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Last night, Milwaukee Food for Thought hosted a dinner to benefit stroke research at the Medical College of Wisconsin. The fact that the dinner took place at Wolf Peach restaurant is no coincidence. In fact, for Wolf Peach owner Gina Gruenwald, who suffered a massive stroke in 2009, making strides in stroke research is a cause near and dear to her heart.
"It sounds strange, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me," Gina Gruenwald tells me as we sit in the lower level of Wolf Peach, sipping Earl Grey tea.
Snow is falling outside, and the owner of Wolf Peach restaurant has just finished telling me about the stroke which damaged 8 percent of her brain, left her with partial vision in her right eye, and impacted her ability to retain short-term memories.
At the time, Gruenwald was the bookkeeper for Roots Restaurant as well as a full-time employee at Datacom, where she installed point-of-sale systems for Wisconsin restaurants. Most importantly, she’d just been the recipient of life-changing news.
"I’ll never forget it," she says. "It was Aug. 22, 2009. And I got a phone call from my youngest sister telling me that my niece was pregnant. No one knew. And due to a number of unfortunate circumstances, she didn’t want the baby."
Gruenwald says she showed up at the hospital and sat down with her niece.
"Honey, whatever you want, you have to tell me," she told her. "I know that you’re scared, but what do you want?"
When her niece looked up and said the fateful words, "I want you to take her," Gruenwald says she was shocked. But, she knew it’s what she had to do. Two weeks later, she married her long-term boyfriend. And one week after that, the stroke hit.
"I remember working at Roots," she tells me. "I had a headache, and I said ‘I don’t feel well, and I need to go home.’... Now, anyone who knows me knows that I’m never sick."
Gruenwald went home and took a nap. She woke up, made dinner and watched a movie. Then she laid on the bed with her new baby daughter, Kayla.
"All I remember is that everything was bright and loud," she says. "By the morning, I couldn’t feel the entire right side of my body.
Gruenwald says the trip to the hospital was exhausting.
"I was irritable, and I just wanted to sleep," she says.
After multiple CAT scans, a visiting neurologist finally suggested the potential that Gruenwald may have suffered a stroke. Another CAT scan showed that 8 percent of Gruenwald’s brain had been damaged. And, although experts speculated that her use of birth control could have contributed to the stroke, there was very little data that seemed to provide any concrete answers.
"I was relatively healthy," Gruenwald says. "I didn’t smoke. So, the doctors were fascinated. No one could determine the cause of the stroke."
After talking with the blood specialist and the neurologist, Gruenwald decided not to follow their advice for physical therapy. Instead, she took six months off of work to focus on rebuilding her brain function.
"My short term memory was gone. I couldn’t even remember Kayla’s name," she recalls. "I had to learn to read again. And I had to find a way to remember things."
Gruenwald says she would get up each day and work on remembering words. She used flash cards and pnemonic devices. And she spent the next six months re-teaching herself everything.
To this day, Gruenwald says she needs to constantly reminder herself to "be here now" and "remember this." But, she says she wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
"It was meant to be – because it changed me," she says. "I had this hunger for life that I never had before. And I was even more determined than I’d ever been."
Gruenwald says that sense of strength came in handy two years later when Roots’ owner John Raymond made the decision to close the restaurant.
"I remember texting Tim Dixon and telling him we needed to talk," she says. We sat for about three hours at Iron Horse and discussed the situation. And I told him: ‘We have almost 50 employees and we really want you to save the jobs.’"
As she and Dixon discussed the options, they realized she could be the restaurant’s new owner. A loan from the Small Business Administration eased the burden of the new venture, which Gruenwald says is intimately linked with her experience.
"For the first time ever, I really, really care about what I eat," she says. "I lost three clothing sizes. I exercise a ton, and I’m eating better, avoiding chemicals and hormones."
She says her new lifestyle inspired the healthful options included on the Wolf Peach menu.
"It was a culmination of everything," she says, "To have a butcher, a bakery, house-made everything. I sacrificed margins to have better quality everything."
For Gruenwald, "better quality" means sourcing sustainably raised meats and farm fresh vegetables, as well as ensuring that as much as possible is made in house.
"Roots did it well; we do it even better," she says. "We have a six-acre farm on Tim Dixon’s land in Sheboygan County, and my sister, Natalya, is the farmer. It’s so important to eat better food. And I understand that’s harder. There are income barriers. But, it also makes me protective of the prices here. We price things very fairly."
Gruenwald, who still balances a job with Datacom as well as her responsibilities as Wolf Peach’s owner, says her outlook for the future is bright.
"I’ll be 39 in April and I’ve never felt better," she says.
Unfortunately, Gruenwald’s story isn’t as rare as one would like to think. According to data from the American Heart Association, about 795,000 Americans each year suffer a new or recurrent stroke. That means, on average, a stroke occurs every 40 seconds.
Even more alarming, the number of young people affected by strokes is increasing worldwide, according to an 11-year study released in the medical journal, The Lancet, in fall of 2013. Up to 83,000 people affected by stroke each year are 20 and younger. In fact, the journal commentary accompanying the study called the global increase of 25 percent in the incidence of stroke in those aged 25 to 64 "a worrying finding."
Dr. Jeffrey Binder, Professor of Neurology at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and one of the doctors who consulted on Gina Gruenwald’s case, says that there are a number of signs to watch for which might indicate that a stroke is imminent.
"Strokes are the result of a sudden impairment of blood flow to a region of the brain, so any sudden sign of brain dysfunction can be a stroke," he says. "The most common signs are weakness on one side of the face or body, speech impairment, inability to perform a normal activity, or difficulty walking. Other common signs are sudden difficulty with vision on one side, sudden loss of feeling on one side, vertigo, nausea or double vision."
Binder says that symptoms depend on what part of the brain is affected. However, a commonality is that almost all strokes begin very suddenly. Additionally, if the signs involve problems with moving, feeling, or seeing, the problem is almost always confined to one side of the body.
Dr. Binder also offers the following tips for stroke prevention.
- If you smoke, stop. Smoking is a major cause of stroke, so if you smoke, quitting smoking is the single most important thing to do. Quitting smoking will also lower your risk of heart attack and many kinds of cancer.
- Manage other health conditions. The three main medical conditions that can lead to stroke are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. These conditions lead to stroke because they cause build-up of plaque in the arteries, a process called atherosclerosis. You should get checked for these conditions periodically when you see your primary doctor, and if you have any of them, you can greatly reduce your risk of stroke by getting them treated.
- Engage in healthy behaviors. Regular exercise and a diet that includes daily fruits and vegetables are both proven to reduce stroke risk. Exercise and a healthy diet also help reduce your blood pressure and your cholesterol.
Lori Fredrich (Lo) is an eater, writer, wonderer, bon vivante, traveler, cook, gardener and girlwonder. Born and raised in the Milwaukee area, she has tried to leave many times, but seems to be drawn to this quirky city that smells of beer and alewives.
Some might say that she is a little obsessed with food. Lo would say she is A LOT obsessed with food. After all, she has been cooking, eating and enjoying food for decades and has no plans to retire anytime soon.
Lo's recipes and writing have been featured in a variety of publications including GO: Airtran Inflight Magazine, Cheese Connoisseur, Cooking Light, Edible Milwaukee, Milwaukee Magazine and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as well as on the blog Go Bold with Butter, the web site Wisconsin Cheese Talk, and in the quarterly online magazine Grate. Pair. Share.