Raising the Barr

Theater professor’s show tackles stroke survival from personal experience

Eric Barr in wheelchair

Eric Barr opens “A Piece of my Mind” in a wheelchair to demonstrate his recovery from devastating strokes.Photos by Peter Phun

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Actor. Director. Screenwriter. Professor. Musician. Martial arts expert. To a long list of credits Eric Barr can add one more: Stroke survivor.

It’s an accomplishment his family, friends and physicians feared he might not achieve.

A year ago, the longtime professor and chair of the Department of Theatre at UC Riverside suffered a massive heart infection after surgery to replace a valve and repair an aortic aneurysm. As the infection ate away at his heart it also produced numerous emboli (objects that block blood flow), which caused devastating strokes in both sides of his brain that left him paralyzed, unable to speak or swallow, and confused.

“I was alive but I ceased to be the person I knew,” he said. “I became a patient and a stroke survivor.”

Stroke warning signsLast month Barr performed a one-man show he wrote about the experience, “A Piece of my Mind,” before a full house of theater department alumni, colleagues, family, friends, and physical therapists at UCR’s University Theatre. Many of them contributed to the new Eric Barr Acting Award scholarship for acting students. The one-hour show grew out of emails and Facebook postings that chronicled his fight to survive, his struggle with grueling and frustrating rehabilitation sessions, and his gratefulness for the support of family and friends.

“I told my therapists from the beginning that I would write a show about this,” he said in an interview. “As a theater guy I process something by writing about it and performing it.”

Barr, who taught acting and directing at UCR for more than 30 years, was a self-described “gym rat” with a black belt in Iaido and brown belt in Aikido when he underwent surgery in 2012 to repair an aortic aneurysm and leaky heart valve. He returned to teaching in spring 2013, but within weeks was near death at Stanford University Medical Center where specialists in cardiology, neurology and infectious diseases battled the infection that was destroying his heart and brain.

“I would become a stranger in a strange land,” Barr told the University Theatre audience in a performance that demonstrated his progress from wheelchair to walker to cane and walking unassisted. “I had trouble swallowing, walking, speaking, toileting. The stroke took me back to my infantile state and to the impulse control of a 2-year-old. The infection affected my kidney, my spleen, my liver. … I was dying.”

Barr pouring paper from bedpan urinal

Barr uses a bedpan urinal filled with yellow confetti to make a point about strokes and incontinence.

Although critically ill, the professor who taught a public-speaking class for pharmacy and premed students in summer classes found himself coaching medical students from a Stanford hospital bed.

“I couldn’t help myself,” he recalled. “One young guy was afraid to ask questions. I told him, ‘Your colleagues aren’t going to respect you if you don’t respect yourself. Act like you’re not afraid I’m going to die right now. Fake it ‘til you make it.’”

Stanford surgeons saved his life, he said; teams of nurses and physical therapists gave his life back to him. Patients in rehabilitation hospitals inspired him. Support from his family and friends filled him with hope and courage.

“Rehab is really frustrating, really hard work,” he said. “Every day you have to get up and show up. I met athletes with massive injuries. Their attitude was, ‘This is not rehab, this is going to work. This is my job.’ What amazed me was the determination of people to get better. Tenacity comes from within, and from your support system. I wouldn’t be alive without my wife. My brothers were there the whole time.”

Barr, whom current department chair Stu Krieger describes as “the heart and soul” of the theater department, has recovered his speech and can walk for short periods without a cane. But he has not yet recovered use of his left hand, his short-term memory remains challenged, and he cannot yet be alone.

scholarship announcementHe is working with theater professor Root Park on a documentary film about his recovery, however, and hopes to take “A Piece of my Mind” on the road to share with stroke survivors and others. He also has pitched a reality show about survivors of strokes and spinal cord and closed-head injuries to Hollywood producers.

Theater professor Robin Russin, who directed “A Piece of my Mind,” said Barr’s mobility and memory improved during two months of rehearsals in a production whose concept grew from a simple reading to a show with lights, audio-visual elements, and a few props. “He’s a very experienced and capable actor and director,” Russin said. “My job was helping him recover what he already knew. … In a way, this is a drama about a man overcoming major obstacles to recover his identity. His adversary was his own body. It’s about regaining himself as a creative individual.”

The show is moving, funny, and candid about the physical and mental challenges Barr experienced. For example, nothing prepares a stroke survivor for “emotional and physical incontinence,” he said.

“There were times of uncontrollable weeping. No one prepared me for that,” he explained.  “Physical incontinence was more obvious. It’s really embarrassing, and it was undermining to my dignity and sense of modesty. When I got home, the cover story of Stroke Connection Magazine was how to live with incontinence. That literally scared the piss out of me.”

Barr and his wife on stage

Eric Barr and his wife, Karen, leave the University Theatre stage after “A Piece of my Mind.”

Barr, whose survival doctors described as miraculous, said that a serious illness infects everyone in the home. “When I returned home after six months, everything fell on my wife,” he said. “I was afraid the stroke would end up killing Karen, not me.”

One of the hardest lessons Barr said he’s learned is to ask for help.

“Suddenly you’re in a situation where you can’t do things on your own. It gets really frustrating after a while. What do you mean I can’t pull up my own pants? I haven’t tied my shoes in a year. I use elastic laces to slide my feet in and out. It bothers me a lot. You have to depend on people and learn to graciously accept assistance. That’s hard to do, surprisingly.”

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