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Whitney Hardy grew up in Truckee, California where she excelled academically and athletically. Competing at an elite level of soccer throughout her childhood fueled a fierce and team-driven spirit. She left California for Boston to attend Tufts University where she was a four-year member and two-year captain of the Women’s varsity soccer team.
After graduating from Tufts in 2010, Whitney spent a year traveling both the United States and South America before moving back to Boston for work in 2011. From 2011 to 2014, she lived in a tiny apartment in South Boston and worked at a venture debt firm. Then came the evening of February 20, 2014.
This evening began like any other typical evening for Whitney: after a long day of work, she went for a run as a way to decompress. Whitney recalls the night of the accident–or rather, she recalls what she has been told. “I don’t actually remember getting hurt. From the information I’ve been told…I liked to go for runs after work to mentally release all of the stress and feel better about getting exercise. So I went for a run and it was dusk out, which in the long run wasn’t a good idea, but that’s in the past.” It was dark. Whitney was moving fast. So was the car. Whitney shares, “my head hit the ground so hard that I suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) during the accident.”
When asked at what point she begins remembering the timeline, Whitney explains that she doesn’t know. She says, “I can tell you what I don’t remember though: any of the time in the hospital at the Boston Medical Center in the trauma unit, at Spaulding Rehab Center, leaving the hospital, or moving into the first apartment complex that I lived in.” This is months of hospital time erased from her memory. She suffered a TBI and continues to experience short-term memory loss and executive function impairment to this day.
Three and a half years after her injury, in 2017, Whitney moved back home to Truckee. Now just under a decade after her injury, Whitney is continuing to explore her identity, the impacts of her injury, and the growth from living with TBI.
The struggle between independence and dependence is something that Whitney has faced post-accident. She said: “Before I got hurt, I was the one doing all the planning for parties… I’ll take care of organizing that and text you guys and you can all come. And now, I don’t have that ability. I kind of just have to ask or plan way further in advance. Another big part of the transition is learning that it is okay to ask for help. That is something that I’ve learned from this trip. It’s not something abnormal to have to ask for help. It’s not because you got hurt that you need help, it’s just natural.”
There is a lot that changed post-injury to her way of life that she still struggles with today. She explains, “That’s kind of the hardest part for me. I don’t like to accept that life is different so I just keep pushing and sometimes I do too much or I take on too much and I don’t have the awareness of the fact that it is overdoing it. So that’s a really hard part for me, saying no, I can’t do that where I want to but I’m overloaded…I don’t want to feel like [I] have to give up everything [I’ve] done before [I] got hurt but it’s changing hats and accepting that it’s not the same way. [I] can’t do what you used to do in the same way. [I] have to write things down, [I] have to focus on [my] abilities at the moment…After I was injured, I couldn’t do anything independently for a long time. So that’s kind of the definition of my life. Okay so what has my team done and how can I kind of create independence from that.”
When asked what Stroke Across America means to her, Whitney talks about how it’s hard to just describe in one sentence;“it means camaraderie and raising awareness for a team effort of brain injuries and their caretakers and the survivors because it’s not just a one person effort.” After her injury, Whitney explains “the definition of my life” became her support system and the effort put forth to help her grow.
Team is a keyword in Whitney’s vocabulary because of the way the interdependence that comes with teammates has shaped her life, both pre-accident with soccer and post-accident in everyday life. Interdependence is a valuable lesson for everybody to understand, and one that Whitney exemplifies in her life.
Whitney is just one of many who suffer from TBI. To her other TBI survivors and teammates out there, Whitney has a message: “Be patient because things aren’t going to change quickly and you have to accept that life as you had is now different and you have to alter the normal. So what was isn’t what is and just adjusting to that acceptance.”
Michael Obel-Omia currently resides in Barrington, Rhode Island with his wife, Carolyn, and three children, Jackson, Liza, and Zachary. Prior to his stroke in 2016, Michael was an educator at many different schools including Perkiomen School, Roxbury Latin, William Penn Charter School, Paul Cuffee School, and Cambridge Friends School, where he held titles including English teacher, headmaster, and Director of Admissions.
His entrance to education was not a planned one: in 1986, the course he wanted to take while at Middlebury College was closed, so a professor recommended the course Black American Literature. Michael shares how it was from here, this Black American Literature Course, where he fell in love with English and education: “It was fantastic. 1986. Terrific. Great great course. Wonderful wonderful wonderful stories by black writers. I loved it. [Previously] I wanted to be a lawyer or something, but I fell in love with English in 1986. I started to read everything from there. I fell in love with teaching.”
Aside from a passion for English, cycling has been a major component to Michael’s life. In 2009, Michael cycled across the country for the first time. Anaheim, CA to New York City, NY. “12 days, 12 guys, 24 hours a day. Unbelievable. It felt great. Cycle Across America, one way or another.”
Fast forward a few years, on May 21, 2016, Michael suffered an ischemic stroke. In the aftermath of the stroke, Michael struggled to accept the changes that would occur in his life at first, but eventually has come to accept the changes in his identity. He explains, “I had so many ambitions, so many ideas, I wanted to do so much more. And there I had an ischemic stroke. But who I am, what I am, what I do, is driving.”
