Finding comfort from grief, one stuffed animal at a time

Aidan Curry was a “wild ride from the start,” recalled his mom, Jennifer Brock, a speech-language pathologist at UNMC’s Munroe-Meyer Institute, over a cup of coffee on a cold January day.

He liked bugs and dinosaurs and animals in general. Stuff 2-year-old boys are wired to love. But his mom isn’t sure what he’d be into now. Trains? Spiderman? Batman? Sadly, she’ll never know. The blue-eyed blond toddler, known to his family as “Tots,” was killed in an auto accident just before Christmas in 2011.

The Curry family had been on their way home from having family photos taken in Lincoln.  A semi-tractor trailer slammed into the back of their car, which held a sleeping Aidan and his little sister, Ansley, in the backseat.

“The car seat wasn’t enough to save Aidan, but the car seat is the only thing that saved Ansley,” Brock said. “Ansley walked away without a scratch.”

Dad Jeff was trapped in the driver’s seat. Brock was shaken up. The ambulance arrived and medics strapped Ansley to a backboard before they whisked her away to the hospital. She was conscious and alert the whole time. Seventeen-months-old and all alone.

Brock struggles to imagine what the experience must have been like for her daughter. On the ride to the hospital, as doctors she’d never met examined her, while she underwent multiple tests, there was no one and nothing familiar to her until someone handed the little girl a homemade quilt. A comfort item. Something recognizable in the midst of the unknown.

And that is where the idea for Aidan’s Animals comes from. “Born out of tragedy but maintained by love,” the non-profit organization was started by the Curry family to honor their son’s short, but meaningful life and remember the kindness that was shown to their daughter in her time of need.

“When you don’t have mom or dad or your sibling, this way you have a teddy bear or a stuffed dog, something to hug when you go to radiology, for blood work…a constant cuddle, something familiar.”

Aidan’s Animals has provided cuddles to more than 800 children in the Omaha area and beyond. Whether it’s Children’s Hospital & Medical Center or Bellevue Medical Center or further away in Connecticut following the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy, the Brock family continues to give back tenfold what they received those fateful days following Dec. 3, 2011.

Now they want to do it here.

Starting Friday, Aidan’s Animals will conduct a toy/stuffed animal/blanket drive called “Kuddles for Kids” through Feb. 28. The items will be donated to the pediatric units at The Nebraska Medical Center.

UNMC and The Nebraska Medical Center employees are encouraged to contribute to any of the drop sites on campus (listed below). If individuals would like to contribute but are unable to get to a drop site on campus, they can always donate to the cause through Aidan’s Animals wishlist.

“At some point, everyone is faced with a tragedy,” Brock said. “We hope to minimize the effects by offering the highest level of support and creating more positives out of ordinarily horrible and devastating ordeals.”

Tomorrow, Feb. 20, will mark what would have been Aidan’s fourth birthday. Last year, his parents brought treats for his day care friends – cupcakes with cars on them — and opened the presents they’d purchased for him prior to his death, a bug light projector and a marine biologist play set. Brock isn’t sure how they’ll mark the occasion this year, but one thing is certain, it won’t be forgotten.

“I had an initial fear…and I still do…. that he’ll be forgotten,” Brock said. “He had no chance to create a legacy for himself, but he was an incredible person. We just want people to know how special he was.”

Through Aidan’s Animals, they will.

Here’s a list of NEW items employees can donate for the pediatric units at The Nebraska Medical Center:

-Toys
-Books
-Art Supplies
-Tables & Chairs
-Blankets
-Stuffed Animals
-Puzzles
-DVDs

In addition to the following med center drop off locations, individuals can bring items to the Walmart, 1606 S. 72nd St. in Omaha, as well as at Aidan’s Animals headquarters, 2809 Angie Dr., in Bellevue.

DROP OFF LOCATIONS

Clarkson Hospital lobby
Munroe-Meyer Institute, Psychology Department on the 3rd floor
Munroe-Meyer Institute, The Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders on the first floor
UNMC College of Public Health
Durham Outpatient Center lobby
Kiewit Tower Entryway
ITS building entrance
Sorrell Center Alumni Commons
Center for Healthy Living

For more information, e-mail aidansmama3@gmail.com or visit Aidan’s Animals Facebook page.

Valentine's blog: The Bands' three weddings, one love

On Valentine’s Day, let’s tell the story of Hamid and Vimla Band (M.D., Ph.D., and Ph.D., respectively). They were so in love, when they got married they had three weddings: One Hindu, one Muslim and one at the courthouse, just to be sure. It sounds romantic, and it was. But it wasn’t easy along the way.

Vimla and Hamid Band at their Hindu wedding, Dec. 3, 1983.

They met in the laboratory. Vimla was working on her master’s and Hamid was an M.D. student. He was from Kashmir, Muslim. She from Delhi, Hindu. Both from very close families who would flip out at the news. And Hamid and Vimla knew it. Vimla knew what the reaction would be. Still, she would do nothing behind her parents’ back. She had to tell them.

