Lori Stuart’s world is a square, cream–colored room in the west wing of Oceanside Nursing Center, a pleasant if nondescript private care facility on Van Horne Street, Tybee Island.
The walls are decorated with photographs and posters of the rock band Rhythm Riot. Lori is the lead singer.
Since May 3, when she suffered a stroke onstage at Bay Street Blues, the 45–year–old has been paralyzed from the neck down. Although she was initially diagnosed with locked–in syndrome — she could only communicate by blinking her eyes — Lori has made significant strides.
She can move her head from side to side, and look her visitors straight in the eye. She laughs and cries, and although no sound comes out because of the respirator tube implanted in her throat, the intent — and the emotion — are clear.
“She’s still the same person she ever was,” says Bill Hodgson, the band’s bass and guitar player, who’s one of Stuart’s closest friends. “She’s forming words. Every day things get a little better.
“She’s pretty amazing. I hope we can get that point across to people that she’s not just laying around waiting on a miracle.”
It might not be a miracle, exactly, but on July 29 more than 20 clubs in the Savannah area will participate in “Living it Up For Lori,” taking donations, holding raffles and pledging proceeds to help with Stuart’s medical expenses.
The musicians playing that night are donating all or part of their wages.
“I’m so overwhelmed by the number of people that are pulling together for this,” says Rob Stuart, Lori’s husband. “It’s really going to help us get her the rehabilitation she needs. And that we really can’t afford.
“I just never dreamed that this many people would help one person. I’ve never seen that before.”
Rob and Bill are at Lori’s side every day. They have an alphabet chart, with large letters, which they use to help Lori communicate. She’ll nod, blink, look away, glare — and even smile — when they reach the letter she wants.
Lori’s doctors didn’t anticipate this kind of progress, and have stopped making predictions. “Her neurologist saw her last week,” Rob says, “and he was floored. Now, instead of ‘what you see is what you get,’ it’s ‘let’s take it one day at a time, and see what happens.’”
A few words with Lori
Me: How bad does this suck?
Lori: It could be worse.
Me: Do you wish you were singing instead?
Lori nods vigorously.
Me: I heard you’re a big Who fan. What’s your favorite album?
Lori: Who’s Next. She mouths the words clearly.
Me: I love that one. “Baba O’Riley” is the coolest thing.
Lori’s face lights up, she smiles and nods in agreement.
Hodgson, who’s holding the interpretation chart in front of Lori, and pointing to each letter with a pen, interjects an anecdote about Electric Cheese, the duo act he’s had with Stuart for the past five years.
“Once, I worked up a backing track for us to do ‘Behind Blue Eyes,’” he says. “I got this funky, crazy groove going. And when I played it for her, she said ‘That sucks.’ I was messing around in sacred territory there.”
Lori beams again. She’s laughing at the memory.
They often discuss Rhythm Riot, which is still performing around town, without Lori. She’ll ask him for regular updates. “Believe me, she’s plenty opinionated,” Hodgson laughs. “She’s still in the game.”
In her way, Lori announces that she’d like to say something to the musicians, club owners, volunteers and patrons who’ll be taking part in her city–wide benefit.
Hodgson lifts the chart and starts pointing to letters. It takes about 10 minutes, but this is what Lori says:
Words cannot express my gratitude to everyone for their love and generosity. I am so blessed to live in Savannah. Y’all rock.
There’s an iPod in Lori’s room, playing her favorite rock ‘n’ roll all day long. Music is everything to her.
“I tell people I had two ex–wives who tried to take music away from me,” Hodgson says. “Lori, she’s gonna get back to it.”
At which point, Lori looks at me and mouths these words: Hell, yeah.
Road to recovery
What happens to Lori next is anyone’s guess; her husband is hoping to bring her home soon, and to start her on physical rehabilitation once the doctors say she’s ready.
Although she has no motor skills below the neck, “They think that she can get her voice back,” Rob explains. “They just have to get the trach (tracheal tube) size down – the current size that she has is a very large one, and it’s almost impossible to push the air around it to vibrate the vocal chords. Because it takes up the whole esophagus.”
Every so often, he explains, one of Lori’s hands or feet will wiggle, as if her brain is trying to figure out a way to communicate with her limbs.
“Since the brain stem is plugged up with calcium, and we can’t do anything about that, all the other vessels now have expanded,” Rob says. “So we have what they call lateral blood flow. All the blood vessels leading to the brain have now expanded, to help carry that extra blood.
“Everything’s there, it’s just that different parts of the brain have to learn how to interpret the signals and make the things move. All her muscles, all her limbs are screaming at the brain, ‘This is what we need to do!’”
Me: Do you consider yourself a strong person?
Me: Do you think that one day, this will end?
“Since this has happened,” Hodgson says, “she has been so inspiring to me. And I really admire her so much now, because of the way she’s handling this. She’s handled this so much better than I would. I’d be a mean ol’ bastard. And to sit here and watch it, I’m just in awe.”
Suddenly, Lori asks for the chart, and using a series of blinks and facial expressions, she issues a declaration:
I am getting out of this bed.
“Living it Up For Lori”
When: Thursday, July 29
Live Wire Music Hall (Bottles & Cans)
The Warehouse (Rhythm Riot)
J.J. Bonerz (Magic Rocks)
The Sentient Bean (Lauren Lapointe and Bill DeYoung)
Bay Street Blues (Hitman)
Bernie’s Oyster House (Lori Karaoke)
Pour Larry’s (Moanjam)
Wild Wing Cafe (Shift n Gears)
Rock House Tybee (Outta Your Element)
Island Sports Bar
Cheers To You
Robin’s Nest (Pooler) (Lori Karaoke)
Boar’s Head Restaurant
Tailgate Sports Bar & Grill
Augie’s Pub (Richmond Hill) (July 30)
Jukebox (Richmond Hill) (July 30)
Three of Savannah’s most popular bands – the Eric Culberson Blues Band, the Train Wrecks and Liquid Ginger – had previously–arranged out–of–town commitments on July 29. There’s still time to get involved – if your club, restaurant, band or otherwise would like to help “Live it Up For Lori,” call event organizer Dave Whidden at (912) 667–5501, or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.