In his post-stroke life, cycling and English remain key aspects to Michael’s life. After he got home from the hospital, Michael hopped on a stationary bike. His goal: the Pan Mass Challenge, a 75 mile ride through Massachusetts. Michael recounts this experience: “So in June 2016, I got on a bicycle. Every day I bicycled, I bicycled, I bicycled, it was stationary of course. I said let me out. Carolyn, who I love so much- I said I need to go out. She said you can’t do it. I said I have to do it.”
A month later in July, Michael finally “got out” and on a bicycle outside. “I got on a bicycle in July 2016. I got on a bicycle and I bicycled on a bicycle path. I was so happy. Four miles total, I fell three times. I bicycled, I stopped, I fell down. Turned around, passed the YMCA, fell down. Cycled home, crashed. Three times, four miles, three times, crash crash crash. I was so dispirited, so sad, but I was determined to do something. So September 25, 2016, I cycled 25 miles. Within four months of stroke, to cycle 25 miles, I cycled 25 miles to say I could do this. I had a stroke, I could do this. I say I’m a cyclist.”
In addition to his identity as a cyclist, English has continued to leave a lasting imprint on Michael’s life. Shortly after his stroke, Michael wrote three articles for NPR’s This I Believe because “I love to talk about what I am doing. Aphasia is difficult communication, but I try so hard to speak everything right now with aphasia.” With this, “every day, every day, every day, five and a half years, I write in my journals. Everything I am doing. Now 475 people every day [receive] what I journal from aphasia.” Michael’s musings have become a part of his daily routine, where he summarizes his day to hundreds of loved ones from all aspects of his life.
In his musings, Michael also includes a poem that reminds him of the day. Poetry is another key part of Michael’s identity. After his stroke, he explains “I couldn’t say much, so I started writing poetry.” After a few of his poems were published, he decided to create a compilation of them. This birthed Finding My Words: Aphasia Poetry, his published book of poetry. Michael explains his relationship with poet as “So now I’m a poet. I love that. Poetry is what it is, unlike anything else, poetry is expressing myself, my feelings. Because of poetry, I can write down my difficulties and my problems. So I sit down to write poetry. Some of it is no good, but some of it is very powerful.”
Stroke Across America has proved to be both rewarding and challenging for Michael. He says, “I can do this every day. Every day. I gotta do it. Every day. Every day I gotta do it. I can do this. My hands hurt sometimes, my left hand is pretty weak. I have to ride, I have to do Stroke Across America. Tomorrow morning, I’ll be very anxious. I’ll wake up early tomorrow morning, I’ll be anxious. 64 miles. Can I do it? Can I do it again? But I’ll do it.”
In everything Michael does, he lives the motto “improving, always improving.”
Emily grew up in North Caldwell, New Jersey, and is currently a student at Washington University in St. Louis studying Environmental Analysis, Global Health, and the Business of Social Impact. In addition to her studies at school, Emily is a member of the Varsity softball team (go bears!) and is always up for an adventure to go find dessert. She got involved with Stroke Across America through her Grandfather, Joe Golden, who has ridden his bike across the country twice before having a stroke. Her internship role, among other responsibilities, is helping to coordinate events, and of course, providing endless love for Rusti.
Alex Rubin is a rising senior and member of the varsity softball team at Washington University in St. Louis. An architecture major and business of sports minor, however, her true passions lie more within creative media and the outdoors. Aside from bathing Rusti and serving as comedic relief for the trip, Alex manages on-the-road content for social media and documentary purposes.
Debra Meyerson and Steve Zuckerman co-founded Stroke Onward in 2019, and currently serve as volunteer co-chairs of this nonprofit organization. Stroke Onward’s mission is to ensure stroke survivors, families, and caregivers have the resources they need to successfully navigate the emotional journey critical to rebuilding their identities and rewarding lives.
Debra Meyerson is an author, advocate, and a professor at Stanford University Graduate School of Education. Prior to her stroke in 2010, Debra’s academic work focused on feminism, diversity, identity, and organizational change. More on her selected publications here. Debra’s most recent book, Identity Theft: Rediscovering Ourselves after Stroke (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2019) helps stroke survivors and those closest to them think about the process of rebuilding identities after trauma, and navigate the emotional journey that she has found very difficult—and rewarding. Debra is also published in World Neurosurgery where she advocates for rebuilding identity in stroke recovery. In addition to her work with Stroke Onward and her ongoing rehabilitation therapy, Debra currently serves on the board of the Pacific Stroke Association (PSA), the BU Sargent Clinical Advisory Board, and the Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) for Aphasia Stakeholder Advisory Board (University of Pittsburgh). Debra received her B.S. and M.S. from M.I.T. and a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from Stanford University.
