MANCHESTER, NH – When Newton Kershaw III tells the story of how his sister suffered a stroke at the age of 15, it’s still difficult – even though 24 years have passed.
It’s not because it’s a story of loss – in fact, his sister, Alexis Kershaw Silvia, not only survived the stroke that nearly killed her in the prime of her life, but she has triumphed.
Telling the story is difficult because, for many years, Kershaw was powerless to do anything to counter the toll the stroke had taken on his sister – until the day that serendipity intervened.
“Two years ago my friend Dan McKenny approached me about getting involved in the executive team of the American Heart & Stroke Association, to help raise money for the annual Heart Walk – he asked me, not knowing anything about my sister, or how it had such importance in my life,” says Kershaw.
As CEO for Elm Grove Companies, Kershaw’s hands were more than full. His initial reaction was to say no.
“I’m always so busy. But as I thought about it, I realized it was serendipity,” says Kershaw, finally his chance to be empowered by a situation that had, years ago, rendered him powerless.
More than a happy accident, Kershaw would say that the serendipity of the situation allowed for an important link between the devastation of a debilitating disease and his ability to connect with a community that raises awareness and support – and helps to support the kind of happy endings his sister has had.
As he tells the story, his sister was both studious and athletic – a Webster Wildcat cheerleader for her elementary school, a pianist who ran track and played soccer, ranked 17th in her sophomore class at Central High. They were always close and much alike, born two years apart – to the day.
She dreamed of going to Dartmouth and studying to be a pediatric oncologist, until one cold and unexpected February morning, when everything changed.
“I was skiing in Canada with my parents and a friend, and Alexis had stayed home to study for midterms when we got the call,” says Kershaw. His sister had suffered a traumatic brain injury following a stroke. She had been rushed to the hospital where she had open brain surgery. The prognosis was grim.
“I quickly had to come to grips with the realization that my sister was going to die. All I could do was hold her hand. And that turned out to be the easy part for me,” Kershaw says.
“The hard part was the day she opened her eyes, three days later, confused about what had happened. She had to fight her way back from there, relearn how to walk, how to talk. I was just 13. What could I do? Nothing,” says Kershaw. “Now, for the first time in my life, I’m feeling empowered to do something, not only for Alexis, but to make a difference for others who’ve gone through the same kind of life-changing trauma.”
Last year Kershaw stepped up to do his part as a member of the executive team. The lofty goal was to raise $200,000 – which they surpassed by $15,000.
“It turned out to be not such a daunting task after all, because I quickly learned that heart and stroke issues affect just about everyone in some way,” Kershaw says.
He took a deep breath, sent out his first “spam” email to a long list of friends and associates, asking them to “click this link and donate” to the cause.
“It was amazing to get donations from people, some who I hadn’t heard from in 15 years. But what was even more unexpected to me was the way my request was received. I expected people would donate because they wanted to support me. But the majority of those who gave did so because of how heart and stroke issues has affected them personally. Like me, they hadn’t been able to be empowered to do anything about the angst they felt in their life, over whatever their own situations had been. Getting involved was a way for them to be empowered, as well,” says Kershaw.
This year the fundraising goal is $236,000. It is the first year the annual Heart Walk has expanded its mission by extending its name, to Heart/Stroke Walk, says Kershaw.
“One caveat I had before I got involved as chair was that they rebrand the walk, from the Heart Walk to the Heart/Stroke Walk. As an organization, I felt it needed to be merged together – cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer in the country, and stroke recently – and thankfully – just moved from No. 4 to No. 5. But logically, people are affected by one or the other, so it just made sense to me, especially given my sister’s experience, to combine the two,” Kershaw says.
He is hoping for a good turnout for walk, with one- and three-mile loops, especially from those who knew him and his sister growing up, fellow graduates of Central High, who may want to come out to the walk to reconnect.
“Our tagline is ‘What’s your why?” as in why will you walk, or support the cause. I can’t imagine a better success story than Alexis. My sister is my why,” Kershaw says.
Not only did she fight her way back, but she recreated herself through sheer determination.
“After the initial shock wears off, and support from friends and family wanes, you need the support of organizations like the American Heart & Stroke Association to help someone rebuild their life. We were lucky to have parents who were incredible advocates – my father was an attorney and my mother worked in social services. That’s not necessarily always the case,” says Kershaw.
“And the other part of my sister’s story that needs to be told is about the stigma that can be associated with disabilities, and lack of knowledge and people’s general inclination to be afraid of something they don’t understand, which is natural,” Kershaw says.
His sister recovered from the initial disabling effects of the stroke, returned to Central High with an IEP that allowed her to stay until age 21. She graduated and went off to Lesley University in Boston, got an apartment, worked at a bakery, lived in Section 8 housing, “which by the way, really helps people who need it; not everyone abuses it,” says Kershaw.
One of the many hurdles for Alexis was learning to live in an alternate world, where barriers existed at almost every turn. For example, despite her natural athleticism, she was told she could not try out for the university rowing team, because of her physical deficits.
“That was a turning point for her. Life had slapped her with the stroke and she’d given her all to coming back – and what a hellish ride it was to do so. That pushed her to find her own personal strength,” says Kershaw.
His sister eventually found her way back to Manchester, where her faith helped bridged the gaps.
“Her saving grace was her faith. Alexis plugged into a church community at Ste. Marie Parish, and eventually met the man who loves and accepts her for who she is. She went on to get married, have four beautiful children, and is now a full-time dedicated mom who, at 39, has just taken up rowing,” Kershaw says. “And I say, good for her!
Click here for more information on the June 6 Heart/Stroke Walk, which kicks off at 10 a.m. at Derryfield Park, rain or shine. There’s still time to register.
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