Four strokes couldn't kill Reese McHenry, one of the state's best singers, but they stalled her career | Music Feature | Indy Week

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Four strokes couldn't kill Reese McHenry, one of the state's best singers, but they stalled her career



Reese McHenry could not speak.

But the message she conveyed to her husband, Justin, on a November morning in 2008, was very clear: She was not going to the hospital.

For the last 24 hours, the usually boisterous McHenry had kept quiet in the couple's Durham home. She'd occupied herself, she thinks, with painting or writing another number for the Dirty Little Heaters, the proudly bellicose garage-rock trio she'd led with her masterful soul-singing roar for the better part of a decade.

Justin remembers that they'd gotten in an argument at the start of the weekend, which wasn't so rare at the time for the couple after two years of marriage. He wrote off her silence in the name of their spat. He didn't know she couldn't speak.

Reese, meanwhile, attributed her silence to stress, of which there was plenty of late. In a crashing economy, their mortgage payment hung above their home like a specter. And in a week, she would release her first seven-inch single since an earlier version of the Dirty Little Heaters dissolved in an acrimonious split. When a friend called Saturday evening, she could see the words in her mind but could only manage to repeat "umm," as though her speech had been stuck forever on Pause.

"That's all I could get out. It was so frustrating. My friend eventually said, 'Dude, I don't know what's going on with you. I'm just going to let you go,'" McHenry remembers with a smirk. "She thought I was just being weird."

The next morning, though, the phone rang again. This time, it was Mimi McLaughlin, another local musician who doubles as a physician's assistant in internal medicine, likely calling to talk about the upcoming concert. Again, when Reese tried to speak, she could only mutter. She considered hanging up before she could get caught.

"Reese is not at a loss for words very often, and I couldn't get her to give me a full sentence," McLaughlin says. "I told her to put Justin on the phone, and I told him he needed to take her to the emergency room right away. He just said, 'She won't go.'"

Reese, then 36, never went to the hospital that morning, but McLaughlin became the first person to correctly diagnose her. Eight months later, an MRI revealed exactly what had happened: She'd had a large stroke on Friday night that had left a dead spot on her brain and temporarily stripped her of the ability to speak. In fact, before a neurologist told her so in July of the next year, she had already suffered at least three additional miniature strokes. They alternately caused her to lose her vision, her legs to swell and turn purple, and her neck to crackle as the blood began to flow again.

McHenry had suffered weak spells since at least 2005, when she sometimes had to sit down while playing rock shows. But she attributed that to over-exertion and poor nutrition, not the warning signs of a stroke.

"The neurologist said, 'How's your left leg been since your stroke?' He kept talking, but I just kept staring at my sister-in-law," McHenry says, the pace of her speech nervously quickening with the memory. "I eventually said, 'Are you saying I've had a stroke?' He said, 'No, I'm saying you've had four strokes.'"

McHenry's life changed in an instant: On the way home, she stopped smoking. When she got there, she called her band to cancel a tour that was set to start the next day. And five months later, she entered a six-year series of a half-dozen surgeries to correct atrial fibrillation and mitigate congestive heart failure. The procedures zapped the erratic, errant cells in her heart, installed a pacemaker and performed a gastric bypass—steps necessary to ensure she'd live, but with no guarantee she'd ever hit the road or step on a stage with her band again.

"I would sit on my couch and have this stone-cold fear that I would die at any time. When you're right there, it's terrifying," she says. "My whole body would go cold, because it could happen at any time."

But it didn't. Instead, McHenry's near-death experience turned into near slavish devotion to her health, where the person once too hidebound to see a doctor now solicits her physicians' advice on diet-and-exercise options. And at the age of 42, she is embarking on a crusade to build her music career in a major way.

Tourist, her incredible and flinty new album released under the umbrella name The Second Wife, is only the second full-length record she's ever issued. She hopes it is the beginning of a prolific streak. She is sitting on an album cut with Spider Bags leader Dan McGee and an archive of 50 finished songs, a notebook of countless ideas and a half-completed rock opera about Michael Peterson, the Durham novelist convicted in 2003 of killing his second wife. McHenry awaits only funding, a label and time; now, it seems, there is plenty.

"I feel like I'm lucky to be here. Maybe we are all lucky to be here. But I absolutely want to see everything in the world," she says, her voice faintly breaking. "When I was thinking about that, how I've been given a second chance to do what I want to do, I was thinking about how I wish I had a job where I could travel. And then I realized I do: I'm a musician."

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