Glass Tiger’s Alan Frew reflects on stroke, recovery and getting back on stage.
Last Aug. 20, Alan Frew, lead singer of the hugely successful Canadian synth-pop band Glass Tiger, had a stroke in his sleep. Frew, then 58, had been singing 12 to 14 hours a day while recording a new album and figures he “blew a gasket.”
The Scottish-born performer, best known for “Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone)”, had studied to be a registered nurse, so he knew something was wrong when he woke up. Toronto-based Frew, the father of a grown son and an 11-year-old daughter, is performing in Toronto this weekend for the first time in nine months. He spoke with writer Patricia Hluchy about the stroke and his life since then.
What happened when you woke up after your stroke?
My right leg felt like I’d been sleeping on it funny. And then it got a little bit weirder: it was like I had to think about making my leg come along for the ride. And then my right arm got kind of droopy.
I was all alone. My family were in Edmonton. And my medical background immediately kicked in: I knew in my heart of hearts that I was having issues related either to my heart or my brain. But I went into denial, and I had to go golfing with my son, so I forced myself to get dressed. My son knew something wasn’t right, but I said, “Let’s go.”
We got to the first tee and teed off and played that hole, but when we got to the first green, my body kind of spasmed and I staggered and my son caught me.
Did you already have health issues?
I was on medication for elevated cholesterol and blood pressure because of heredity factors. But I took up swimming two years ago. I was in good shape — I’d lost a lot of weight. So I hadn’t been taking my medication.
Ironically, while my neurologist said that without a doubt my stroke was brought on by elevated cholesterol and blood pressure, the brain surgeon said that probably stress played as much of a part, if not more. And he said that my fitness will play as much a part in my recovery as my medication.
What happened after you got to hospital?
You start to get a little stuttery; I was having to think what it was I wanted to say. I got incredibly confused. And then my arm and my leg went completely paralyzed. After a CT scan, the specialist came in and she said, “I just want you to know that I’m a really, really big fan. By the way, you’ve had a stroke.” She actually told me I’d had a stroke previously, like years ago, a little TIA (a mini-stroke).
I was paralyzed for the best part of three days. My fingers and toes began to wiggle on the third day. I was in that hospital for about eight days, followed by one week in a rehabilitation centre.
What condition were you in when you left the rehab hospital?
I was walking with a walker and I could put it down and walk with a cane. My head went down into my dinner, I was so fatigued. I was sleeping maybe 14, 15 hours a day.
But I was pushing to get my hand moving, walking as much as I could to get the leg going. And I forced myself into my swimming pool and did walking on the spot and I tried my best to swim, ugly as it was. I just made it a way of life that I was going to get back.
Within a month I tried to strum my guitar. My affected side is my strumming hand. But I didn’t try singing for six months.
How are you doing now?
Most people who know me and see me think I’m in the best shape in my life. My weight is down, I’m fit. I swim a kilometre and a half at my club every day. I keep my sodium low; I keep my alcohol down now. I maybe have the occasional beer, but you’re talking to a guy who used to be able to drink seriously with the boys and think nothing of it.
But I still have residual effects, especially in my right hand. It suffers from a thing called dystonia, which puts it in a kind of claw-like position when I’m asleep. And it’s very stiff; it feels heavy. My right arm still feels a little bit separate from the rest of my body.
But I’m singing a lot. I’m in rehearsals and I’m going to do two live shows this weekend.
When you turn the news on and somebody’s been in a terrible plane crash or has cancer or any of these things, it always happens to the other guy — until it happens to you. When I realized I probably wasn’t going to die, I was more fearful of a sort of living death. Was the stroke going to take away my voice, my memory? Was I going to be an invalid forever? It was a tremendous shock to my system, my psyche, my heart and soul. It gave me a glimpse of where we’re all heading.
Rumours were already out there so I went public on social media, and then all hell broke loose and the media and everybody picked up on it.
But more important to me than any of that is that thousands of people have written to me telling me their stories. They tell me they get great encouragement from how I fight and fight and keep going. And in return they help me.
I can never be that guy again, ever, who never had a stroke. And on behalf of the Heart and Stroke Foundation I’m happy to do whatever I can to reach out and speak about it.
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