Former Empire reporter rebuilds life, mobility, language after stroke

Helen Alten and Tim Huber of Haines celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary in 2014.

Five years ago this June, Tim Huber’s life changed in a big way.

Huber, a former Juneau Empire reporter and current Haines resident, was living in West Virginia and working for the Associated Press. With a fellow reporter, he’d just filed a damning story on safety fraud committed by Massey Energy, a coal company whose unsafe practices had led to the death of 29 people in a deadly blast a year before.

Huber got home and was changing to go to the pool and join his wife, Helen Alten, and their two children, Aurora and Brandt Alten-Huber, when he fell over. Only 45 years old, he’d had a stroke — a brain bleed that ended up affecting a softball-sized area of his brain.

He lay there for at least two hours, until Helen got worried — Tim was usually very timely. She and their kids came home to check on him.

The casserole she’d asked him to take out the oven was still there (fortunately, it was on a timer and had switched off.) And they couldn’t find Tim anywhere.

He was hidden behind a door, unable to move, though he’d heard them looking for him. After the EMTs took him away, his memories stopped — for two months. When he woke up, he was in a strange room, partially paralyzed. Nothing he said made sense to other people.

But he wasn’t afraid, because photos of his family wallpapered the room.

 

CAREER AND MARRIAGE

Tim Huber wrote some big stories over his career; one of the biggest he worked on during his years at the Juneau Empire ended up bringing him and Helen together.

He was working the Saturday shift at the paper in January 1993 when he came across a strange item in the police blotter — around 4:30 a.m., state senator George Jacko had called police multiple times, asking for help gaining access to the hotel room of a female aide for another legislator. Jacko had said it was official business, and had pounded on the door so hard other guests had woken up and called to see what was the matter.

After Tim broke that news, the story quickly blew up. It came out that he had passed notes to another aide, telling her he’d vote a certain way if she’d go on a date with him. (She refused but kept the notes, disturbed.) There were also other instances of harassment.

Helen, then president of the American Association of University Women in Alaska, was one of those who signed a public letter about the scandal. Tim called her to find out more.

“No comment,” she told him. Another reporter thought they’d get along; their next conversation was longer.

In 1994, they married at the Russian Orthodox church in downtown Juneau, filling the small space with so many people in that while two fainted, they were packed so tight they didn’t fall down.

Also in 1994, a subcommittee of the Senate ethics committee censured Jacko on three counts of ethics violations, effectively ending his political career.

That story was one of the biggest Huber worked on in Juneau — but he’s worked on big stories in many places.

While in Minnesota, he spent three months investigating then-governor Tim Pawlenty’s role in a telecommunications company accused of scamming people; turns out Pawlenty was one of the directors of that company’s parent company, was one of the investors, and received more than $50,000 from them as a consultant and legal advisor.

And then there’s the story Tim filed just hours before his stroke.

An April 5, 2010 explosion had killed 29 people at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine, and Tim, along with another AP reporter, Vicki Smith, discovered the company had kept two sets of safety records. One was the record they shared with the public. The other was the actual, accurate record of safety violations and hazards.

As Tim was lying on the floor in his home, the story he and Smith wrote was spreading. Those facts would end up helping to send the company’s former CEO Don Blankenship to federal prison for a year and be fined $250,000 for “conspiracy to willfully violate mine health and safety standards,” according to the United States Department of Justice.

 

THE STROKE

As the EMTs were carrying him to the ambulance, Tim gave Helen “a little saucy wink — he was trying to make me feel better,” Helen said. “But he was getting worse.”

Soon after his wink, Tim’s missing two months begin.

After he got to the hospital, the doctor pulled Helen aside. He told her to call Tim’s family, because he wouldn’t live through the night.

His mother and youngest brother came, but Tim kept “hanging in there.”

“There was a really good therapist who said to me… every hour counts,” Helen said.

A week into Tim’s five-week stay in intensive care, Helen traveled with Tim’s editor, Brian, to the office so she could clean out his desk. She found coffee, caffeine tabs, power drinks. The bureau where Tim worked had recently shrunk from 14 to four people, and Tim had been overworked, Helen said.

“I was just horrified by how much he’d been doing to keep himself awake so he could be a good father, a good (reporter),” Helen said.

She was still cleaning out his desk when the hospital called her and told her Tim was dying.

“It was like a punch in the gut,” she said. “I just sort of buckled over and couldn’t breathe.”

When she returned to the hospital, the neurosurgeon told her that Tim’s brain was trying to repair itself by sending fluid to the injured areas, which added pressure and only hurt him further. It would kill him in 24 to 48 hours if they did nothing.

