Ballet instructor fights back from stroke
Heather Harris’ right arm still tingles from time to time, but she has come a long way.
“I call it my Terminator arm,” Harris said, glancing toward it as it rested against the desk in her Wood River dance studio. “It took a while for me to actually feel temperature and little fine sensations. I couldn’t feel any of that stuff.”
The choreographer and dance instructor, who had been dancing since she was 4 years old, thought she may have lost a lifetime of learning and creativity in an instant last summer. At 2 a.m. on July 27, she was suddenly awakened by a numbing sensation while asleep in her Belleville home.
“I felt the numbness in my face,” she said. “I was really confused because this happened in the left side of my brain. Nothing really made compartmentalized sense.”
Harris had suffered an ischemic stroke. At the time, she decided to drive herself to the hospital. Looking back, she said she was foolish to do, but at that moment she managed to drive herself to the emergency room at Memorial Hospital in Belleville because she didn’t want to alarm her family.
She remained in the hospital for days and after a CAT scan and X-ray, doctors could not determine what happened. An MRI later determined that Harris had suffered a stroke: an acute infarct deep inside the brain that affects growth locomotive movement and cognitive processing.
Harris also suffered from disbelief.
“It just never occurred to me that at 42, I would be having a stroke,” she said. “It just never occurred to me, and it happened that fast. There was no pain. I just didn’t feel it. I didn’t feel anything. There was just numbness. It was all numb.”
Up to that point in her life, she had already lived a life that had lead her to success. Her Wood River dance studio, Rush Studio of Dance, had taken off and was flourishing. She was living her passion and dream in the performance arts.
It just never occurred to me that at 42, I would be having a stroke. It just never occurred to me, and it happened that fast. There was no pain. I just didn’t feel it. I didn’t feel anything. There was just numbness. It was all numb.
Heather Harris, Belleville woman who owns a dance studio in Wood River
The 1990 Belleville East High School graduate earned her bachelor’s degree in theater and dance from Southern Illinois University in 1995. She then went to New York City for graduate school and studied under legendary jazz dance innovator Frank Hatchett.
For a time she attend Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., to study chemical engineering, but that only lasted for one year.
“The promise of a lucrative career didn’t really appeal to me,” she said. “I needed to kind of live fast and die hard, in a way, which is the irony of that in many ways. So I’m used to risk and I’m used sort of living on the edge.”
She was offered a job to perform with Hatchett’s dance company that would have taken her around the world, but Harris said she chose to start a family instead. She and her husband ended up in the Florida Keys and had two children before later divorcing. By then, they were living in North Carolina and Harris moved her and her children back to the metro-east in 2000 and began dancing again. She also taught where and when she could with a dream of opening her own dance studio.
She realized that dream in July 2010, when she opened Rush Studio of Dance in a back room of a fitness center in Edwardsville off Chain of Rocks Road, where she held two classes a week — one for adults and another for children 12 and younger. She vividly recalls her business’ humble origins.
“That’s how I structured it. I couldn’t afford anything more than that,” she said. “I had a shoe-string budget. I had no ballet bars; I had no mirrors; I had no floor. I had a rinky-dinky little sound system that I just put in my bag and carried with me and a computer that I carried with me, and that was my business. I was really happy to have that opportunity and to have that space so we could start advertising and start having dancers in that space.”
Three years later, she relocated to her current studio at 29 E. Ferguson Ave. But a few years before she opened her first studio, Harris was suffering from hot flashes and consulted her doctor.
“It really took me by surprise because I exercise like a beast and I’m obsessive-compulsive with my diet,” she said. “I’ve never smoked; I get plenty of rest; I meditate. There’s plenty of things that I that would qualify as being ‘right.’ But a few years ago, I noticed that I was starting to have hot flashes. I was around 37 years old when this happened.”
Her OB-GYN at the time started running some tests on her hormone levels and decided to put her on birth control for hormone therapy so she could get her estrogen and progesterone back up.
“We knew there were risk factors, but I was getting regular check ups and my blood pressure was always 110 over 75,” she said. “It was ideal. So we just didn’t worry.”
The month before her stroke, Harris went in for a check up, had a mammogram and annual exam. Although her blood pressure was slightly elevated, her physician was not alarmed.
“It was maybe 130 over the 90s,” Harris said. “It was just a little bit higher, but they weren’t too concerned, and I could continue my hormone therapy.”
Now, she said her doctors are “99 percent sure” the estrogen therapy caused her blood to coagulate and induced the stroke. Harris has ended her hormone treatments.
“That was the end of that,” she said. “I’m off estrogen. I’m off hormones. I had been taking it for about four years. So now I’ve just got to go through menopause and grin and bear it.”
Her recovery has been slow. She still feels some tingling and numbness in her “Terminator arm” and some tingling along her right side. She said her physicians believe she is making progress and are encouraged. She has been told that she should make a full recovery in the next six months. She has also made YouTube videos of her recovery to share her experience with others.
“I’m still recovering,” she said. “It took a while for me to actually feel temperature and little fine sensations. I couldn’t feel any of that stuff.”
And her studio dances on. Rush Studio of Dance is in the red, and Harris re-invests back into it to continue to enhance the quality.
“Whatever profits that we have, I want to continue to make the quality of the infrastructure and the accounting making sure that it releases at least some of the maintenance work, sort of like the nickle-and-diming that takes from my time and from my resources and my money. So I’m able to reinvest back into that, but I’m also happy that even though I am not, at the moment, in debt, I’m doing fine.”
To forge ahead and succeed against the odds has always been her strength, she said, and she has needed that now more than ever. She said this continues to carry her through today.
“There is somewhat of an anti-authoritarian streak in me and somewhat of a contrarian position. If someone tells me you can’t do this, I’ll say, ‘Oh watch, I’ll do it,’ and then I’ll try to think outside of the box and make it happen and talk with people and network. And if it happens, great. If it doesn’t happen, I just learn from the mistakes and move from there.”