Tall, with a country-fried Tennessee accent, Tricia Lewis has eyes that glimmer with mischief, and a way of making everyone around her, even at the swankiest party, feel as real and relaxed as she is. When Chip Willis, who’s now chief operating officer of the Ringling Museum, met Tricia eight years ago in Tallahassee, where she’d come for an FSU football game, he was “fascinated” by her warmth and “big personality,” he says. “I knew it was meant to be.”
When parting at the end of weekends got too “heart-wrenching,” Chip relocated to Sarasota, where Tricia worked as a marketing professional. She had two teen-aged sons, and the adjustment wasn’t always easy, but the couple was happier than they’d ever been and looked forward to someday retiring to a little place Tricia owns in Englewood, “living small and looking at the water every day,” he says.
Then on Friday, Sept. 17, Tricia suffered a massive stroke. It started with a brutal headache. Chip rushed home to find an ambulance in the driveway and paramedics surrounding Tricia, who had stopped breathing. Later her doctor admitted he hadn’t expected her to live through the weekend.
But Tricia survived emergency surgery, and sitting by her side in the ICU, Chip says, “I saw her hand move a little—and my heart jumped.”
A few days later, he sent out an e-mail titled “Update” to family and friends. It was the first of many; and through those e-mails, which combine precise medical descriptions with intimate details and wry humor, scores of us have followed Tricia and Chip on their journey.
That journey has already taken Tricia to four different medical facilities and through a dizzying array of treatments and procedures—bronchoscopies, brain shunts, ventilators, CT scans, feeding tubes, dozens of medications and teams of doctors, nurses and therapists.
Recovery from a stroke, we’ve learned, comes in infinitesimal steps, with tiny milestones followed by dismaying setbacks. Unable to swallow, Tricia can’t sit, stand or walk without assistance, and although she’s regaining her ability to speak, her cognitive skills have been severely affected. She has little short-term memory and often drifts between “reality and fantasy,” Chip says.
But there have been small victories, and Chip celebrates every one. He calls the day she “took my hand and gave it a hard squeeze” when he told her he loved her “one of the most wonderful” of his life. And more and more, he’s seeing flashes of “the real Tricia,” when she follows a conversation with friends intently, smiling at shared memories, or demands he get into her hospital bed and “snuggle” while they watch a football game.
His voice breaks when he describes “the best Christmas present I ever got”: Tricia telling him, “I can feel my legs!” (He’s even more delighted when he asks her what they feel like, and she rolls her eyes and snaps, “Like legs!”)
I’ve learned quite a bit about strokes from Chip’ e-mails; but I’ve learned even more about love—and character. All of us know how exhausting—and let’s face it, even boring—it can be to sit patiently by a hospital bedside, but Chip hasn’t missed a day. He’s received incredible support from family and friends, he says, but nevertheless, he visits Tricia before and after work, and often shows up at lunch as well. He spends the weekend with her, pushing her wheelchair around the facility, reading the newspaper to her, watching TV or just holding her hand as she dozes. He’s also a passionate advocate who’s not above a “meltdown” when he sees that care is inadequate, and he’s taken on the “mind-boggling” task of dealing with what he calls “Big Insurance” and some $500,000 of medical bills so far. “I’m dead tired all the time,” he admits.
Does he see others spending this much time with their loved ones at the nursing home? “I haven’t seen many,” he says. “But I have not allowed myself to look at any other options. This is what has to be done.”
His support has benefited Tricia—whose tearful plea, “Don’t leave me,” breaks his heart every night—in countless ways. I wonder how many of us could show such steely devotion—or be lucky enough to receive it from someone else.
When no one can predict what the future might look like for Tricia, what keeps Chip going? His answer leaves me blinking back tears.
“I can’t imagine life without her,” he replies.