Creating a Sense of Community in Northeast Tennessee & Southwest Virginia
 

Jeri Ward and Her Will to Survive

The explosion in her head came out of nowhere.

As beauty queen and social justice advocate Jeri Ward and her soccer coach husband Dean Ward lounged on the couch of their Dayton, Ohio home, working on their laptops, and generally avoiding the pop, flash and sizzle of cameras and microphones that dominate their daily lives, it happened: the white hot flash of pain pierced the comfortable silence like a gunshot.

Jeri unexpectedly seized up. The air zipped out of her lungs. Her body froze. Somewhere, deep within her petite 5’4” foot frame, a “pop” erupted. Then another. Suddenly, it was if a stick of dynamite had exploded in her head.

“It was like fireworks blasting off,” she said. “Then it all fizzled out just as fast as it came.”

Jeri, trying to make sense of what just happened, rationalized it all to herself in the moment. She felt fine now, at least relative to the electric darts scorching through her head seconds earlier. Ever an optimist, the beauty queen downplayed the spell, calmly considering it was either the start of a migraine or some odd result of pent up stress.

Then she tried to speak. She tried to tell Dean how fireworks had just rumbled through her brain. She wanted to tell Dean how weird she felt, but that she was likely fine now. She wanted to reach out and hold his hand.

Instead, she uttered half words, all jumbled and slurred, mostly incoherent. They were more guttural grunts than recognizable English. She knew what she wanted to say, but she forgot how to say it and her hand failed to reach out to Dean as she commanded. As if in an out of body experience she saw herself floundering. Her mind was working: her body was not.

A grim reality thumped her like a sledgehammer to the chest. This wasn’t a migraine. This wasn’t stress. This was much worse.

“That’s when I knew something was wrong,” Ward said. “Very wrong …  I immediately broke down into tears.”

Her mind shifted from calm to near panic. She tried to force the words out this time, but still nothing. Finally, after starts and stops, stutters and gasps, she managed to choke out the one word that mattered:

“Hospital.”

Dean, who had put down the game film footage he was studying as he frantically tried to decipher his wife’s words, heard her this time loud and clear.

Within 20 minutes they were at the first of many ICU waiting rooms they’d grow to know.

“In that moment, our lives changed forever,” Dean said.

Trapped Inside

In what seemed like a split second, Ward, a reigning beauty queen of national recognition and gung-ho advocate to right all things unjust, had lost most of her speech, as if her cute southern accent was snatched from her throat without permission. Meanwhile, her motor functions failed as if they were too rusty to crank.

She was frozen in time and space, caught in her own body, with a mind that worked like normal, but a body she couldn’t control. She could hear people talk about her, in front of her, as if she wasn’t there. She watched in horror as her doctors and family attempted to understand her basic requests, sickened with anger that she couldn’t simply say she wanted ice. Her body had failed. It quit. It hijacked her soul, keeping it silent, unable to fly free, to communicate, to do what she wanted, to help others. She was held captive by her own body, but even worse, she knew it and there was nothing she could do.

Now, months later, after five brain procedures, and a two months of rehab, Ward has regained much these lost abilities but, as of press time, Ward’s doctor’s still don’t know how or why her stroke(s) hit in such a sudden, visceral way. And now when she tells anyone about the ordeal, its punctuated with a new European-ish accent. It’s so foreign that sometimes when she hears herself speak, it catches her off-guard.

The world of the reigning Mrs. Ohio might not ever be the same.

The Bombshell Activist

Born in Emory, Virginia, Jeri, now 30, is no stranger to beauty pageants. At four years old she won her first crown, going on to win virtually every contest she entered since. At one point the King University and East Tennessee State University graduate was even Miss Washington County 2005 and Miss Southwest Virginia 2006. After relocating with her husband north to Ohio so he could pursue his coaching career with the University of Dayton women’s soccer team, the pageants followed too. In 2018, Ward was crowned Mrs. Ohio, a win that guaranteed her a slot in the Mrs. America Pageant, where each state’s winners compete for the national crown.

For Ward though, the glitz and glamour of these whirlwind contests were only a fraction of the appeal. More importantly, she said, they opened doors, giving her a platform to address her real passion: social justice reforms.

Virtually her entire adult life Ward has been either an avid volunteer or state employee working with those from abusive homes, foster families, the homeless, disabled adults and children, and as an advocate for legislative reform; including court justice and prison improvements among other issues. In 2016, she created an autism program to assist child behavior and improve school readiness skills. When crowned Mrs. Ohio in April 2018 she used her platform to battle the country’s crippling opioid addiction. Although she has no children of her own, Ward, as of last year, was also the legal guardian of 42 children through her work.

“My work is my life,” she said via phone from her home in Ohio, in between a whirlwind week of doctor’s appointments and therapy sessions, typically five per week. “When you can make a difference, even with just one person, everything is so worth it. I seem to get back so much more than what I give out. It’s been a blessing. Now, after being in this predicament, it gives me a better understanding of those I serve, the hardships some of these people have faced.”

Not shy of controversy, last year Ward became one of four Mrs. America contestants who, in October, rallied against alleged racist comments made by pageant President and CEO David Marmel.

During an early October 2018 press conference in New York, on live TV, before a national stage, while standing next to famed woman’s right’s attorney Gloria Alfred, Ward spoke out against Marmel’s alleged remarks and showed the nation she was more than a captivating smile framed in flowing dark hair she was also a bombshell activist.

