“Being a Helper is in Me”
Around MossRehab, volunteer Maurice “Reese” Hicks is pretty much known as “the Mayor.”
“We do love our Mayor,” laughs Melissa Meyer, occupational therapist for the Stroke Comprehensive Outpatient Rehabilitation Program (SCOR) and leader of the Young Empowerment Stroke Support group, YESS. (Anyone under or around the age of 65 who has had a stroke can join, regardless of whether they have been treated or received therapy at MossRehab, says Meyer.)
Hicks was one of the first patients to join YESS when it started in 2012, six years after a massive stroke almost ended his life when the then new dad and dedicated runner was only 36.
“Reese was integral to the success of this program,” says Meyers. “He recruited patients from MossRehab and he brings a very animated positive presence to the group. That’s why we call him the Mayor. He’s always high-fiving people and he knows everyone’s name. The group is definitely quiet until Reese arrives.”
And that’s not only at YESS. Hicks, now 44, also volunteers in food service at MossRehab where his job is more than making lunch trays and transporting patients. “I’m MPH at Moss,” says Hicks, his eyes glinting with amusement. “That’s short for ‘make patients happy.’ That’s what I do. I walk around running off my mouth all day.”
“Reese is a Fireball”
Ellen F. Goldberg is manager of volunteer service for Einstein Healthcare Network and MossRehab. “Reese is a fireball with an amazing heart and desire to give,” she says. “He’s a caring, kind human being. With all he’s been through in his own life, his strength goes beyond. It comes from a place that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in another human being before. To me he’s like a superman. He never stops; he truly doesn’t stop.”
That’s because there’s no stopping him. If you happen to visit the Roxborough YMCA on Monday, Wednesday or Saturday morning, you may run into Hicks at the front desk. He’s officially one of the employees who greets and checks in members, but he’s created his own title. At the Y, he says, he’s the “DOG.” “I’m director of greeters,” he explains. “Self-appointed.”
But he’s much more than that, says Y wellness director Mike Leonard. “Reese brings the party wherever he goes,” he says as Hicks makes the rounds of gym, getting clapped into hugs and drawing smiles from a handful of exercisers so dedicated that they’re there early on a Monday morning. “But when you’re working out and you see this guy next to you, you can’t help being inspired. No one complains when Reese is here. He makes you want to try harder.”
That’s because his left-side paralysis, the after-effect of Hicks’ stroke, has made the simplest of exercises exponentially harder for him than for the average person who goes to the gym. He has to use his right hand to maneuver his braced left hand onto the bars of the arm bike and the weight machines. He manually eases his braced left leg into the stirrups for his spin class. It’s hard to complain about the pain of a 30-second plank when the other guy on the mat is holding it largely with the strength of only half his body. And does it every time you see him.
“I move my body parts,” he says, explaining his exercise routine which he posts via phone videos on his Facebook page. That includes manipulating and massaging the numb fingers on his left hand to keep them supple and in shape. “That’s what I learned at MossRehab.”
“I’m Not Having a Stroke”
How did Reese Hicks get here? On April 2, 2006, he had just run 10 miles—something he did most days of the week—and was at home when suddenly, he says, his left side “felt funny” He leaned against a wall to stay upright and felt his lip “was twisting” downward. His wife, alarmed, told him he was having a stroke. “I said, ‘I’m not having a stroke,’” he recalls, slurring the last word the same way he did that day.
Even though recent research has found that strokes have more than doubled in people 35 to 39 in the last two decades, it was unthinkable to Hicks that he of all people could be having one. He did everything right. His diet was healthy, he ran religiously, never smoked, never drank. He had some stress: He worked three jobs, including one as project manager for a property management company; had a new baby daughter, Morgan, and a teenage daughter, Taliya, whom he had been raising as a single parent before he married his wife, KaLitha.
The only thing not going for him, which turned out to be the most critical factor, was his family history. Two of his grandparents died of strokes. His father died of a heart attack, but he had also had a stroke. And his younger siblings both died in their early 40s: his brother from stroke and his sister from an aneurysm.
The last thing Hicks remembers from that day in 2006 was trying to take a step with his left foot and falling to the floor. “When I woke up [in the hospital], I had tubes coming out of me everywhere,” he says. “I couldn’t move and I had no sensation on my left side. I was also a little aphasic (unable to speak).”
His wife later told him that his doctors weren’t sure if he would ever walk or talk again.
Today, he does both, though with an uneven gait and a slight stutter. He was also left with a seizure disorder and a short attention span. He credits his recovery to his therapists, his love for his family, his volunteering, and his Muslim faith.
“My wife is my dream girl, my life coach,” he says. “And my family means everything to me. Everything I do is for them.”
In April, Hicks’s own stellar volunteer career was recognized when he was presented with the Bill Pokorny Sr. Memorial Award at the annual Einstein Healthcare Network volunteer luncheon. The award was named for a late, longtime volunteer known as the “Hershey’s Kiss man,” who greeted everyone he saw with a Hershey’s Kiss.
Pokorny’s wife, Nancy, director of Nursing Excellence at Einstein, told the volunteers and staff assembled in the Gouley Auditorium for the luncheon, that giving the award to Reese Hicks was apt.
She met him for the first time that day on the stairway leading up to the auditorium. “I was going up the steps with my cane and I met this gentleman who said to me, ‘Miss, can I help you?’ And I thought, ‘Gee, he reminds me of Bill.’”
Hicks’ volunteer role models were his late parents. His mother volunteered in a hospital; his father was “feeding the community” when he had his heart attack.
“Being a helper is in me,” says Reese Hicks. “I do the best I can do in life.”
Photo by Denise Foley