Inspiring Alumni

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A powerful article about Mondamin alum, Steve Blizzard, and those supporting his journey, especially Green Cove alum Virginia Spigener. Truly inspirational!

A remarkable road to recovery for victim of stroke

Five minutes before boarding a flight to Sicily, Steve Blizzard’s life changed forever.

By Beth De Bona Times-News Staff Writer

(This is the Hendersonville Times-News link to the article).

Five minutes before boarding a flight to Sicily, Steve Blizzard’s life changed forever.

In January of 2013, the Hendersonville resident suffered a massive stroke at Washington Dulles International Airport — he wasn’t expected to live beyond the first 24 hours, and then, because he was paralyzed on the right side of his body, was told he wouldn’t walk again.

Blizzard, now 61, has defied doctors’ predictions, walking regularly along Main Street downtown, living independently and working out daily at the gym.

“I want to spend time with my boys, travel, explore and see the world,” said Blizzard, who plans to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway and old Route 66 in his Model T Ford truck with his son, Jack, and visit his other son, Morgan, in England next year.

His friends as well as his doctor, personal trainer and speech therapist are all inspired by Blizzard’s determination to move beyond the physical limitations the stroke has caused. Getting treatment early and staying committed to a successful recovery, as Blizzard did, can help a patient beat the odds, doctors say.

“Steve’s come a long way from the time I met him,” said Eric Byrd, M.D., of Carolina Mountain Internal Medicine at Pardee. Byrd, who met Blizzard two months after his stroke, noted his remarkable improvement, especially with speech function.

“He’s done a phenomenal job and has rehabbed like a champ,” Byrd said. “Steve has been particularly aggressive in his seeking ‘above and beyond’ therapies … all the resources in the world would not have helped him had he not applied himself.”

A former financial consultant for the international company KPMG, Blizzard lived in England for over two decades working with the company before transferring to Charlotte, where he commuted from Hendersonville for a couple of years. Blizzard planned to retire in Hendersonville, which he knew from childhood summers spent at Camp Mondamin.

His friend, Virginia Spigener, was with him when the stroke came on, just before a trip abroad to Italy and England.

“We had just eaten supper and were walking to the gate,” she said of the event preceding a three-and-a-half-week vigil at his bedside in a neurological intensive care unit in northern Virginia, before spending six weeks at Care Partners in Asheville. Both facilities had suggested care in a nursing home following the treatments.

“Knowing Steve prior to his stroke, knowing his determination and his quest for adventure, that would have been the end,” said Spigener.

The road to recovery has meant intensive therapies, even after the recommended time periods for speech and occupational therapies. Blizzard has pressed on with efforts to improve function.

“He’s still not able to have a conversation, but his ability to understand has improved dramatically,” said Spigener, citing speech improvements as having a positive impact on healing cognitive in the brain.

The particularly massive stroke he suffered was caused by a clot that had formed on an aortic valve implanted when Blizzard was 40 years old. The clot choked off blood to the nerve endings in his brain, causing the dramatic symptoms. To make things worse, the swelling of the brain following the stroke — a typical symptom — was especially dangerous for Blizzard, as his skull capacity was already narrow for the size of his brain.

Before the stroke, Blizzard spoke seven languages (he taught himself Chinese and Dutch); though these are lost to him now, he impressed speech therapists shortly after the stroke with his ability to match a phrase printed in 10 different languages with the language of each.

“He keeps making progress,” said Laura Connor, a speech-language pathologist at Pardee who has worked with Blizzard for about two years. “His motivation — I wish every patient of mine had it.”

Blizzard continues to go to speech therapy two or three times a week, and it’s paying off. Little by little, overwhelming situations that were effortless before the stroke are getting easier, like navigating a supermarket or airport.

“Speech helps you to figure it out,” said Spigener. “Steve has unbelievable drive.”

Two years ago, after his physical therapy discontinued, Blizzard made a decision to join a gym. Working with Ansley Leitner at her Whole Body Fitness gym downtown, he’s worked up to being able to paddle a kayak and to doing daily workouts.

“This man is so determined and knows what he wants; he just has trouble telling people about it,” Leitner said.

With only a 2 percent grip in his right hand, Leitner wasn’t sure how to work in his desire to paddle once they reached the aqua therapy aspect of training.

“Over time his grip has increased and we don’t have to tape it (to the paddle),” she said. “He wasn’t a big swimmer before, so we did swimming lessons and now he’s like a fish.”

Blizzard regularly swims 12 laps — and because it’s difficult to turn his head to catch air, he simply flips over for a breath, turning fully in the water after each stroke.

“Every little step of the way, he wants to do more,” Leitner said. “He retains this stuff. He can (now) do the workout without me. I can’t foresee him not having an active lifestyle now.”

Spigener is amazed that three years on he continues to show remarkable improvement. Progress comes in spurts, sometimes slower than faster, but currently she said he’s in a “growth spurt.”

“All of a sudden Steve’s got huge plans and he’s able to process it and think about logistics and the planning,” she said of his upcoming travel plans.

Tears welled up in Blizzard’s eyes as Spigener spoke about his upcoming visits with his sons and his plans to gift one with an Indian motorcycle and the other with his Model T — his tears expressing more eloquently what he couldn’t articulate in words.

Reach De Bona at or 828-694-7890. Follow @BRNBeth

About Robert Danos

I first came to Mondamin from South Louisiana as a camper in 1979 and spent the next 9 summers here all the way through our Counselor In Training program. While attending Tulane University, I was a counselor each summer and have now been on the year-round staff for over 30 years. Before joining the year-round staff, I spent time both in teaching and child psychology. .

My wife, Susan, spent eight years on staff at our sister camp, Green Cove, and we have two girls and a boy all of whom have attended Green Cove and Mondamin, respectively.

Robert Danos