When you ask James Phillips to name his favorite musician, he pauses for quite a while, mentally ranking and re-ranking Miles Davis, John Coltrain, Grover Washington, Jr., and a host of other jazz greats. But that’s one of the few times you’ll find James, who survived a stroke in 2006, at a loss for words.
At 60 years old, James keeps a schedule busier than most people half his age. But it took a lot of hard work to get his life to the place it is today.
James was travelling with family to North Carolina nine years ago when he suffered his stroke, caused by high blood pressure. He had diabetes and didn’t know it. James doesn’t remember anything about the trip, just that he woke up in a hospital bed, unable to speak.
“I didn’t understand what happened to me, but I was very upset that it did,” James says. “I thought my life was over.”
The doctor at the acute care hospital said James would probably have to go to a nursing home. His wife, Richelle, didn’t want that. A family friend recommended looking at Magee for rehab. At the time, James couldn’t read, write, or count.
“At Magee, all I wanted to do was get my speech back,” James recalls. “I couldn’t say what I wanted or how I felt or what I needed. So I really went for it with the speech therapy.”
While James’ brain healed, he regained more ability through speech therapy, and his affected right side grew stronger.
“The day I moved my arm, I knew I was gonna be OK.”
His inpatient stay lasted eight weeks, but James continued with occupational therapy for three years.
“Those first three or four years, I learned a lot about stroke and about myself,” James says.
Today, James spends much of his time helping other stroke survivors. At Magee, he’s been a Peer Mentor for seven years and serves as President of the Stroke Club.
“Your stroke or brain injury doubts you all the time, telling you, ‘You can’t do it,’” James says. “But someone who went through the same journey will tell you that you can do it.”
In the last year, James walked his daughter Ayanna down the aisle at her wedding and landed his first job since his stroke, through the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation in Pennsylvania. It took a while, about two years, to find a job he enjoyed that was relatively close to his home in Philadelphia’s Germantown section.
“That was definitely a test of all the patience that I learned at Magee,” James says of his job search. “You have to be patient to get the results that you want, in any area of your life.” He works three days a week at the Goodwill Donation Center on Lincoln Drive.
When he’s not volunteering at Magee or working, James is helping out with the Delaware Valley Stroke Council and serves on the board of Bartram Men, a group of alumni from Bartram High School dedicated to giving scholarships, opportunities, and guidance to young students at their alma mater.
“The thing I that I tell people all the time is, ‘Don’t wait for a miracle,’” James says. “The miracle is inside of you. Challenge yourself every day. Things happen when you do your best and make an effort.”