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Memphis Daily News
Giving Meaning to Tragedies
February 10, 2014
By Dr. Mary C. McDonald

It is said that it is not what happens to you, but the meaning you give to what happens to you that matters.

In 1988, Joan Cunningham’s husband, Jim, had a stroke. In the throes of raising six sons, Joan also became the caregiver for her husband. It was a role they never anticipated, were not prepared for, and had no information on. They were not sure how to handle this “new normal,” and what to expect.

Joan, who never knows a stranger, began talking to people. She visited hospitals seeking resources and information, but found none. When she met people at the rehabilitation center in situations similar to their situation she would ask them what they did, and how they handled the evolving challenges of both stroke survivors and their caregivers. The support she found was a sporadic network of people helping each other.

In 1993, Jim had another stroke. Joan knew that something had to be done to support all the people in situations similar to her, and with her characteristic compassion and determination, she was going to do it.

A stoke affects not only the survivor of a stroke, but also all involved in that person’s ongoing care. Recognizing a void in the need for information and support at the time of her husband’s strokes, Joan, along with some friends, started Different Strokes, a support group for survivors of strokes, and their families. Her goal was to spread the word that you are not alone, that there are others who have similar experiences, and bringing them together to support each other will strengthen all of them. She was right.

Word spread, the interest grew, family and friends helped raise the funds needed to publish a monthly bulletin and provide resources to stroke survivors and their families. She found places for the monthly meetings, speakers and provided refreshments. Now there was help, and support, for the thousands of stroke patients in our community.

As the interest in the support group grew, so did the number of support groups in the area, and Joan’s workload. After the death of her husband, she devoted much of her time to the groups. The bulletin mailing list grew to more than 800 names, and each of the four groups attracted increasing numbers of participants.

Over the past 20 years she firmly established sustainability. A few years ago, recognizing the need for the groups to have a permanent home, Joan approached Baptist Hospital, a staunch supporter. Baptist Hospital took over the organization and now provides a contact person, meeting locations, snacks, mailings and a multitude of resources for stroke survivors and their families. Joan continues to write the monthly bulletin and attends the meetings providing hope and encouragement.

It was not only what happened to Jim Cunningham when he had those strokes, it was the meaning that Joan courageously gave to what happened that has made life in crisis a little more hopeful for thousands of stroke survivors and caregivers.

Contact Dr. Mary C. McDonald, a national education consultant, at 574-2956 or visit

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