Tom Irwin: "I haven't had a bad day in nine years"
The day after Christmas 2003, Tom Irwin was enjoying an unusually beautiful, sunny winter afternoon, so he decided to clean out the gutters of his mountaintop home on Eagles Nest Rd. in Waynesville.
That’s the last thing he remembers about that day.
He doesn’t remember falling off the ladder or his head hitting the concrete. He doesn’t remember how he managed to get up and walk into the house, but that’s exactly what he did – a walk that most likely saved his life.
The next 21 days of his story had to be told by Libby Irwin, his wife of 36 years. “What I remember is that he came into the house looking really ‘zombie-ish,’” recalled Libby. “He was so agitated that I had to hold him down to dial 911.” She quickly learned her husband’s fall had resulted in a stroke. He was in a coma at Mission Hospital ICU for the next 15 days.
However, during those excruciating 15 days of waiting, his wife remembers hopeful moments. One day when his son, Bailey, came to visit, he wore a Carolina jacket because he attended UNC, the rival of Duke University where his father studied. The nurse joked to Bailey, “Your father went to Duke and here you are with a Carolina jacket.” Bailey quickly quipped back, “Well, every generation gets smarter.” When Tom heard that statement, he openly and obviously laughed, even in the coma. “That made me know Tom was still there,” said Libby.
Indeed, he was.
On the Thursday morning of day 15 when Libby walked into the ICU unit, she couldn’t find her husband. A male nurse rushed up to Libby with the good news. Tom had woken up from the coma and was downstairs. His eyes were open and he could nod and smile and move around.
That Saturday, day 17, their daughter Sherri, who was pregnant, was able to travel from Atlanta one last time before the delivery. She brought a collage of family photos and asked Tom to point out family members. He had a lot of trouble with his hands and arms but he worked hard and did it, said Libby. On Sunday, day 18, he was walking and going to the restroom by himself, even though he still doesn’t remember any of the time in Mission Hospital.
By that Tuesday, day 20, he was transferred to Thom’s Rehabilitation Center (currently Care Partners), and Wednesday morning, day 21, he had his first actual memory of waking up and being aware of his surroundings.
From the accident to day 21, he remembers nothing. From day 21 on, he remembers everything.
“I remember waking up and I didn’t know where I was, how I got there or why I was there,” Tom said. The rehabilitation experts didn’t waste any time and began physical, speech and occupational therapy that day. He had to re-learn everything – how to walk, talk, write, swallow and speak. The physical strength came back fairly quickly and he was soon walking up stairs and even got down on the floor to play with Snickers, his pet poodle, who was allowed one brief visit.
His speech was a bit slower returning which really frustrated Tom because, during his professional career in banking and as a stock broker, he was used to giving six to eight speeches a year. As he listened to himself speak clearly on his voice mail greeting, he was determined to once again deliver a speech.
That was another time his son Bailey used humor to help his father along in the healing process. “Bailey was sitting on the bed and we were talking and Bailey said, ‘Now let me get this straight - blah, blah, blah, more jibberish, blah – is that what you said?’” recalled Tom, adding that the two of them broke down laughing. “I could totally understand myself and I thought other people could understand me but, when Bailey said that, for the first time I understood I was talking jibberish.”
“The best healing medicine for me was laughter so it was the perfect thing for him to say to make me aware and start the humor going,” added Tom. “I started laughing that day and I’ve been laughing ever since.”
After he came home the first week in February 2004, he immediately started the process of getting back in business which he accomplished until 2007 when he retired. He learned to e-mail again and learned to talk on the phone again by practicing talking to clients who were also good friends. One day, he was trying to get out the word “unanimous.” “I finally said, ‘You know – they all voted for it!’” he said with a laugh.
Currently, his speech has dramatically improved after a great deal of determination. Although many people mistake his deeper voice as a German accent and he deals with an occasional very dry mouth which disrupts his speech temporarily, he can speak very clearly. He even fulfilled his dream of giving a speech again when he spoke to the Western Carolina University speech therapy graduate students for 45 minutes two years in a row.
He continues to give back to the community as a board member of the Haywood County Arts Council and a foundation board member of Care Partners. He also speaks to therapy groups at Care Partners. “I tell them to not be embarrassed, to go out in public and make mistakes and be able to laugh at themselves,” he explained.
Tom says that his accident has made him look at every day he lives like a bonus day. That’s why when people ask him, “How are you today, Tom?” he responds, “I’m great every day.”
“When you know without a doubt that you should have died and didn’t there is no such thing as a bad day,” he added. “I haven’t had a bad day in nine years.”
To contact the Irwin’s, call 452-5362.