Sometimes, even good ’ol Saint Nick needs help getting back on his feet.
John Dunham of Mt. Vernon, who is among those that help Santa Claus communicate with children at Times Square Mall in Mt. Vernon, suffered a stroke on his 65th birthday and faced discouraging news that his prognosis for a complete recovery was not in alignment with stroke statistics.
Dunham, however, did not allow the educated guess to demoralize his own resiliency and spent the next two years not only disregarding stroke facts and figures, but breaking through their walls through sheer will. He did, in fact, make a full recovery and recently returned to share holiday joy with those who helped him along his journey.
Dunham, now 70, donned his Kris Kringle apparel and visited rehabilitation workers and patients at Good Samaritan Regional Health Center during a Stroke Support Group gathering recently, surprising employees and patients alike. He shared laughs and hugs while thanking the network of supporters who helped him work toward recovery.
“They were good to me,” Dunham said. “They knew what I wanted to do. They worked with me and saw that I got there.”
Dunham’s connection to Good Samaritan Regional Health Center started on Aug. 30, 2006, miles away from the Mt. Vernon hospital. Dunham felt slight tingling in his left foot while walking at a Fairview Heights mall. Dismissing the tingling after sitting for a spell, he went about his evening and drove to his Granite City home – noticing his vehicle “kept pulling to the left.”
Dunham fell out of his truck in the driveway of his home and tried to get back up to move the vehicle into his garage. But his body would not cooperate. He remained on the grass and eventually called out for help. A neighbor heard the commotion and called 9-1-1.
Dunham said he was later told his inability to get back to his feet was a blessing and the fact he had reached his driveway before collapsing was an achievement that defied long odds. “The Good Lord was taking care of me and kept me down,” he said. “He has taken care of me throughout this whole thing.”
After initially spending time in a Metro East area hospital, Dunham was transferred to Good Samaritan Regional Health Center, to be near his brother and a niece who worked at the hospital. Initially warned that he might never regain entire control of his physical capacities, Dunham was presented with an ugly proposition - that he might never be able to live alone or drive. Having worked for a railroad for more than 40 years, he was not prepared to accept the notion he would be among the many before him who failed to recover from such brain and neurological trauma. He was unable to feed himself or go to the restroom on his own when he made the decision to do whatever it took to not be a stroke statistic used to caution others.
"It was do or die," he said. "I had a lot of willpower. I couldn't see myself doing any other thing."
It was not long before Dunham was walking, with assistance, and eventually turning the tables on those trying to help his rehabilitation. "If they told me I couldn't do something I was going to show them I could," he said. That included ordering an assistant to allow him to take stairs rather than an elevator at one juncture.
Dunham soon developed a reputation as "bullheaded and stubborn," characteristics very enduring when used for recovery rather than acceptance of gloom. "He doesn't know what 'no' means," said Kevin Stubblefield, social worker and facilitator of the Stroke Support Group.
Dunham moved in with his brother for a year and managed to complete his recovery to the point he achieved his goal of living independently. "I said, 'I'm not going to an assisted living home,'" he said. "I went and bought a house. I unpacked the stuff and put it away. I hung curtains."
He also got a job helping Santa Claus during his busiest part of the year, chatting with children at the local mall and relaying their gift requests to the chief elf. "I love kids," Dunham said. "I love being around them."
Dunham surprised the rehabilitation workers at Good Samaritan Regional Health Center earlier this month by showing up in his "work clothes." He thanked those who helped him, encouraged those currently working through stroke recovery and was taken by security guard Eddie Henry to the hospital's daycare, where he spent time with children.
Stubblefield called Dunham "part of the family" in the stroke rehabilitation department and is referred to by staff as "John Santa."
"John is such an inspiration to the group," said Stubblefield. "He talks to anyone. It means something [to patients] when it comes from someone who has been there. He told a guy he could walk if he wanted to, and the guy walked right after that."
The Stroke Support Group at Good Samaritan Regional Health Center meets from 9-11 a.m. the second Thursday of each month at the Mt. Vernon hospital. Former stroke patient Mel Wisniewski coordinates and leads the group along with another former patient, Ed Flota. Refreshments and healthy snacks are provided during the free service. For more information call Wisniewski at (618) 548-0802 or Stubblefield at (618) 241-3454.