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.

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.

Top 5 Memories

Yesterday was my 5-year anniversary at UNMC. I knew it was coming up, but when I received the congratulatory email, it sunk in. I’ve been here FIVE YEARS…doesn’t seem like that long at all.

To celebrate, I thought it might be fun to share five of my favorite UNMC memories with you all. So, come, take a walk down memory lane with me.

2008 – My first day.

My first day on the job was the same day as a press conference to announce the naming of the Home Instead Center for Successful Aging. It was exciting to see firsthand how much work (and stress) goes into events like this. I knew instantly I was in the right place for me. Tom O’Connor introduced me to the Chancellor Maurer after the press conference. It was only 11 o’clock in the morning and already it was the best first day of work I could’ve asked for.

Runner Up – My second day. This was the day Tom O’Connor took me with him on a media escort. I quickly learned two things: 1) This campus is massive. 2) Flats are your friends. High heels are not.

2009 – The day we launched the brand.

Some people think of this as “the day we changed the logo.” It was and is so much more than that. When I think back to the day we unveiled not only our new look, but who we are and what we’re all about, I remember all the people who gathered on the Swanson Hall lawn to take pride in UNMC. It was special.

Runner Up – The first time I attended Santa’s visit to the Munroe-Meyer Institute.

This annual event holds a special place in my heart. It’s so moving to see the children and adults with disabilities embrace the holiday spirit in such a pure way. The things they say will definitely make you laugh and sometimes always make me cry.

2010 – Push-Ups for Haiti

For those of you who were there, this is probably one of your all-time favorite UNMC memories, too. The event, organized by my friend Chuck Brown, didn’t involve any brainstorming sessions or weeks of planning. It was an idea that came from the heart and brought faculty, students, researchers, employees and everyone in between together in a time of tragedy. Not to mention it raised almost $9,000.

Runner Up – Coming back to work after my daughter was born.

It’s downright difficult to return to any job after maternity leave, but because I knew I was coming back to a job I love and co-workers who are like family, it was much easier. Plus, I needed somebody to show off all those baby pictures to.

2011 – My first Match Day

It was St. Patrick’s Day and everyone was dressed in green. I got to sit in the front row and record the reactions of fourth year med students as they found out where they’d do their residencies. I felt like the mother of 109 children.

Runner Up – Joining LiveGreen

Sustainability is one of my passions and I really value the fact that I get to use my skill set as a PR person to help us improve upon it as a campus.

2012 – My day with Dr. Luckey

My day spent following a family practice doctor around in David City was the most exhausting, yet exhilarating day in my career here. It provided me with a newfound respect for those in medicine as well as the inventor of tennis shoes.

Runner Up – Student Orientation

Seeing our first-year students so full of hope and promise left me remembering what it was like to be their age. I’m so glad all of them chose UNMC. The McKayla Maroney impressions contest made for some good laughs too.

 

That’s it from me. Now I want to know YOUR favorite UNMC memories. Send me an e-mail at nlindquist@unmc.edu with a short description and a photo if you have it. If I get enough submissions, I’ll do a follow-up blog post. Happy remembering!