Then he told her about an experimental treatment that would stop Tim’s brain swelling. They’d remove a circular piece of Tim’s skull, hinging it on, to allow for the brain to expand. When she asked, the surgeon told her that if it were him, he wouldn’t want the surgery.

Helen thought about it. “I said, well, I’m going to gamble… my gut tells me to do this. I’m going to do it,” she said.

He survived, though it made him look “really interesting” for a while, Helen said.

“Now I’m handsome,” Tim added.

It wasn’t a magic trick, however. In the weeks after the surgery Tim sometimes “neurostormed” — his brain entered a frenzy of activity that can cause the patient to get hot, to get cold, to have a heart attack, to have seizures.

Helen stayed with him as much as she could, holding his hand. Aurora and Brandt were only nine years old.

When he started to improve, “they wanted to put him in a nursing home,” Helen said. “All the data I read said when a stroke person comes in a nursing home, they don’t get out. I said no way in hell am I putting my husband in a nursing home.”

She fought to get Tim admitted to the hospital’s rehabilitation ward instead.

“The rehab doctor said ‘No way.’ Said he’s nonresponsive. I kept pushing it,” she said. She got the doctor to visit three times. The third time, the doctor agreed to admit him. Helen decorated the room with family photos, with Brandt and Aurora’s drawings, and “every single card he got,” including those from politicians and sources.

That’s when he remembers waking up. The first thing he remembers thinking is “Where am I? Where’s Helen and where are the kids?” Someone came into the room. He tried to ask her.

What came out, Tim said, was “gobbledygook.”

When he woke up, he had aphasia — a condition that scrambles his words between his brain and his mouth. Tim has no problem understanding anything anyone says to him, though in his initial months it took him longer than normal to process. (Some people, who suffer from a different kind of aphasia, have trouble listening correctly.) The real difficulty for Tim comes when he speaks — he may intend to say one thing, but something completely different can come out. The same condition has put a stop both to reading and writing, though he’s now able to read a few sentences.

“Aphasia doesn’t mean you’re stupid,” Helen said. “It’s that linkage of communication is broken.”

Another common effect of a stroke is a loss of self-motivation. Helen began setting tasks for Tim, determined, she told a therapist, that he would dance at his children’s weddings.

“He needed to be pushed, and he needed to be pushed hard,” she said.

Helen had to push against those who would have kicked him out of treatment, as well.

“In three to six months, most people plateau,” Helen said. “That’s because that’s when insurance ends.”

The outpatient therapist would tell Helen that Tim was plateauing — then she would take him to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

“He went in a wheelchair. He came back with a quad cane,” she said. “And then a straight cane.”

They focused on what they saw as most important — Tim’s ability to walk and his ability to speak. They didn’t spend much time on his right arm, and “it never came back,” Helen said.

He’s now been in therapy for five straight years, and he can walk with a cane. Just this year he began to speak in sentences, something Helen describes as a miracle. The brain bleed means his brain has had to find ways to work around a damaged section the size of a softball.

Two or three of his speech therapists thought Tim would never be able to communicate, Helen said.

He’s also had to learn a new way of walking — the muscles most able-bodied people use don’t work the same way for him in his right leg.

He can’t write or read much anymore, and uses adaptive technology to read articles in magazines; he listens to books (mysteries are his favorite) on tape.

“That’s the thing that we learned from Chicago,” Helen said. “Anything is possible…. the way our world is created, it’s created for people with two legs and two hands. We can change the way we do it. Just change the paradigm and machinery.”

 

LIFE IN HAINES

After Tim’s stroke, Helen realized she needed to find a job with health benefits. Two-and-a-half years ago, the family returned to Alaska. They now live in Haines, where Helen is the director of the Sheldon Museum & Cultural Center.

They didn’t realize that when they returned, they’d be fighting with some people unable to realize, or consider, what Tim was capable of.

“In West Virginia, they thought he was ready to drive, but the guys here (at the Department of Motor Vehicles) wouldn’t test him,” Helen said.

“It was amazing the stuff people said to us,” she said. “One of the doctors said if he saw Tim drive a car, he would report him.”

He passed the written test when Helen read him the questions — another thing they got a hard time about — but wasn’t allowed to even take the road test. His occupational therapist wrote a note vouching for him; other states allow that, but Alaska requires a doctor’s note. State troopers in Alaska heard the discussion — the DMV and state troopers in Haines share an office — and called West Virginia to get them to revoke the license Tim had. (Helen called the West Virginia DMV to inquire why his license had been “frozen,” and that’s what they told her, she said.)

Finally, after years of effort, West Virginia took Tim’s occupational therapist’s letter and restored his license. Staffing changed at the DMV. And Tim and Helen found a doctor who agreed to write not that Tim was “safe to drive,” (something Helen doubts any doctor would write, at risk of their medical license) but that he was safe to be tested.

