Kevin Hanlon hears a different drummer.
The 57-year-old jack-of-all trades is as comfortable in the kitchen as he is walking in the woods behind the home he shares with his mother.
He spent most of his career in landscaping, but also did construction, plumbing and electrical work.
For more than two decades, the Howard City, Michigan, resident also moonlighted in a skating rink, where he’s known for his willingness to don costumes to entertain the kids, skating backwards or spread-eagle without missing a beat.
“I’m myself. I don’t try to be like the next person,” he said. “I am what I am.”
Even his health problems aren’t ordinary.
He had a rare, spinal stroke in the wee hours of a November morning in 2014, which instantly dropped him to the floor.
Instead of deer hunting that day, he took an ambulance to the hospital. Then he spent several weeks at the Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital inpatient rehabilitation center.
A spinal stroke is a disruption of blood flow to the spinal cord. As a result, Hanlon was left with a T6 spinal infarct, or area of dead tissue, in the spinal cord, according to his doctor, Michael Distler, MD.
Hanlon explains it more simply: He had no feeling in his right leg, a pins-and-needles feeling in his left leg—and lots of pain.
He also had the sensation of sitting on an inflated balloon, which led him to develop his own medical diagnosis.
He calls it “balloon butt.”
Real-life Forrest Gump
To buoy himself during his inpatient rehab stay, Hanlon, who is also an artist, created a “Team Balloon Butt” sign and collected autographs from every staff member he encountered including doctors, nurses, therapists and the cleaning staff. He also drew personalized name signs for staff members.
“Now I go there once a month now and bring them cookies,” Hanlon said. “They like seeing their (former) patients.”
But his journey isn’t over. Roughly three years after his spinal stroke, Hanlon continued to have a lot of pain in his neck and back.
At his doctor’s recommendation, Hanlon started a new round of physical therapy at Spectrum Health Outpatient Rehabilitation on Broadmoor Avenue in southeast Grand Rapids.
Although Hanlon uses a cane, he told physical therapist Tara Jansen his dream.
He wants to run.
“I said, ‘All right, why don’t we work on that?’” Jansen said. “We don’t know (if you can) until you try.”
Hanlon’s therapy routine included pre-running drills, jumping from foot-to-foot and side-to-side. He re-learned how to skip.
And, eventually, he began to run a bit on the treadmill, first holding on with two hands and then eventually without holding on at all.
In June he ran his first full mile.
Not only is Hanlon running, his pain has decreased significantly.
“His attitude played a huge part,” Jansen said. “He also was willing to fail. There were times when he couldn’t do what I asked, but he still worked at it.”
Hanlon’s new goal is to run a 5K. He pictures his cadre of medical caregivers cheering him on while wearing “Team Balloon Butt” T-shirts.
“I would totally do that,” said Jansen, who also enjoys Hanlon’s home-baked cookies.
Dr. Distler has been impressed with Hanlon’s improvement, although he warns that spinal cord injuries are challenging and every case is different. Not everyone can expect to run.
“I think a lot of his improvement we can attribute to his motivation and the therapy techniques that Tara is doing,” Dr. Distler said. “To see improvements 3 1/2 years later is kind of a neat thing.”
Hanlon likes to think of himself as a real-life Forrest Gump. One day he would like to drop his cane and just start running.
“I refuse to quit and give up,” he said. “I don’t just want to sit and get old.”