- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 4, 2006

NEW YORK

He sat stiffly behind a desk, one hand in front of him, one down at his side. His words had the familiar slurred sound of a stroke victim, but his cadence was brisk, he made himself clear, and most of all, he was there — on national TV.

Stroke survivors and their advocates said Tuesday they were cheered and inspired by Dick Clark’s New Year’s Eve appearance, ringing in 2006 a year after his debilitating stroke.

“I think it’s awesome,” said Leanne Hendrix, who was 26 when she had a stroke three years ago. “It was a tremendously courageous thing to do.”

Miss Hendrix, a former Miss Arizona who lives in Phoenix, echoed a hope common among stroke survivors interviewed: that the public might begin to treat them with the respect and admiration given those who have overcome cancer or heart attacks.

“Survivors of those other diseases seem to wear a badge of honor,” Miss Hendrix said. A stroke, with its obvious impairment, “maybe isn’t a pretty thing to look at. It’s definitely not a sexy disease.”

“So for him to get up on national TV and say: ‘This is what I am now’ — I have nothing but respect for him,” she said.

Mr. Clark’s appearance on “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” came a full year after the December 2004 stroke that forced him to miss last year’s show. There had been intense speculation beforehand about whether he would be up to the task. The 76-year-old entertainer has given no interviews since his stroke.

On New Year’s Eve, seated inside a studio at Times Square, Mr. Clark began by immediately acknowledging his condition, saying it had been a “long, hard fight” learning to walk and talk again. But, he said, “I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.”

His words were muffled, but he kept a quick pace and was, for the most part, easy to understand during his brief appearances sprinkled through the telecast. At midnight, he counted down the seconds as the ball dropped, then kissed his wife, Kari, sitting next to him at his desk.

While some found the appearance moving, others seemed to find it inappropriate or depressing to see the ever-boyish, handsome Mr. Clark display his impaired condition in a TV universe where appearance is everything.

In the New York Times, reviewer Virginia Heffernan called Mr. Clark’s description of his speech (“not perfect”) an “understatement” and wrote that sometimes “his impaired speech seemed comical,” although mostly it was touching.

The negative comments deeply angered Karl Guerra of Annapolis, who has been recovering from a stroke for the past five years. For the first three years, he spent 10 hours a day working on his speech. He called Mr. Clark’s recovery so far “remarkable.”

“Let’s face it, there are certain aspects of a stroke that make people feel uncomfortable, and one of those is speech,” Mr. Guerra said in a telephone interview. “But he’s doing a great job as far as I can tell. For me, he epitomizes the ‘Go out there and make it happen spirit.’”

A doctor who treats stroke survivors said Mr. Clark’s determination to go ahead with his appearance was just the kind of goal that often helps patients with their recovery.

“In many diseases, the emotional component — the determination to fight and pursue recovery — is part of the recovery itself,” said Dr. Pierre Fayad, medical director of neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Preliminary ratings from big-city markets showed that Mr. Clark’s broadcast on ABC drew more people than competitors Carson Daly on NBC and Regis Philbin on Fox combined, according to Nielsen Media Research. “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” ratings were up 15 percent over last year, when Mr. Philbin filled in.

Television analyst Marc Berman of Media Week Online said that though Mr. Clark’s appearance was brave, he’s not sure ABC would want him to continue playing a major role in future New Year’s Eve broadcasts if his condition doesn’t improve markedly. ABC and Mr. Clark’s production company already have signed a long-term deal with Ryan Seacrest, who co-hosted this year, to make the “American Idol” host the New Year’s Eve heir apparent.

“We’ve already seen what [Mr. Clark] looks like,” Mr. Berman said. “The curiosity factor is gone.”

As for Mr. Clark himself, he was in a “terrific” mood after the show, said his spokesman, Paul Shefrin.

“He got done, and five or six of us went out for a hamburger,” Mr. Shefrin said. “He absolutely feels like he did the right thing.” He said Mr. Clark likely will sit down in the next few weeks to decide what he wants to do about the future.

“He has never said this would be his last year,” he said. “It’s up to him.”

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