Monday, August 15, 2011

Patricia Neal's Legacy

Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center: "A House of Heroes"

By Mary Claire Kendall

Patricia Neal as "Alma Brown" in Hud. 
Credit: Paramount Pictures

Patricia Neal, exquisite actress of stage and film, known for Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Hud (1963), for which she won a Best Actress Oscar, died some forty-five years after she suffered three debilitating strokes in one day—on February 17, 1965—that nearly took her life. At the time, just 39, she was pregnant with her daughter Lucy Neal, whom she gave birth to six months later on August 4, 1965.

“I was as one dead,” she wrote in her classic autobiography, As I Am. “My right side was completely paralyzed and I had been left with maddeningly double vision. I had not power of speech and my mind just didn’t’ work.”

Hers was a miraculous recovery—the fruit of sheer grit, determination, and just plain stubbornness.

She also had amazing support systems. Valerie Eaton Griffith, her tutor, helped lift her “out of the cabbage patch,” she wrote. “A master (her husband’s role) can tell you what he expects… a teacher though awakens your own expectations.”

“Suddenly Patricia Neal wanted to live,” Life Magazine headlined its feature story about her. Patricia countered, it would be truer to say, “Suddenly I realized I was, in fact, living and was starting to like the experience again.”

She returned to public life with her debut speech in March 1966 at The Waldorf Astoria in New York. The occasion was “An Evening with Patricia Neal.” It was a signal achievement for someone who had had to learn how to walk and speak again—and, perhaps most dauntingly of all for an actress, remember lines.

“Tennessee hillbillies don't conk out that easy,” she quipped at that pivotal moment dramatizing her triumph over the tragedy.

Cover photo of As I Am.
From the Author's Collection; Globe Photos
When she finished her speech, she wrote, “I knew my life had been given back to me for one reason.” Unsure what it was at the time, she credited her husband, Roald Dahl, famed writer of children’s books, for throwing her back into the deep water “where I belonged.”

As her post-stroke life unfolded, besides resuming her acting career with a notable performance in The Subject Was Roses (1968), she began bringing the reality of stroke to the public’s attention in speeches around the country in the 1970s, spotlighting its debilitating effects and how to surmount the practical obstacles to resuming normal life, or a semblance thereof, in the wake of a stroke’s neurological devastation.

Patricia Neal as "Nettie Cleary" in The Subject Was Roses.
Credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer

Her story—initially publicized in the Life Magazine article, from which flowed a cascade of publicity—not only served as an inspiration to stroke victims worldwide, but soon began to catalyze the establishment of many hospitals and centers focused on helping patients rehabilitate to the fullest extent possible.

One such hospital is the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville—one of the finest in the country, according to surveyors for the Council on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF).

When Fort Sanders Presbyterian Hospital in Knoxville—now the Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center—wrote Patricia to inform her they were building a wing dedicated to rehabilitation and wanted to name it after her, she replied “Great, Great, Great, Great.”

In her speech at the dedication ceremony, she dubbed it a “House of Heroes,” which the center put on an engraved plaque in the foyer.

This “House of Heroes” is one her most enduring legacies.

Since its opening in 1978, it has offered a comprehensive, team approach to care, whereby physical, occupational, recreational, behavioral medicine and speech language therapists work with physicians to develop individual plans of care designed to return patients to as normal a lifestyle as possible.

Ironically, on February 17, 2005—forty years to the day after she suffered her three massive, nearly fatal, strokes—Patricia Neal was admitted to the center for two weeks of therapy helping her recover from recent surgeries with complications.

“I was so thrilled to learn that I would be able to come to my hospital for treatment,” Patricia said. “I’ve always said there is no better place for rehabilitation patients …and now I have experienced that care personally!”
Patricia Neal proudly displays her
“House for Heroes” medallion.
The medallions are presented to patients
who are completing their inpatient therapy
at Patricia Neal Rehab Center
Dr. Mary Dillon, PNRC Medical Director, recalled, “She went through therapy just as any of our other patients do, and progressed beautifully. She also brightened the spirits of PNRC patients with whom she worked side by side.”

At the time, Patricia was splitting her time between New York City and Martha’s Vineyard, where she participated in Theater Guild “Theatre at Sea” programs. In May 2005, she traveled to Hollywood to receive a star on the Walk of Fame. While she told the Center’s “News,” she was “thrilled,” she also added, with that hearty laugh of hers, “It’s about time!”

Every year she attended the Patricia Neal Golf Classic in August that brings Tennessee pro golfers together with local amateurs for a worthwhile cause at one of the state’s top courses—raising more than $3 million in net proceeds since 1985 to support the many programs and services of the rehab center.

In 2011, they held the tournament on August 8, the first anniversary of her death. It was a special occasion—honoring a woman who helped other stroke victims survive and thrive, just like her, the ‘Tennessee hillbilly,’ who rose to become one of the 20th century’s greatest actresses of stage and film.

Mary Claire Kendall has written about notable stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, including, most recently, screen legend Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal.

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