Despite a stroke, actor and athlete Chris Conlon keeps running

Nov 10 2014 CITY PAPER

Nestled between Camden Yards and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is a quaint and tightly knit community, Ridgely’s Delight. One-way streets intersect and wind around neatly kept rowhomes that speak to a history of downtown Baltimore long before big buildings and modern tourist traps defined it.

It was here, in December 2012, on a broad and brick-lined sidewalk across from the dog park that Chris Conlon’s life changed. The 38-year-old network engineer, who is also a triathlete, president of his neighborhood’s Homeowners’ Association, and an actor with roles in “The Wire,” “Veep,” and “House of Cards, was recovering from a routine, outpatient knee surgery to repair general wear and tear to his ACL.

His day started out like any other day. He ate breakfast and decided to take a walk. Just a few steps from his home, Conlon suddenly felt dizzy and fell to the ground.

It wasn’t until a few days later when he woke up from an induced coma at the neighboring UMD Medical Center that he was told he’d had a blood clot which caused a stroke. The first person Conlon saw when he woke up was his mother, and now caregiver, Renate Conlon. “He’s lucky. He had so many friends working at the hospital,” she says.

“He was paralyzed on the right side of his body for three to four weeks, and the stroke damaged 30 percent of his brain,” says his father and co-caregiver, Ron Conlon. And as a result of the stroke, he developed a brain disorder called aphasia. The traumatic brain event shut down his speech and communication center completely, although the rest of his brain is still functioning and intact.

His reading, writing, and verbal skills still stutter at times, while the other areas of his brain try to form new connections to make sense enough for Conlon to express his thoughts. “It’s like I have to do a reach-around to talk,” Conlon says.

“It’s kind of similar to if you lose your right arm,” his mother says. “You have to retrain your left arm to do other things than it normally did. And that’s basically what the brain reconstruction is. This part of his brain is never gonna come back, but you can train the other side to take over some of the duties.”

There are a variety of therapies that patients with aphasia can use to develop these new connections faster. One-on-one and group speech therapy are the most effective but there are alternative therapies that improve this function as well.

Conlon’s mother and father had planned to enter the retirement phase of their lives just a month after the incident. His father says that although it wasn’t the way he envisioned his retirement, “The timing was great as far as being able to take care of him. It’s been a rollercoaster. Ups and downs. But he’s been such a true inspiration to so many people, we’re just both very happy that we were here for him.”

“He was stubborn, and he still is,” his mother says. “He always comes out as a winner, but we go through a lot.”

Conlon has participated weekly in both group and individual therapies since the stroke, and has displayed a remarkable improvement. Not only is his communication stronger than one could expect over a short amount of recovery time, but his body is also nearly completely recovered as well. His right arm, leg, and parts of his face are still partially paralyzed, but he is back to a regular exercise regimen that most people would envy, and he still has a striking resemblance to a 1950s superhero.

Before his stroke, Conlon completed seven marathons and half an Iron Man. And since his stroke, in the last two months, he has completed two full marathons. In October, he came in 325th place at the Baltimore Running Festival’s Baltimore Marathon out of 15,965 who completed the race.  And in late August, he completed a marathon in Reykjavik, Iceland as a fundraiser for a group called Aphasia Recovery Connection. ARC is an online community and social network for those recovering from aphasia and for their caregivers. With just one marathon, Conlon raised over $6,000 for ARC.

Through ARC Conlon has forged friendships with other young people suffering from the social shut-down this injury can cause. By supporting others with aphasia, and leaning on those with more advanced recovery, he has learned how to communicate in a way that anyone could understand without any use of his brain’s communication center.

Conlon speaks in key words. And whatever filler he can’t find to connect the dots, he quickly grabs his phone and types it out, or pulls up a website and points to what he wants you to know, or runs to the other room to grab a photograph of something that will explain it. He can show you visuals and videos to fill in what he’s trying to say, and before you know it, you won’t even realize that you haven’t been using words constantly to have a conversation. You just understand him.

Conlon zooms around on his smartphone between apps faster than a tween, pointing out the Pandora station he listens to when he runs, pulling up his list of notes he often refers to with answers to questions people frequently ask him. And his mother and father, his caregivers, are there to encourage him to use the words, too.

Conlon struggles to say the name of the profession he held before the stroke. “He was an engineer,” his mother says.

He nods up and down and says “yes.”

His mother encourages him to say it.

“En-gin-eer,” she says, until he says it perfectly with just a few tries. Everyone around the table is elated. This triumph is one of many for a man who plans to be an Iron Man before long, if his knees and parents will allow him.

It’s difficult to imagine having all of your wits and intelligence about you and yet being trapped without any way of expressing it. Like those common dreams of screaming out and no one can hear you. Waking up in the night, sitting straight up, eyes wide, gasping for air, trying to get an urgent message across.

And so he runs. He runs, and he runs, and he volunteers in his community and at his pre-stroke place of employment. And he hopes to find insurance that his family can afford when his runs out (soon) that will allow him to continue the speech and social therapy he so desperately needs. And he fights for every word.

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