both Denise and I were married before and brought a child to our marriage. Maya is my daughter, Jenna is hers and the boys are ours. Yours, mine and ours.

First Maya.

I always tell Maya that she changed my name from Mark to Daddy. She did. I learned how to change diapers from her. I also learned patience. I learned you could love something, SOMEONE so much it actually hurts. And I learned to see the world in a brand new way. It was an adventure with her every day.

She grew up in New York, the city, which was a bit different. Even though it was Manhattan, Maya learned to ride a bike there.
We went to a diner where she learned to eat chocolate chip pancakes with a knife and fork. We went to preschool. One of my favorite memories is the kids were putting on a play one day and when they all came out to the room where the parents were, Maya saw me and said, “Hi Daddy!” One of the dads said to me he wished his kid would do that.

Made me feel ten feet tall.

 I remember she was real little (in diapers) when she heard music for the first time. To this day Maya has a great voice and great musical taste, if I must say so myself. Maya was 13 when she turned me on to this new singer singing a song called “Chasing Pavements.” It was Adele before she became the Adele.

When I had my stroke Maya was 10. She flew down and saw me laid up in the hospital. To be honest, I was a bit embarrassed to have her see me there but there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it. Seeing her made me even more determined to beat this thing that had almost killed me. I didn’t want her to tell stories about the Dad she used to have.

On to rehabilitation.

Whenever I was inclined to give up I would see her face. Over the years Maya grew up and I grew stronger.  I’ll be honest, rehab is not a lot of fun and games but it’s good for you and it is something you have to do.

So many memories…Maya went on to play volleyball in high school where she was a lioness. She was also MVP. A Most Valuable Player. Maya sang in musicals like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. I was in the audience the night they put that on and she tore it up onstage. Also, imagine her getting her learners permit. I helped teach her to drive. Say no more, say no more.

Through the years Maya has inspired me to go further, to reach higher. From running, which I thought I would never do, to using my right hand more which had been injured in the stroke. I can hear her saying, "Come on, Daddy, you can do it."

Good stuff.

She now is a sophomore in college and I like her as well as love her. As a father you love all your kids but liking them is different. Parents will know what I'm talking about.

Dance at her wedding.

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Thursday, November 6, 2014

First Time

Every time I go to the airport here in Orlando I look for the Marriott sign on its hotel. It’s always there just to my right at the exit. The reason I do is that’s where I spoke to stroke survivors for the very first time.

I had spoken one other time. It was at my station, WKMG, and Denise thought it would be a good idea for me to go there. Me? I was scared to death. See, I had gone through this huge thing in my life and I was busy, busy, busy with rehab. And scared, scared, scared that I would never be the same again. So Denise thought it would be a good idea to get me out of that routine and help me to jumpstart my recovery.

So I went.

My dear friend, Skip Valet, met me at the front of the station. Skip used to be News Director and was then the General Manager of WKMG and I always tell him, he’s the best person I ever worked for. True. He sees the whole field very, very, well.

When I got to the studio the entire station was there. They had a banner up, ‘Welcome Back Mark’ and then it was show time. I spoke to the people there and told them I was doing fine and that I would be back soon.

Courtesy Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel
Actually, even then, I didn’t know how severe my stroke had been and how long of a recovery lay ahead. Sometimes it’s better to be blissfully ignorant about something. If I knew then what I know now, we might be having a different conversation. But, just call me ignorant.
That day, that trip, is something that’s burned in my memory, and in a good way.

Let’s talk about the Marriott.

When I had my stroke, my emotions were raw and I cried for everything. Everything.  There’s an old joke about crying at card tricks, I would cry at the MENTION of card tricks.

It was the first time I met the person who was so instrumental in my post stroke life. Jim Baranski is the former CEO of National Stroke Association and helped me navigate this new world. A good man, a great friend. Jim and I have been on many adventures together. They were having a symposium at the hotel and they were gracious enough to let me speak.  I went to the podium and…cried through the whole thing. It was the first time I’d given a speech since my stroke, but being in front of people didn’t bother me. It was being kind of naked up there and speaking about something that had changed my life and the lives of everyone in there.When I looked out at the crowd, though, I was the preacher and they were the choir. Preaching to the choir...

From the podium I said a lot of things but the one thing I said is I would always be there for stroke victims. After I was through, Jim gently took me aside and told me, “we say stroke survivors.” I’d never heard that term before. From then on out I’ve always used the word survivors.

Learned something that day.

Jim Baranski 
Being with stroke survivors, for me? It’s like coming home.

That Marriott sign always reminds me of that.

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Tuesday, November 4, 2014


I went to Alaska in February. 

February is American Heart Month and The American Heart Association has a program called Go Red for Women. According to them heart disease is the number one killer of women and is more deadly than all forms of cancer combined. An estimated 43 million women in the U.S. alone are affected by it and since 1984 more women than men have died each year from it. While 1 in 31 women dies from breast cancer each year, 1 in 3 dies of heart disease. My mother died from congestive heart failure, so Go Red for Women is important to me.

Back to Alaska.

The reason I went there was to speak at the Go Red for Women events in both Fairbanks and Anchorage. First thing, it’s a long way there from here, here being Orlando. 13 hours. And you don’t know how to pack. In Florida, it’s flip flops and tee shirts and shorts and Alaska was a bit of a mystery, all I knew was it was cold. So I got out all my old winter gear, hat, coats, long johns (you never know) and boots. My winter coat made me look like the Michelin Tire Man plus have you ever tried to buy gloves in Orlando?