She was chopping vegetables with her sisters and mom. Vimla took a deep breath. There was this young man in the lab, she said … who she liked … who is a Muslim.

Her mother did two things. First, she almost cut her hand. Second, she channeled the Godfather:

“Don’t say this thing ever again in the family.”

They had planned to each tell their families at the same time, so they would be weathering the reaction together. Hamid had sent a letter several days earlier, thinking it would arrive at the same time as Vimla’s talk. They never heard back. Had his family received the letter?

They found out years later they had. They were refusing to acknowledge it; if they ignored this, it would eventually go away.

You don’t understand what India was like at that time. Hamid had come from a very segregated area. You might know a Hindu person, be friends – but to even eat dinner at one another’s house was unthinkable.

Within Vimla’s family, even marrying outside the Brahmin caste was off the table, forget outside the religion.

After the vegetable-chopping talk, Vimla knew they had to stop things right there. Or at least slow down, as much as they could. Or at least not bring up the subject while her mother had a knife.

Vimla went home every weekend. Her parents went to the doctor at the medical center where she and Hamid studied. They would stop and visit her at the lab. They would of course see Hamid – they knew who he was. They always said hello. (Of course they did, they are nice, polite people!) But they never acknowledged the possibility. In their minds, all that was done.

Vimla and Hamid Band had their first of three wedding ceremonies at the courthouse, surrounded by close friends.

Hamid’s brother-in-law came to town for business. Hamid introduced him to Vimla. Hamid never said anything in particular. But the guy wasn’t stupid. He went home with some news. Still, Hamid’s family ignored the obvious with every bit the determination Vimla’s family did.

Years went by. Vimla’s elder sister got married. All of Vimla’s lab-mates came to the wedding – Hamid, too.

Vimla could not have gotten married before her elder sister. But now …?

And she and Hamid were about to leave for America for their postdoctoral fellowships. It was time for another conversation.

Vimla decided it might be less confrontational to have an intermediary broach the subject. She sent her sister and brother-in-law with a message: If her parents did not agree, Vimla and Hamid are talking about going to America and marrying there.

This time, Vimla’s parents did not flip out. “Maybe there is room to wiggle,” Vimla’s sister reported.

Their mother’s biggest worry was: “What would Guru ji (a family priest) say?” Her sister’s husband was quick: “Well, let’s ask him.”

The Hindu priest met with Vimla and Hamid, separately, for 5 minutes each. “Let them marry,” he said.

They first told their parents in 1979. On Dec. 2, 1983, they went to the courthouse, and were married in front of friends. The next day they had a Hindu wedding. It was very small, immediate family only. Vimla’s parents hadn’t invited anyone else.

“They would not have come,” Vimla said.

Some of Hamid’s relatives were nervous – afraid the interfaith wedding might set off riots (there were none).

Then they were off to Kashmir, so Hamid could introduce his family to his new bride.

She could not come into his family’s house if they were not married. But they were married, Hamid said. No: “That’s not a marriage we accept.”

You are either Hindu or you are not. There is no converting. But Islam welcomes everyone. And so, it was very simple. All Vimla had to do was …

Hamid put a stop to that. “I have accepted her as she is!” he said. She would not convert.

This was kind of a big deal. There was drama. People were shocked. Hamid’s uncle was upset.

Hamid and Vimla Band were surrounded by members of Hamid’s family at their Muslim wedding in Hamid’s hometown.

But Hamid’s father was very close to the imam (a Muslim priest). He asked: How can they get married? How can we solve this problem? How can they be together?

“This story is not just the story of our love for each other,” Vimla said. “It is the story of the love of our families for us. My family’s love for me and Hamid’s family’s love for him.”

The imam met with Vimla. He asked one question. He said, “Do you believe in God?” He didn’t ask how, he didn’t ask in which way, he didn’t ask by which religion.

“Of course,” she said, “I believe in God.”

The imam said: “She can marry him now.”

And she did.

It was Dec. 17. Three weddings in 16 days.

And then it was done. Her family accepted him completely, and his did the same with her. After all of that ignoring, they were each in the family fully. They were married, husband and wife. There was never a problem again.

“Of course, we did come to America a year after that,” Vimla said.

The only time in-law drama threatened was when they had children. And one side of the family sent a list of carefully-chosen Hindu names and the other had a stack of Muslim suggestions.

So they ended up with Sheehan and Neil. Good Irish boys.

To this day, their old friends congratulate them on Dec. 2, Vimla’s family observes the Dec. 3 wedding anniversary and Hamid’s side recognizes Dec. 17.

Three anniversaries? And which date does a husband have to remember?

Are you kidding? How could he forget?

Hope After Stroke

The lime-green one is for Bailey, a 16-year-old girl. The light-purple one is for Diane, a go-getter from Seattle. And the orange one is for her, Lenice Hogan, a 47-year-old from Omaha. It simply reads “Hope After Stroke.”