Steve Zuckerman is Debra’s husband, carepartner, and an unnamed co-author of Identity Theft. He leads the development of Stroke Onward and remains employed part-time as President of Self-Help Federal Credit Union and Senior Advisor to Self-Help’s west coast operations, which he launched in 2006. Self-Help is a nationally recognized nonprofit whose mission is to create and protect ownership and economic opportunity for underserved communities. Steve’s prior work experience includes leadership roles in both private equity and consulting. Throughout his career, he has served on numerous nonprofit boards supporting economic, social and health justice, including Tides Foundation, Positive Coaching Alliance, and Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center, and currently serves on the BU Sargent Clinical Advisory Board and the ACT for Aphasia Stakeholder Advisory Board (University of Pittsburgh). Steve earned a BA from Yale University and an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Patrick Brannelly is the Director of Partnerships & Business Development at the Alzheimer’s Disease Data Initiative (ADDI), a non-profit organization that was launched by Gates Ventures in November 2020. Prior to ADDI, Pat was a Managing Director at the Rainwater Charitable Foundation, where he led a consortium that sought to accelerate the development of new treatments for neurodegenerative disorders. Earlier in his career, Pat worked in early-stage brain health technology ventures and as a management consultant in the US and Europe. He is a former Assistant Professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at California State University, Fresno. A frequent member of boards and committees within the neuroscience community, he currently serves as a Steering Committee member of the OECD’s Neuroscience-inspired Policy Initiative. Pat holds a BA in Psychology from Harvard College and an MBA with Distinction from Harvard Business School. As the father of two young kids, he spends his free time building forts, watching animated films, and running a non-profit taxi service.
Tony Stayner is the Managing Director of the Excelsior Impact Fund, a donor advised fund that represents contributions from multiple families and invests to create the world we want for future generations. He is a member of the Toniic T100 impact investor network and helps lead impact investing activities at SV2, for which he was honored to receive the 2019 Laura Arrillaga Andreessen Social Impact Award. He has used his experience as a Silicon Valley software executive to mentor numerous social entrepreneurs. He also serves as the Board Chair of the Pacific Institute and as a Board Member of Water.org. Tony’s MBA is from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and JD is from the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Law (he attended Harvard Law School during his third year of law school on an exchange program). Tony graduated Phi Beta Kappa with an A. B. in Economics and Mathematics from the University of California at Davis. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife, Beth Cross, and has three adult children.
In addition to her service on the board of Stroke Onward, Karen Jordan has been involved with JDRF since 2008, when her daughter Ali was diagnosed with autoimmmune Type 1 Diabetes. She is a member of the International Board of Directors, is Chair of the Research Committee (which provides strategic guidance and governance for a grant portfolio of over $350MM), and serves on the Audit & Risk Committee. She also serves on the T1D Fund Board, a venture philanthropy fund with over $200MM under management. She is a member of JDRF’s Northern California Chapter Board and serves as the Chapter’s Research Chair. She is a member of the Joint Steering Committee for the JDRF Northern California Center of Excellence at Stanford and UCSF. She is the inaugural recipient of JDRF’s John Brady Award for Innovation.
Her previous non-profit work includes service on different boards including, among others, Starlight Children’s Foundation, Stanford GSB Alumni Association and the Portola Valley School District. She was a member of the group who founded Summit Prep, a charter school profiled in Waiting for Superman. She currently serves on the Stanford Medicine Community Council and the Stanford Athletics Board.
Karen earned her B.A. in Economics-Business from UCLA and her MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She has completed TPW’s year-long program on strategic philanthropy. She has worked as an investment banker and with the Mayor’s Office in Los Angeles.
Jodi Kravitz has always worked at the intersection of social mission and innovation. Before being recruited to help launch Stroke Onward, Jodi worked for almost a decade with FIRST, an award winning nonprofit STEM inspiration program. Her responsibilities with FIRST LEGO League included program operations and partner relationships in more than 80 countries. She began her career working in strategic planning and other key roles for multiple national healthcare providers. Jodi has volunteered extensively for public television and other causes from her home on the seacoast in New Hampshire. Jodi received an MBA from Vanderbilt and a BA from Yale University.
Courtney L. Cooper has worked for community college students on campus and nationwide. Through her work as President of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges (SSCCC), representing 2.1 million students, Cooper fought for system-wide changes through the legislature and the Board of Governors to improve student lives. During her tenure, the SSCCC helped over half a dozen laws to get passed, including AB 1995 for students with housing insecurity. In 2017, Courtney was awarded Woman of the Year: Rising Star by Senator Jim Beall for her legislative advocacy on behalf of the disabled, LGBTQ+, and former foster youths. Courtney received her associate degree in Intercultural Communication from Foothill College and is now in her final year completing her BA in Business Management at Menlo College, with a concentration in Entrepreneurship and Innovation. She plans to continue her work in advocacy for the disabled, especially for underserved communities.
Flannery O’Neil, MPH received her Bachelor of Arts from American University and a Master of Public Health from A.T. Still University. She has worked in healthcare and public health for more than 15 years in both the non-profit and government sectors. Her areas of expertise include communications, data, public health program development and management, and organizational leadership. Most recently, she worked in stroke and cardiac quality improvement for the American Heart and Stroke Association and served in leadership roles for a local public health agency.
Since experiencing an ischemic stroke in 2017, she has worked to advocate both personally and professionally for the needs of people experiencing stroke including founding and leading two stroke support groups.
She lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her husband, Andrew and their two dogs.
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