For an extreme skier who jumps out of helicopters and prefers the Alps, a snowy hill in Pennsylvania wouldn’t seem to present much of a challenge.
But that was before Mark French suffered a debilitating stroke in 2015.
So getting back on his skis for the first time in February, even to descend a modest slope, was the greatest “schuss” of all.
“It was a very satisfying milestone,” he said. “My goal is 100 percent recovery and I believe in time I’ll get there.”
French’s goals, however, extend far beyond just his own recovery.
Blindsided by an ailment he knew little about, the 62-year-old executive now wants to use his personal and professional resources to make a difference in stroke awareness and research.
“In business you need to be able to tell a story,” he said. “All I’m trying to do is share my story in a way that will cause people to think about stroke and what can and should be done.”
French is the founder and chief executive officer of Leading Authorities, a speakers bureau based in Washington, D.C.
It has a talent list ranging from political strategist Donna Brazille and former CIA Director Michael Hayden to basketball legend Magic Johnson and Saturday Night Live’s Darrell Hammond.
An unexpected event
At 60, French was leading an enviable life.
He was running a successful business, traveling the world, rising early every morning for a strenuous cardio workout.
“From all outward signs, I was in great condition,” he said. “Never smoked, good blood pressure, didn’t have high cholesterol.”
French did have atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat, but it didn’t seem serious enough to him or his doctor to warrant medication.
But AFib, as it is commonly known, can increase risk of blood clots, stroke and heart problems.
“I couldn’t believe how little I knew about stroke,” he said. “I consider myself a pretty savvy well-read person, but I had no idea what the risk indicators were.”
He found out on April 29, 2015.
After hosting a dinner for clients in downtown Washington, French got into his car to drive home.
“As I put my hands on the steering wheel, I felt what seemed to be an electric current in my left arm,” he said. “Nothing looked familiar. It’s almost miraculous I found my way home. When I got there, my family recognized not everything was right.”
French had an ischemic stroke, a clot blocking blood flow to the brain, then a brain hemorrhage.
He was taken to a local hospital, and airlifted a day later to George Washington University Hospital – ironically, across the street from the site of his dinner the previous night.
A long road to recovery
Doctors saved French’s life, but they weren’t optimistic.
“I had paralysis on my left side,” he said. “They told my wife and daughters I had about 1 percent chance of ever walking again. It was just a cataclysmic change in my life.”
Four weeks in the hospital were followed by six weeks at a rehabilitation hospital.
With determination, hard work “and a very good support network,” French returned to work that fall and has made steady progress since as he continues physical therapy.
Defying the doctors’ predictions, French walks normally and has resumed traveling. He never had the speech problems that affect some stroke victims, but has difficulty typing (“thank goodness for voice-activated software”).
Nonetheless, he’s trying to tackle the piano.
“What could have been a lethal event turned out to be recoverable,” he said. “Stroke isn’t something you recover from the way you recover from a broken bone. You need patience and you need determination. I still have significant deficits, but I have as normal a life as one could hope for under the circumstances.”
Spreading the word
But that’s not enough. French has spent a career building public awareness, and the battle against stroke needs plenty of that.
“I believe that my stroke could have been prevented had I recognized the signs,” he said. “I never ever expected that I would be disabled. Few people do. But this is something that can happen to any more. People need to understand the magnitude of stroke as a leading cause of death and disability.”
Once he understood that, “What has surprised me is the lack or resources being dedicated to stroke education, rehabilitation and research. It’s a very big deal, and I don’t think it’s being treated like a very big deal. Even in very good medical centers, there’s just not enough in the toolbox.”
His group, Leading Authorities, also produces videos and live events.
French is determined to use his expertise to spread that message.
“We’re in the communication business,” he said. “We’re going to get our message to opinion leaders and decision makers who have some influence. You hear a lot about marvelous breakthroughs in cancer research and that’s great. But we need to hear these things about stroke as well and I want to help.”
As the two-year anniversary of his stroke nears, French considers himself “extraordinarily lucky” and is grateful for family and friends who were so crucial in his recovery. And as much as he appreciates the Pennsylvania slopes, that’s not the end of the story.
“I’d like to ski the Alps again,” he said.