The bracelets that take up most of Hogan’s left forearm each carry a special meaning, and represent someone, or something, from the stroke community.

Hogan has suffered three strokes. Coincidentally, that’s also the number of marathons she’s run SINCE her third and biggest stroke robbed her of full function in her left foot.

The mother of three boys and inspirational speaker was on campus recently as part Triexerecise, a free monthly program sponsored by the Olson Center for Women’s Health to help individuals accomplish their exercise goals.

As a runner, I went for the inspiration. And to hear Hogan’s story. For a stroke survivor to run one marathon, let alone three, boggled my mind. I tried to train for a marathon once. This was before kids. When I was 100 percent healthy. And 23 years old.

Hogan was 26 when she had her first stroke and seven months pregnant when she had her second at 38. She compares the feeling to a light bulb that isn’t quite screwed into the socket.

After numerous doctor visits (at another hospital system) it was finally determined she had a hole in her heart. Surgery closed it up, and she thought her health issues were behind her. Two months later, her third stroke caused her to collapse and lose the use of her left leg.

It was Dr. Pierre Fayad, who Hogan calls her “angel in life,” at The Nebraska Medical Center’s Stroke Center who finally diagnosed her with a venous angioma that bled. There is no known cause and no known cure.

While Hogan walked out of the hospital of her own accord shortly after her third stroke, she spent the next two years in denial. Thirty-nine-year-olds shouldn’t have strokes. It wasn’t until she met a fellow stroke survivor that her life took a turn for the open road.

He, too, seemed too young to have suffered a stroke. He, too, was just trying to enjoy the sun on a Florida vacation. But the similarities ended there. Just as Lenice was relearning to run, he was struggling to walk. Her left foot was finally feeling good. His left side wouldn’t move and hadn’t in seven years.

She struck up a conversation with him. Hogan remembers eight words of it verbatim.

“You have no idea how lucky you are,” he said.

And that was it. After a few slow jogs on the beach in Florida, Hogan coincidentally received an e-mail from the National Stroke Association seeking runners for its first-ever New York City Marathon team. It seemed serendipitous. But everywhere Hogan turned, she hoped to find a roadblock. Sure, she’d run a mile on the beach, but 26.2 of them was unfathomable. After a green light from her physician and just as importantly, her mother, she called NSA, half-hoping the team was already full. No luck. She signed up.

She only had a few months to train, and was worried it wasn’t enough. But when Hogan stepped off the plane in New York, an overwhelming sense of peace came over her. She knew she could do it. And she did. She ran the whole thing and finished in just over five hours.

“Crossing the finish line was an amazing sense of accomplishment,” she said. “I wanted to sign up for the next one right then.”

She ran her second NYC marathon on behalf of NSA the next year and her third the year after that, bettering her time each year. She planned to run her fourth last fall, but Hurricane Sandy had other plans. So Hogan is signed up to run her fourth marathon in five years this Nov. 4.

***

I went to the TriExercise event thinking it would be a motivational speech. It was motivating, but not because Hogan told everyone, “you can do it.” She showed them. She doesn’t preach that marathons are for everyone. She’s the first to tell you how painful running can be, how long training takes and how scary it is for her to pound the pavement knowing she could have another stroke at any time.

But it doesn’t stop her. And if it doesn’t stop her, then you can draw your own conclusions about yourself.

“The least we can do is try to keep ourselves healthy,” Hogan said. “And it’s often our minds, not our bodies, that limit us the most. It’s about facing that fear and going for it.”

Watch a video about Lenice Hogan.

Lenice Hogan’s Marathon Training Tips

-You can do it in less, but six months is optimal training time.
-Practice your breathing. Hogan inhales for two steps, exhales for four.
-Purchase a GPS tracking device to keep track of mileage, etc.
-Subscribe to a running publication. Hogan recommends Runner’s World.
-Music/books on tape are your friends on long runs.
-Learn how to feed your body. Drink Gatorade to replenish electrolytes.
-If you can’t stand “goo” on long runs, Hogan recommends miniature chocolate Hershey bars and grapes for fuel.
-Listen to your body. Don’t ignore injuries and if you’re ill, take time to rest.
-Training for a marathon takes up a lot of time. Make sure your family is committed to supporting your training schedule.

If running is not your thing, UNMC recently kicked off a 10-week decathlon series with multiple choices for exercise activity. Register online by Feb. 25 to be eligible for a T-shirt.

To be notified about upcoming TriExercise events, email cmcdermott@unmc.edu.The educational talk series runs from noon to 1 p.m. in the Olson Center for Women’s Health classroom, on the fourth floor of the DOC. Speakers are listed below.

Feb. 21
Lincoln Murdoch
, USAT National Champion and endurance athlete

March 7
Vicki Creigh
, triathlete and endurance coach

April 11
Nancy Lennarson, triathlete and coach extraordinaire

May
Swimming tips and more! Speaker TBD.