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Dennis W.


Take these broken wings and learn to fly

In the early hours of June 9th, 2011, African American, Emmy Award winning filmmaker and author Dennis Watlington suffered multiple strokes and lived to tell the tale. After two near-death episodes, he managed to say; "Now this is a story..." "Take These Broken Wings and Learn to Fly" is the film of his inspiring life and journey of recovery that is transforming all it touches.

Had Dennis not been awoken at 2:30 a.m. that night by an electrical storm, he would almost certainly have died in his sleep. With my help, the emergency services got him to Albany Medical center in record time.

Tests showed he had suffered bi-lateral strokes, triggered by massive inflammation in the brain (a condition known as Vasculitis), exacerbated by hypertension. The swelling had blocked the oxygen supply to blood vessels in multiple areas of his brain. He was left almost totally paralyzed and barely able to speak. Forty-eight hours later he suffered a brain-stem stroke that knocked out his balance center, and he was rushed to the ICU.

Desperate for guidance, I turned to brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor's "My Stroke of Insight," an amazing memoir about her recovery from a severe left-brain hemorrhage. Packed with practical advice about what a stroke patient needs in order to want to recover, she made a few suggestions that were particularly perfect for Dennis: "Introduce me to my old life. Don't assume that because I cannot play like I used to play that I won't continue to enjoy music or an instrument, etc." "Show me old video footage of me doing things to remind me how I spoke, walked and gestured."

Understanding Dennis' ambivalence about living, (coming from the Harlem projects he was programmed to die young and was not afraid of death), I made a bedside pledge. If he chose to live I would do everything to create the kind of life that would make him want to put in the gargantuan effort needed to connect his free floating spirit with his badly broken body. As you know brain injured people heal considerably quicker in a loving environment. It releases their overloaded brains from the worry of navigating an unsafe emotional minefield so they can concentrate on recovery. I instigated the policy of "Love is all around me and everywhere I go" and "The Friends of Dennis" phenomenon was born. Meanwhile Dennis made the decision to try...
I was extremely fortunate that Dennis never lost his spirit and retained his extraordinary eloquence about life. So I've been recording my own and his observations throughout, so that we can write a book about the joint experience of caregiver and stroke patient. We are on our tenth notebook!

Once Dennis was out of immediate danger, Nina Rosenblum of Daedalus Productions, Inc. began to film his progress. The initial idea being that watching the footage might help him understand what had happened, show him how he was progressing and remind him of who he was.

Eight months into his recovery an extraordinary thing occurred. As Dennis watched rough footage of himself in a physical therapy session, he began making highly insightful editing suggestions. It was an amazing breakthrough for someone who was having such difficulties with his short-term memory that he couldn't even remember what he'd had for breakfast and didn't really comprehend what had happened to him. All at once he became a contributor to the film as well as its subject. Dennis was back at work doing what he's always done best, telling a story.

Working on the film and the book has given Dennis the purpose he needs by, paradoxically, finding a solution in the problem. The powerful place creativity has in the healing process has become dramatically evident with art and life mirroring one another. It took another three weeks for Dennis to observe, "I don't think I've been very well, you know." And another couple of months for him to say, "I have an idea for the ending - I need to walk out the doors of this rehab joint and go home..."

Dennis is still in Rehab at the moment but we work on the film and the book with him every day.



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