At the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada we had to face a hard truth in the mid 1990s. At that time stroke was Canada’s forgotten disease–even though it was the country’s fourth leading cause of death. According to a 1996 Foundation study, almost half of all Canadians said they wouldn’t know what to do if they thought they were having a stroke. And only thirty-nine per cent of us could name one of stroke’s most common warning signs: a feeling of numbness, sudden weakness or tingling in the face, arm and leg. At the same time, new drugs coupled with greater medical knowledge were making it possible to reduce and even reverse stroke’s devastating effects–but only if people knew what was happening to them and sought and received urgent emergency medical help.
It seemed clear to us that the Foundation needed help to spread the message on stroke and we decided to commit to a major public awareness campaign. Getting the facts out is one thing. But how could we persuade people to pay attention to those facts, and take our message to heart? The Foundation needed to put a special face to stroke–a face that would give Canadians the knowledge and the courage to recognize and react immediately when they suspected stroke. An instantly recognizable face, of a person who would be highly respected and credible in carrying a message of hope for those recovering from stroke, their families, and indeed, for all Canadians.
Who better to help the Foundation in this mission than Walter Gretzky?
When he had his life-threatening stroke on October 13, 1991, it seemed as if the whole country was waiting for news about his recovery. As his family members flew in to be at his bedside, the prognosis was grim. But Walter battled back, with the help of excellent medical care, dedicated therapists and the love and grit of his family. Not only was he leading a full life but he was constantly giving back to charities and communities. Would he help us?
We were nervous as we stood at the Gretzky doorstep in Brantford, Ontario, on a blustery December day in 1999. We were there to make the Foundation’s pitch, but we also knew we were joining a long line of organizations that had sought the endorsement of the Gretzky family to help get their messages heard. What if Walter said no?
We didn’t know then that the word Walter has the hardest time saying is “No.”
Walter Gretzky exudes human kindness and caring. If Walter thinks he can make a difference in just one person’s life, he’s there without question. He has a remarkable sense of duty to others, and often pushes aside his own needs and personal reservations whenever a gesture on his part–big or small–has a chance to evoke a feeling of hope or even a smile. After five minutes in his presence, we understood how strangers can quickly become so comfortable with him and why they often turn up on his doorstep to ask him to visit a relative who’s suffered a stroke.
But he’s humble. He’ll chat about hockey, about coaching kids, about the big events in Wayne’s career, about his pride in all his children and grandchildren. He’ll tell funny stories about things that have happened to him on the road and about the way he likes to tease his wife, Phyllis. But he couldn’t understand why anyone would be interested in the details of his life or think he was some kind of expert on stroke. In his eyes, he was just an ordinary hard-working down-to-earth guy from Brantford to whom some extraordinary things had happened: like coming back not once but twice from brushes with death and raising the only hockey player in the history of the game called the Great One.
When the Foundation made the case that if Walter went public with his story someone might listen to his message and get to the hospital in time, he agreed to get involved. If his words could help save even one life, it would be worth it. And once Walter was involved, being Walter, he put his whole heart into it.
That initial public service campaign became a springboard to countless other activities Walter has undertaken for the Foundation in its fight against stroke. From a “Dear Walter” newspaper column, to media tours, to fundraisers, Walter has travelled this country tirelessly to get our life-saving stroke messages heard.
Overcoming his real humility in order to publicly recount his personal journey back from stroke in this book speaks volumes to his unwavering commitment to helping others. The lasting impact from Walter’s stroke was on his memory, and telling his life story meant once again having to confront what he has lost. One night driving with his publisher from the family farm back to his house in Brantford, he summed it up for her: “I just have to think of it this way. Yes, I’ve forgotten some of the good times, and I’ll never get those memories back. But I must have forgotten a lot of bad times too, and that’s a blessing!”
There are many people who must be acknowledged for helping to bring this book to life. First and foremost, the Gretzky family–Phyllis, Wayne, Kim, Keith, Glen and Brent, and Ian Kohler, Kim’s husband and Walter’s former rehabilitation specialist. Special thanks must go to Glen, Kim and Ian, who were instrumental in turning the dream of this book into a reality, and had the foresight to realize that Walter’s story could be a source of hope and inspiration for other stroke survivors and their families.
At Random House Canada, we thank the publisher, Anne Collins, and rights and contracts vice president Jennifer Shepherd for their expert counsel at every juncture along the way. We are also grateful to Moira Farr for her ability to help Walter catch the memories of a life on paper.
At the Heart and Stroke Foundation, we acknowledge the contributions of Dr. Ken Buchholz, Sharon Edwards, Dr. Gail Eskes, Elissa Freeman, Karen Fedun, Rick Gallop, Tim Julien, Gail Leadlay, Mary Lewis, Doug MacQuarrie, Scott Ogilvie, Sylvia Poirier, Dr. Frank Silver, Richard Sutherland and Dr. Michele Turek.
Diane Black and Frank Rubini
Heart and Sroke Foundation
One of Walter’s favourite sayings is, “Every moment of every day is precious to me.” For those of us at the Foundation who’ve come to know Walter, every day he has been our stroke crusader has been precious to us.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from On Family, Hockey and Healing by Walter Gretzky. Copyright © 2001 by Walter Gretzky. Excerpted by permission of Random House Canada, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.