Aretha Franklin. Ramsey Lewis. Dionne Warwick. During his storied career and decades-long tenure as senior writer and editor for Jet magazine, Clarence Waldron interfaced with these icons and many more. In addition to lovingly being referred to as “the dean of arts and entertainment journalists,” Clarence, himself an icon, also is a stroke survivor.
As we commemorate National Stroke Awareness Month, he generously has offered to share his story and perspectives.
How did you come to be a patient of Shirley Ryan AbilityLab?
Five years ago on Christmas morning, I woke up and was unable to walk. Baffled at first, I was perhaps more preoccupied with the fact that I was planning to host dinner at my home that evening. I called my friend, who encouraged me to dial 911.
From the ambulance, I called my cousin, Mumtaz Bari-Brown. I was coherent — clear as a bell. Except for not being able to walk, I didn’t recognize any of the signs. After being assessed at the acute-care hospital, I was diagnosed with a mild diabetes-induced stroke (the disease runs in my family). I remember thinking, “I don’t know what mild is; I just know I had a stroke.” The reality set in.
Many concerns went through my head. Will I be able to walk again? Will I be a burden on my family? Will I ever become independent?
I underwent intensive inpatient rehabilitation at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab for a month, and at its Streeterville DayRehab location for several months. Now, I still benefit from outpatient physical and occupational therapy and ongoing support from the hospital’s Prosthetics & Orthotics Department.
At one point during my rehabilitation, someone asked me if I’ve ever cried about having the stroke. I honestly can say that I have not. Was I ever frustrated or frightened? Certainly. I never had a reason to cry, though. I understood that the stroke could have been far worse than it was. I am grateful to still be here. I remember reading out loud Psalms 27, my favorite passage from the Bible, at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab during speech therapy. It says everything. My faith in God is the key to my life.
What do you remember most about your rehabilitation journey?
Music played a big part in my journey. During rehabilitation sessions, I would request Aretha’s Greatest Hits. The music brought me back to another place. It made me feel hopeful and encouraged. I’ll never forget the day that Aretha, herself, texted me to see how things were going. I called her in response, and we chatted for about 20 minutes. She wanted to know all about my stroke, what happened and how I was feeling. That was Aretha, always thoughtful and caring.
My background as a reporter and editor also played into my experience. In my career, I was taught to ask tough questions and get clear answers in return. That’s how I approached rehabilitation. I had a million questions about my stroke and recovery, and I wasn’t shy about asking any of them.
Just two years following your stroke, you received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Chicago Headline Club. What did that honor mean to you?
I remember saying at the time that, “An award is people’s way of saying, “We think that you’ve done it.” It was an honor to be celebrated in this way, and it encourages me to continue my writing.
Where are you in your recovery?
I am a stroke survivor thanks to my support system. My family and friends showed up and allowed me to concentrate on my journey of recovery.
Speaking of that journey, at one point following my stroke I remember asking another survivor, “How long were you in recovery?” He replied, “Clarence, I am still in recovery and will always be in recovery.” I stopped and thought, “Wow. This is going to be a process — a journey — with ups and downs.” Now, five years later, I work on perfecting my mobility and completion of everyday household tasks.
My clinicians at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab represent the best of the best. My physical therapist, Carolyn Sykes, and my occupational therapist, Jenna Zander, have encouraged me not to use my wheelchair in my home and to only use my cane when necessary, such as when I walk up and down the hallway in my building every day for exercise. I also carry books from my bedroom to my kitchen and back. Additionally, I’m trying to get my left wrist to maneuver more and also am working on my arm’s range of motion. I can now wash dishes using both of my hands! I meet with Diana Pressney, a prosthetist-orthotist, once or twice a year so she can check on my wrist-hand orthosis and my ankle-foot orthosis.
Recently, I was approved to receive a motorized wheelchair, which will lead to greater independence when it comes to activities outside of my home. If I want to go to the drugstore now, I won’t need to rely on someone taking me.
What’s next for you?
In addition to focusing on my ongoing recovery, I am the publicist for the Chicago West Community Music Center and a correspondent for its video podcast, Black Muse.
What advice do you have for fellow stroke survivors?
Don’t underestimate where you are in your recovery. Recently, I thought I was at 40 percent recovery, but my friends and family insisted I was closer to 60 percent. They were right. In the beginning, I couldn’t even lift my leg up at all. I’ve come a long way.
Also, I encourage stroke survivors not to compare themselves to anyone else. I have not seen two strokes that are alike. A person’s journey is his or hers alone.
Throughout my recovery, I’ve learned to concentrate on the little things that I can do. I’m no longer ashamed to call a friend and ask for help. It is accepting life as it is. As my cousin says, “Life is still good; it’s just different.”