Phil Lind, centre, poses with Robert Brehl, left, and Toronto Mayor John Tory at the launch for Right Hand Man. Along with his political career, Tory was an executive at Rogers Communications. Photo courtesy Robert Brehl

Stroke marked the start of new life

  • November 16, 2018

Catholic Register columnist Robert Brehl’s fifth book, Right Hand Man, published by Barlow Books, was released this month. It is a collaboration on the memoirs of businessman and philanthropist Phil Lind, who guided the genius of Rogers Communications founder Ted Rogers for 40 years. In 1998 Lind was felled by a massive stroke at age 54. He had to re-learn how to talk, walk, write with his left hand and more. But with dogged determination, Lind went on to some of his most important career victories — proving there can still be lots of life (and lots of obstacles to overcome) after a debilitating stroke. In this abridged excerpt, Lind and Brehl, who got to know Lind while reporting on business for the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail, describe the immediate days after the stroke.

On Thursday, July 2, a neurologist came to see me. Now, I admit that I was in and out of delirium, but what this doctor told me rocked my world, especially given everything I’d been through during the previous 24 hours. I am not imagining what he said. His words are ingrained in me, and I’ve never forgotten them. He explained that secondary strokes are probable, that they’re kind of like aftershocks following an earthquake. And that sometimes these secondary strokes can be worse than the initial one.

“I’m going away to the cottage now for the long weekend,” the doctor went on. “If you survive all that, I’ll be around on Monday to see you.”

I’m a guy who likes the truth. I hate it when someone bull.…s me or sugarcoats things. But given the weakened state of both my mind and body, this bedside manner was borderline cruel. I couldn’t speak very well at all. When I had to I’d muster what I could to talk to people, but I just didn’t know what to say to this doctor. 

After he left I just lay there, forming different thoughts in my head. This was the only thing I could control: thoughts in my head. And I was going places I shouldn’t have gone. I was convinced, at that moment, that I’d be gone, or if I did make it to Monday, that I’d have only a couple of years at best. It felt as though that doctor’s words had flushed everything out of me.

There’ll be a place later to detail the rigours of rehabilitation and the incredible support and love of friends and family, but the point of starting this memoir with the stroke is to underline how significant Canada Day 1998 was to me. I had to learn or relearn how to talk, to read, to walk dragging a right leg that often feels like a log, to write with my left hand, to dress myself, to drive a car, to do so many everyday things that everyone, including myself, takes for granted until something happens.

That day defined my life. It changed me forever. It changed my relationship with Ted Rogers. But it did not end my life. I can honestly say that I’ve done some of my best work since the stroke, and I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.

Some have held me up as some sort of poster boy for stroke victims, an example that a life can be lived with purpose and fulfillment after a stroke. And that’s okay, but I’ve never sought that status and don’t think of myself that way. I don’t like the terms “victim” or “disability.” Sure, I’ve had to work a lot harder at some things, but I still got the job done through sheer determination. I never wanted people looking at me and thinking, “Poor Phil. He’s doing the best he can, all things considered.” I wanted to do the job and achieve positive results, just as I’d done all through my career during the 25 years before the stroke.

My mother always drilled into us the importance of never giving up, of always finding ways to fight adversity. And if this book leaves the reader with only one message, it would be this: Listen to my mother — no matter what, never give up hope and never give up trying to come back.

The stroke may not have been the end, but it certainly was the beginning of a new and very different life. Earlier, in the prologue, I talked about what happened, so there’s no need to go over it in detail again, except to say that I truly thought my life was ending as I slipped in and out of consciousness that day. During the arduous days, weeks and months that followed, I was convinced that I had maybe five years left, 10 at the outside.

Instead, through a combination of good fortune, hard work, and tremendous support from friends and family, I’ve had more than 20 years. And although these years have been a physical struggle much of the time, they’ve been productive. And I am very much thankful.

I don’t say this often, and never in public until now, but these years have been different — very different — because I’m different in many ways. You can’t help but be changed after a stroke. It’s not like recovering from a broken leg, or even a heart attack.

A stroke creates a total mental state change-out. 

To this day, I still can’t move my toes. People see the obvious physical impairments, like dragging my right leg and not being able to use my right hand, but those things are minor compared to what went on in my head.

Sure, it takes longer to dress and I can’t tie my shoelaces anymore, but those chores are nothing like overcoming the fear of not being able to pull out the right words in conversation.
For months and months after the stroke I was absolutely terrified of public speaking, even with small groups of eight to 10 friendly people, let alone with larger audiences or during potentially hostile business meetings. Some of my closest friends will be surprised to read this, but I’m betting I’m not unique, and that most people who’ve survived a stroke feel the same way.

Even today, after all these years, I’m quieter, less gregarious, more likely to fade into the background at social events. It is a tremendous effort to try to get back a normal life post-stroke. Many people don’t do it; it’s just too tough. They can’t find the strength and the will to learn all over again — learn to interact fully with others, learn to talk and walk, learn to yearn to be as they once were. I can understand that, and why many just accept that “this is it” and play out the days.

Indeed, one of my closest friends, Colin Watson, jokes that the stroke changed me, but not in the way one might think. 

“The wonderful thing about Lind is that a lot of people would be softer after the stroke, but he’s a bigger jerk than before,” Watson says. 

“Seriously, I haven’t seen any diminution of his facilities and his activities. It’s hard as hell for him to go to airports as a physical activity, and he’s in the air three-quarters of his life. Phil is simply not a guy to look back. Everybody has problems, and he doesn’t dwell on his.”

He’s correct. I don’t dwell on or talk much about my stroke. The candour here comes from a hope that perhaps my story can help someone else. I’m no better than the next guy, but I was bound and determined to break through and conquer the psychological aspects of the stroke.

(Excerpted from Right Hand Man: How Phil Lind steered the Genius of Canada’s Foremost Entrepreneur, Ted Rogers, by Phil Lind with Robert Brehl, published by Barlow Books.) 

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