I flew to Chicago, then to Seattle and then three more hours to Fairbanks and when I landed I came off the plane like an accordion. I’ve never been happier to be at the end of the line. Fairbanks was cold but a dry kinda cold. The high there one day was minus 11 but all of the people I saw were in jackets that weren't zipped up and they had no gloves on. There I was in a winter coat that was heavier than a saddlebag.

The night before the event they had a dinner on the stage and at first I wasn’t going to go. I was tired and I spent years at CBS eating room service in my hotel room so I would be fresh the next day, but these women were persistent. And I’m glad they were. They were wonderful and devoted to saving lives. I was so impressed to hear about the work they do in Alaska. In the words of Shakespeare, “a good time was had by all.” They have that dinner every year and it’s a form of letting hair down and bonding before the big day.

The next day was a bit of a blur because there were so many good things going on. They had free screenings for your blood pressure and different booths and speakers to help a person to be healthier and to lower their risk for stroke and heart disease. The speakers were doctors and nurses and PhD.s, all with one goal in mind, to help women.

And then it was my turn.

I spoke to a packed house, the Governor was there along with 700 people, most of them women. I told the story of my stroke, the rehab, my new reality, my journey and how stroke is always out there, lurking.  I spoke on how to not give up, how Hope is so important, and how you have to, have to, fight back. And how having a healthier lifestyle is very important.

There are two philosophies I live by, one you may have heard and one you may not have. One is Knowledge is Power. That’s an old saying but a good one. I always say the more you know the more you know. The more people know how to combat heart disease and stroke, the more equipped they are for that battle. And that’s where I come in. Being a stroke survivor myself helps me in that I don’t speak in ‘what ifs’ and ‘I wish I knew what you’ve been through.’ I have been down that stroke road and I speak from experience. That’s where the second philosophy comes in. I want to be the Johnny Appleseed of stroke knowledge, I want survivors to know they are not alone and I want to help people to never have one in the first place. I want to spread vital information around. You know the saying, “if you can help one person…” Well, I want to help a lot of people.

When it was over the audience stood up for me,  I got a standing ovation. I left Fairbanks knowing that these women I had met were on the front line of the war against heart disease and in the words of Led Zeppelin they are building a Stairway to Heaven.

And who quotes Led Zeppelin?

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Monday, November 3, 2014

Written for World Stroke Day October 29, 2014 for AARP

‘I’ll Wait For You, and Should I Fall Behind, Wait For Me’

I woke up in a hospital bed surrounded by my father, sisters, brother, best friend, cousin and my wife, Denise. It was 2005, I had survived my stroke, barely, and had been in a coma for two days. I was so far gone I didn’t even know I had been in one. My wife had to make some hard decisions with the doctor and those decisions had saved my life. Little did I know my journey had just begun.

Let’s go back just a second – before I had a stroke, I knew nothing about one. No concept on how serious one could be, no idea how much therapy was involved, how my life would be forever changed, nothing. I thought I would just power through it like I did everything else in my life and it would turn out okay

I’ve never been more wrong.

Being in a hospital gives you plenty of time to think, but my ischemic stroke made concentrating too hard for much of that. I was just trying to survive and make it to the next day. Doctors and nurses became my friends. Therapy, too. When you’re in a wheelchair and have to learn to walk again, therapy will do that.

My wife became my 'caregiver.' That’s another word that was foreign to me, then, but I learned what it meant and I thank the heavens that she was mine.

I used to wait patiently for my Denise to come to my room in the evening, bringing food from home, bringing laughter and bringing love. How she handled it, with two-year-old twins and an eight-year-old at home, I’ll never know. And if she was scared about the future, our family’s future, she never let on.

When I finally was released, I became an outpatient and did my exercises from home. Denise used to drive me to therapy, me along with the twins. I was in therapy for a year. Physical therapy to help me walk and to help me regain my balance. Speech therapy to teach me how to regain sounds of letters and words. Occupational therapy to help me think clearer and figure out tasks. Five days a week, three hours a day in the minivan with Denise behind the wheel. It was grueling, but we did it.

Recovering from a stroke is like watching paint dry or watching grass grow. It’s long and slow. Ask anyone who has had a serious one and they’ll tell you the same thing.

Giving up was never an option. Oh, you want to, but you can’t. Looking into the faces of my kids and my wife settled that score for me.

They say every journey begins with the first step, and with me it was no different. What began as awkward therapy became routine. As I could feel myself getting stronger, that routine became the lifeline I needed. Things that were an issue at the beginning melted away. That’s not to say there weren’t things that took their place but by then I knew how to deal with them.

And my caregiver? Denise has been the best friend I’ve ever had.

She celebrated all my big accomplishments and the little ones as well. She has stood by me in my bleakest hour and has helped me regain my life. She knew when to push me and when not to. The thing I’ll always remember is her love and her belief that I would get better. It’s hard to forget things like that.

There is a song by Bruce Springsteen that Denise pointed out. It’s called ‘If I Should Fall Behind.’ She pointed out these lyrics, “I’ll wait for you, and should I fall behind, wait for me.”

I fell behind and Denise waited for me. That’s what caregivers do.

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