Craig Stucky was a popular Spokane pediatrician with a thriving practice. The pockets of his lab coat were always full of toys.
Parents loved his leave-no-stone-unturned approach to medicine. Children gravitated to his playful nature.
Even timid toddlers were drawn in the minute he sat on the examining room floor to play.
Now, in what should be the prime of his medical career, Stucky spends his days volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House. Not as a doctor, but as a computer operator.
At age 46, Stucky suffered a stroke following surgery to remove a benign brain tumor. It left him unable to practice medicine.
He still thinks like a doctor and remembers most of his medical training.
But he makes a point never to present himself as a physician for the charity, which provides housing for families of sick children being treated at nearby hospitals.
Still, he frequently finds himself translating medical jargon to bewildered parents.
He spotted a bumper sticker on the way to church one morning that sums up his attitude about how his life has changed these past few years: “Shut up and hang on.”
“Initially, I was disappointed,” he said of the loss of his practice. “But then I realized, ‘Hey, I’m lucky to be alive.”’
His faith, which was vital even before the illness, has grown. It sustains him when everything else seems to be falling apart.
“Every day, I say, ‘OK, God, you obviously have other plans for me. Tell me what they are,”’ Stucky said. “The problem is: He doesn’t talk very loud.”
Shifting gears in a hurry
Stucky always considered himself awkward and uncoordinated. As a kid, he couldn’t throw a football or dribble a basketball. The last time he tried to ride a bike, he came within inches of being hit by a truck because he could not stop in time.
The tumor, which likely had been with him since birth, explains a lot of that. It was embedded in his cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls physical coordination.
He lived his whole life with migraine headaches. In 1993, the headaches were worse after waking up in the morning. It was his first clue that something more serious was wrong. The one sure cure for his migraines had been sleep.
After talking with a neurologist at Rockwood Clinic, where he worked, he scheduled a CT scan. He vividly remembers the tactful reaction of the radiologist who, while looking at the image of Stucky’s brain, said, “It looks like there’s something in there. Do you have time for an MRI?”
At that moment, Stucky said his life shifted gears, “going from 70 mph to a dead stop.”
“I said, ‘You’ve just told me I have a brain tumor, and you’re asking me if I have time?”’ he recalled. “All of a sudden, I have all the time in the world.”
Two weeks later, a surgeon removed the tumor. The operation was textbook and the outlook for recovery was good.
His wife, Mary, a nursing instructor, said she was very optimistic. It seemed like the worst was over.
But a week later, Stucky developed bacterial meningitis, an infection of the lining that encases the brain and spinal cord. While recovering from that, he suffered a stroke.
Gary Cooper, a deacon at St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church where the Stuckys belong, remembers visiting his friend in the hospital.
“This was a very alive and articulate, artful, soulful guy,” Cooper said. “And suddenly, he was a vegetable. I would sit there and say, ‘Craig, are you in there?”’
Stucky spent five months in the hospital.
Through months of therapy and hard work, he regained his ability to walk, talk, read, write and do most of the things healthy adults do for themselves.
He had hoped to practice medicine again. Just before the surgery, he had sent a letter to his patients saying he would be out for two to three months. Last winter, he wrote them a second letter telling them to do what many had resisted: Find a new doctor for their children.
Michae’l Alegria, a mother of three, was among the last holdouts. She last saw Stucky the day her second child was born, shortly before his surgery. One of his partners had made rounds in the maternity ward when Stucky walked through the doors of her hospital room.
“I told him another doctor already had come by. He said, ‘I don’t care. I want to look at her,”’ she remembered. “He always treated us like he was a friend.”
‘Not angry, just uncertain’
In his first year out of the hospital, Stucky and his family accepted his new status as disabled.
“For us, using the word ‘disabled’ was not hard. It was liberating,” Mary Stucky said. “It gave us a label for what had happened, what we were dealing with.”
He resumed his volunteer work at St. Augustine’s, helping new converts learn about the Catholic faith. He joined a men’s prayer group which meets every Thursday morning.
He reclaimed his position as director of a University of Washington Medical School program that offers pediatric training in Spokane.
He continued participating in monthly meetings where pediatricians present the latest research in the field.
He spent that first year testing his limits and honing his relearned skills. Then he checked his medical knowledge against a computer program. His scores were similar to the marks he had gotten before the surgery, which offered him hope that he might return to medicine.
The state board of licensing required a full battery of psychological tests before allowing him to practice. It was during those evaluations, performed by a Seattle neuropsychologist, that he realized his goal was impossible.
The psychologist was explaining that the tests detected an impairment. He cut her off and asked her if she would bring her kids to him.
“She said no, and that’s all I needed to hear,” he said.
Stucky originally volunteered for the position at Ronald McDonald House as a way to stay productive and connected.
He was a member of the charity’s board while he was working as a pediatrician. But as he came to grips with the reality that his career as a doctor was over, his work at the home became even more meaningful.
Suddenly, he had a connection to the seriously ill children and their heartsick parents that years of medical training and all the empathy in the world could not give him. He had emerged from a devastating, life-altering sickness scarred, yet whole.
“Too many people get bitter and angry,” he said. “My approach has been: I’m not upset. I’m not angry. I’m just uncertain here.”
Cooper said he holds Stucky up as an example of a man with a healthy faith in God, putting it to practical use.
“Living as long as we do, most of us will participate in our own redemption - that’s opposed to earn it - by gracefully accepting our diminished life,” he said.
“Craig has done that in as graceful a fashion as I can imagine. And he didn’t get to see it coming either.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo