February 6, 2019

Recovering from a Stroke Was Ultimately Uplifting

SILVER LINING: In “My Stroke of Luck,” doctor-turned-actor Diane Barnes details how having a stroke ended up enriching her life. The one-woman show is Saturday, March 9 at 5 p.m. at Princeton Senior Resource Center.

By Anne Levin

Diane Barnes was horseback riding one evening near her home in San Rafael, California, when the worst headache she had ever experienced hit her like a thunderbolt. This fit, healthy woman in her mid-50s, with no family history of stroke, was having one.

Barnes is a radiologist. She knew what was happening. But she waited 20 hours, even driving her son to camp, before finally driving herself to the hospital. She was lucky, because the damage wasn’t as devastating as it could have been. She spent a week in the neurological intensive care unit before being discharged and beginning the long road to recovery.

It is that arduous process that Barnes recounts in My Stroke of Luck, a one-woman show that she will bring the Princeton Senior Resource Center on Saturday, March 9. Tickets are $30.

The show recounts the effects of the stroke on Barnes’ own health, on her two sons (she is a single mother), and on how she wanted to live the rest of her life.

“I was minding my own business, just living my life. I had no risk factors. I’m a size four. I exercise. But there it was,” she said during a telephone conversation. “The horse I was riding must have sensed something, because all of a sudden he wasn’t listening to me. So I got off, and that’s when it hit me.”

Over the course of her career as a radiologist, Barnes, who trained at Yale University, had seen her share of brain X-rays showing that a stroke had occurred. Hers, which left her with some motor weakness, was “smallish in my dominant left,” she said. “It didn’t hit the motor strip, which is good. The effect totally depends on where it hits.”

She calls her decision to wait 20 hours “terribly stupid.” The show is “a cautionary tale, with a lot of good lessons,” she said. “Number one, don’t do what I did. Number two, there is almost nothing that you can’t turn into a positive or find a silver lining in. I’m an intellectual, yet I am so much happier living in my ‘new brain.’ Any number of things are gone, and yet my life now is so much richer.”

It was a year before Barnes could return to work, on a part-time basis. A few years later, she accepted a retirement package in order to spend more time with her children. She enrolled in some continuing education courses at Stanford University, including one on improvisation. “It was the opposite of science,” she said. “It was so completely new to me, but I liked it right away.”

The classes were immediately illuminating. Before long, Barnes was asked to be in a play. She wrote a monologue about the experience of adopting her children. She began to interact in a way she never had before. “As a radiologist, I was in life-and-death situations with many people, where I called their doctors and then their doctors talked to them,” she said. “I had never had that direct impact on people that I was beginning to see. For me to have such an immediate impact on people’s lives was a very new experience. And to have it come from sharing my own experience was just incredible.”

Out of all of this came My Stroke of Luck, which Barnes debuted in November 2017. The show ran for five months in San Francisco, and will play again, in Berkeley, for five weeks. Barnes described the show as serious, but not without humor. “I inhabit all the characters,” she said. “Somebody described it to me by saying they felt they were sitting across from me at my kitchen table. I start with some of my expectations and how I built my family. Then I go to the [stroke] event, and you walk through, with me, my discovery of my impairment and the effects it had on my kids. Then I go through my recovery.”

The play is serious, but ultimately upbeat. “It’s a story of reinvention. It’s a love story to my older son in some way, because he was home with me during the whole thing,” Barnes said. “My younger son was in boarding school.”

Barnes finds new things in the show at every performance. “It changes. It gets richer,” she said. In a later email, she added, “What I most want the audience to take home is the visceral sense that even the worst imaginable event may hold hidden gifts. My life is so much better and richer now, in ways unimaginable, all because of the stroke. You remember that joke about the parents who give their child a heap of horse manure instead of a pony? The child, an unabashed optimist, starts shoveling. ‘With this much manure, there must be a pony somewhere!’  My stroke did that for me.”