“If you look at the tape of that conference, she spoke so eloquently. She spoke with such passion. I was so proud of her,” husband Dean said. “It’s like whatever she does, she just gets after it. Whether it’s working with foster families … or holding a national press conference. She had no other reason to do that (press conference) than its what was right. That’s who she is. She’s got a purpose in mind. It’s an amazing thing to witness.”

Fresh off a successful nationally televised press conference, Jeri was reeling with pride and future possibility.

Two weeks later, she couldn’t speak.

12 to 14 years

The lightening bolt of a stroke struck about 10:30 pm, Oct. 25, 2018. There were no indications. No droopy face. No slurred speech. It was as if tragedy silently crept into the room and sat on Jeri’s chest. “Looking back I wish there was something we could have prepared for,” Dean said. “But there were no signs.”

That’s the thing with stroke issues, according to of the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association. They can strike even the healthiest of people, sometimes without warning.

Jeri hopes to change this.

In her exclusive interview with VIPSEEN, Jeri spoke candidly on several occasions about her current and ongoing struggles with her yet-to-be determined brain condition that’s crippled her breakneck pace of work. Yet somehow through the harrowing ordeal of having to reteach herself how to speak, write, and spell, and after going through brain procedures still awake, she seems to have bequeathed a new found sense of self and appreciation for others that suffer from debilitating medical issues.

While she admits that in her story there’s not much she nor anyone could have done to prepare, especially considering the cause of the sudden stroke is only speculative at this point, she realizes now how important awareness is for what’s silently become the most ruthless and successful killer of both men and women on the planet.

Stroke is the number five cause of death, and leading cause of disability in the united states, according to the American Heart Association

By the time you read to this point, it’s likely that at least one person suffered a stroke, with one occurring every 40 seconds. Even more compelling is the fact that the CDC reports that 140 American die each year from a stroke; that’s 1 out of 20 people.

By chronicling with us her very private, very intimate journey from the hospital floor to the top floor of the Bristol Hotel for this month’s cover photo, Ward seems to glow even over the phone; her beauty obviously more than skin deep. With a vocabulary of about only 10-15 words for the first few weeks to a month after her stroke, and three of rehab where her first word was mom, not to mention the strangers prodding her brain with strange medical contraptions, Jeri has had a tough ride for sure. Yet in some way, she’s managed to find the silver lining, despite more surgeries in her future and no definite medical reason for the stroke in sight. Most would complain. Jeri, however, sees an opportunity.

“My clients always said you can’t possibly relate, but now I can. I have a certified disability. It’s given me a new awareness that I never had before. When people struggle in the world because of some learning disability, I get it now more than I ever did,” Ward explains.

And if there is one thing she wants readers to get, it’s this: Memorizing the American Heart Association’s acronym F.A.S.T. saved her life, and it can save yours too. Ward, among others like the CDC, suggest the acronym:

Face drooping: Does one side of the face droop, or is it numb? Ask the person to smile. Is the person’s smile uneven or lopsided?

Arm weakness: Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?

Speech: Is speech slurred? Is the person able to speak, or hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence.

Time to call 911: If the person shows any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call 9-1-1 and them to the hospital immediately.

It was this simple acronym that made the difference of why she is here today.

A Husband’s JOurney

Dean’s preparations for the upcoming Sunday game in a conference quarter final, were well underway and he was due to travel the next day with the University of Dayton women’s soccer team. If the team had won their previous game they would have been a higher seed in the post season tournament, and therefore he would have already been traveling for a Saturday quarter final contest. Instead, the team bus left without him. 

“If the result of the previous game would have been different, I wouldn’t have been on the couch with Jeri, and who knows what would have happened.  The worries of wins and losses seemed pretty insignificant at this point” Dean said recalling the night of her stroke.

After he rushed Jeri to the hospital that fateful night, the doctors did a brain scan. They showed the blood clot in her carotid artery, creating an embolism in the prefrontal cortex of her brain. In other words, they showed possible death pulsating on the screen.

The doctors spewed off a lot of technical words, all mixing together, but clear in one way: things didn’t look good. He was drifting, thinking about the love of his life. When Jeri was rushed off in an ambulance to another local hospital, Dean asked the Doctor and Nurses to be real with him, and give him the possible outcomes. The spectrum of brain damage to loss of function, and even death, was the possible reality.

Dean held it together just long enough to get in the car and follow Jeri to the nearest hospital five minutes away for her emergency operation. It was now near 4 am, and Dean, alone for the first time that evening, broke down.

“I burst into tears,” he said. “I couldn’t lose her.”

Jeri, however, with her desire to make an impact on the world, wasn’t going anywhere.

More to come

From that first surgery to now, Jeri has undergone five brain procedures.

Thankfully, Dean never left her side and because of this connection, he was more often than not able to understand the thoughts she so desperately tried to convey.

Although not out of the woods yet, Jeri’s progress is encouraging. When she speaks, it’s fluent, a gigantic leap forward and one made with warmth and compassion that’s palpable. It’s as if despite all the heartache, Jeri is not nearly as mad at life as she could be. And this just makes this beauty queen all the more beautiful. It’s more than physical. It’s something deeper.

Dean tells a story of how Jeri, still in the ICU, recovering from yet another surgery while going through rehab, learning how to talk and walk and function again, sees an older lady come into the room next to her, alone. No family. No friends.

And there was Jeri, in her most troubling times, thinking about that woman, Dean said recalling how Jeri forced herself up straight as if to make a point he couldn’t refuse. If nobody comes and visits her by the morning, Jeri told Dean, we’re going over there to spend time with her.

“Are you serious,” he said. “You just had a stroke and here you are thinking about someone else?”

“That really sums up who Jeri is.  Yes she is beautiful on the outside, but she really has the heart of gold.”

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