Up until seven years ago, Heather Kadlec had created a good life for herself. An all-state tennis player in high school, she remained physically active as an adult, had earned two master’s degrees. She was a beloved teacher at S.E. Gross Middle School in Brookfield who worked her way up to curriculum director in Brookfield-LaGrange Park District 95.

Then, in 2011, she suffered a stroke that severely limited her ability to talk, read and write. Kadlec, who lives in Forest Park, was just 41 years old. Her story is one of grieving the loss of her past life and creating a new one for herself with the help of many allies.

Emergency room doctors at Rush Oak Park Hospital took several hours to determine what was happening because, at 41, she just didn’t fit the prototype of a person experiencing an ischemic stroke, which is when a blood clot in the brain blocks blood flow to the cerebral arteries. 

Her diagnosis was made more than four hours after the stroke began, which meant the window of opportunity for doctors to administer a clot-dissolving drug had closed. The damage to the left side of Kadlec’s brain was complete.

Kadlec lay in a coma for four days and stayed in the hospital for a month. After fusing together major arteries, surgeons removed the top left part of Kadlec’s skull, in an effort to relieve pressure on her brain. Kadlec then spent a month at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago before coming home. 

Her “full-time job” the first five years after her stroke involved visits to doctors and therapy.

Physically, Kadlec lost the use of her right hand and the ability to speak except for a few words. Husband Jonathan Shack explained that the left side of the brain, where the damage caused by the stroke is located, is where communication is centered. 

Kadlec’s working vocabulary consists mainly of “yes” and “no.” Shack, somewhat jokingly, said that his conversations with his wife sometimes amount to a game of 20 questions. Reading and writing are also difficult. 

The loss of her physical abilities was huge, but perhaps more devastating was the loss of the three activities that gave great meaning to her life. The first, and most important to her, was her work as a teacher and then an assistant principal and curriculum coordinator in Brookfield. For Kadlec, teaching was a passion, not just a job.

A second major loss for her was the ability to read; the third the ability to drive a car. Driving meant independence.

Kadlec said she felt depressed and angry immediately following her stroke, and that she still feels some sadness at losing the ability to teach, read and drive.

But she has responded to the loss of these sources of meaning by creating a new life for herself. Perhaps the most noticeable part of her new life is her art. 

Six months after her stroke, Kadlec took a watercolor class at the Oak Park Art League. Learning to paint with her left hand, Kadlec gradually acquired the ability to paint pictures and print them as greeting cards. 

The cards have been good enough to sell. Kadlec’s paintings and greeting cards are exhibited at art shows and are for sale at Empowering Gardens in Forest Park and Fitzgerald’s Fine Stationary, Visit Oak Park and at the Sears Pharmacy in Oak Park.

Not only art given meaning to Kadlec’s life, it has become a way to make friends and form a community. Kadlec’s own adventurous spirit has also served her well. She has formed relationships up and down Madison Street in Forest Park by regularly venturing out and exploring local businesses.

Another door which opened a new vista for Kadlec has been music therapy. Shack explained that the undamaged part of her brain, the right hemisphere, is the center for music and art. 

In music therapy, Kadlec discovered that when she practices singing a song, she is able to vocalize many more words than if she tried to simply speak.

Most important has been the loving support she has received from many sources. When Kadlec speaks, she often touches the arm and shoulder of her husband. He, in turn, noted how many of her friends have stuck with her and support her to this day. 

He choked up when he recalled how her former sixth, seventh and eighth graders raised $18,000 in a one-night fundraiser they organized on her behalf.

Shack also raved about the Stroke Camp that the couple attends a few times a year. At Camp, volunteers treat stroke victims and their caretakers to a weekend where they take care of all of their needs. Its goal is to allow stroke victims to get away and find support and inspiration in each other.

To learn more about Kadlec’s art, visit her website at www.hmkwatercolors.com.

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