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Brain Injury Grad Finds New Perspective After Stroke

August 06, 2020

Thomas Pennell loves being in motion.

From basketball to rowing to triathlons to bike racing, the Brooklyn-born venture capitalist-turned organic food entrepreneur finds joy in the movement and the camaraderie of sport.

Despite working long hours to establish an organic fig farm in Baja Mexico, Thomas made time to get out and ride five or six times a week with his community of cycling friends in the Boulder area.

On April 13, everything changed.

“Initially, I had no awareness that I had had a stroke,” he says. “In hindsight, that is ridiculous as there were all kinds of clear signs.”

It started when he went out for a walk to decompress. He had a problem balancing and his right side was drooping. His breathing was labored and swallowing wasn’t easy. The next morning he had a problem putting on his pants. He dropped a glass of water.

“I finally thought ‘something is weird here’ and went to the ER. But by that point, there was no remedy since so much time had passed.”

Though he had been in excellent health, Thomas believes that stress was the biggest contributor to his stroke.

“I wanted to understand my prognosis, but no one wants to give you too much hope,” he says. “I was emotional and very sad and scared during the next few weeks, thinking I wouldn’t be able to play with my kids. I didn’t know what the future would hold.”

Thomas’s wife and sister researched rehabilitation facilities, and after a week at Boulder Community Hospital, he transferred to Craig. He immediately threw himself into his rehab program, working with a range of professionals from pool and speech therapists to neuropsychologists and taking advantage of opportunities to walk or play catch on weekends with available staff.

“I couldn’t have asked for better-integrated care, and my therapists were motivating and empathetic, and made the work fun. The morale of the entire staff at Craig inspired me.”

His physical therapist, Ashley, and Therapeutic Recreation therapist, Angela, knew that Thomas loves bikes, so they fit him to a recumbent bike and raced him up the ramps in the parking garage.

“Riding a bike was liberating, to be able to be independent and get used to the coordination involved with steering,” he says. “I got great joy out of it.”

After only three weeks, Thomas was able to discharge and return to his home. Angela allowed him to borrow the recumbent bike so he could continue riding at home. He’s since progressed back to his mountain bike and his road bike. He hikes frequently and throws a football and tennis ball with his kids for an hour every day.

Most importantly, he has changed his outlook. “It sounds like a platitude, but good things have already come out of my stroke,” he says. “I’m appreciating the many good things that are in my life, I’m having great family time, and I’ve reset my priorities so that I’m not sweating the small stuff.”

Thomas plans to participate in Pedal 4 Possible, Craig’s virtual activity challenge from September 19-26, as a way to give back.

“Craig is the most optimistic, and instructive environment for expediting your recovery and rebuilding your life” he says.

According to Thomas, giving to Craig can make a tangible impact. “You can change someone’s life, you can give them hope.”

Learn more about Pedal 4 Possible