“Luckily, that little change in language, they accepted in Anchorage,” Helen said. “Then the new woman at the DMV tested him and said ‘He passes. He’s fine.’”

He does all of the family’s grocery shopping, and also drives a tractor — since he can’t read and write anymore, he’s decided to be a farmer.

Tim is receiving this year’s Consumer Advocate award from SAIL. He and Helen think it’s in part because he fought so hard to receive his license.

 

SAIL AWARD

The SAIL (Southeast Alaska Independent Living) Consumer Advocate of the Year award is given to someone in Southeast “who experiences a disability, that has demonstrated a commitment and resolve to furthering the causes of people experiencing disabilities, advocating for individuals to live the lives they dream in the community of their choice,” wrote SAIL assistant director Tristan Knutson-Lombardo in an email. “Since his stroke, and relocating to Haines, Tim has worked hard to follow his new passions while not allowing his disability to limit himself (or allow others to limit him because of his disability).”

Cheryl Putnam won the award in 2011; Merle Ritter won in 2008.

Lynn Marvel will also be honored this year with the SAIL Community Advocate of the Year award for her work “to break down barriers that people with disabilities face each day,” Knutson-Lombardo wrote. “Lynn worked in the Juneau School District for more than two decades as a teacher and administrator of, and advocate for, students with disabilities and their families. Her passion for her work inspired countless students with disabilities to reach their educational and vocational goals,” he added. Allen Marine won in 2013, Eaglecrest Ski Area in 2014, and Sara Boesser in 2015.

The event is SAIL’s fall auction and dinner, scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 8, 6 p.m. at Centennial Hall. This year has a tropical theme; Jamie Waste will emcee, and a local dance group will perform. There are also more than 100 items available for purchase at auction, including vacation packages, local tours, tools and jewelry. Proceeds will support SAIL’s work to “‘inspire personal independence’ for seniors and people experiencing disabilities,” Knutson-Lombardo wrote.

Tim will give a speech at SAIL’s event, with the help of his speech therapist.

 

VISION

Now, since he can’t write, Tim has decided he wants to be a farmer. He’s driven a tractor for Haines farmer George Campbell. And this year, Helen and Tim filled their front yard with peonies they sold at Haines’ farmers markets; it’s easier for Tim to work with a crop he doesn’t have to bend down for.

“College fund,” Tim added — he’s hoping that eventually, he will farm enough peonies, successfully enough, to help pay for college for Aurora and Brandt, now freshmen in high school.

In Chicago, “they told me… the people that get better have a goal and a vision,” as well as a good caregiver, Helen said. “Tim’s vision is he’s going to be a farmer and dance at his kids’ weddings.”

 

You can read the article Tim and Vicki Smith filed for the AP just before Tim’s stroke here, among other places:

http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-wva-mine-faked-safety-logs-before-fatal-blast-2011jun29-story.html

For more information about SAIL, its outdoor recreation program, ORCA, or the banquet, go to http://www.sailinc.org/.

Tim drives a tractor for the first time post-stroke. He is raking George Campbell’s potato field before planting commences in May 2014.

Tim Huber in Juneau. Tim, a former Juneau Empire reporter, was working for the Associated Press in West Virginia when he had a stroke that took two months from his memory and almost killed him. Five years later, he lives in Haines, is speaking in complete sentences, walks with a cane, and is being awarded the Consumer Advocate of the Year award at SAIL’s Oct. 8 fundraiser and dinner.

Tim Huber stands at Glacier Gardens in Juneau. After his stroke in 2011, which damaged a softball-sized portion of his brain, doctors and therapists first thought he would die, then thought he would never be able to walk or speak again. He began walking with a cane just months after he woke up and began speaking in complete sentences this year.

Tim Huber, right, plays the dulcimer. After his stroke, he couldn’t move the right side of his body the same way. It was important to him to regain the ability to walk in the months after he woke up, so he focused more on his right leg than arm.

Helen Alten and Tim Huber on their wedding day. They first spoke when Tim called Helen for a story he was working on for the Juneau Empire, and they got married at St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Juneau in 1994.

A Jan. 20, 1993 followup story by Tim Huber and Dirk Miller on then Sen. George Jacko. Huber, who was working the cop beat at the Juneau Empire on a Saturday, was the first to break the news about Jacko’s harassment of a female legislative aide; in 1994, a subcommittee of the Senate legislative ethics committee censured Jacko on three counts of “using his office to seek sexual favors and companionship from women,” according to a 1997 Juneau Empire article about Jacko’s later harassment of a Homer teenager.

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