I recently had the honor of interviewing actress Lynn-Holly Johnson about her film roles in “Ice Castles” and “For Your Eyes Only”. However, Lynn-Holly’s most challenging role has been that of stroke survivor.
1) Lynn-Holly, tell us about your love/passion for competitive ice skating. You won the silver medal at the novice level of the 1974 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Was this something that you had trained for since you were little, or only shortly before you won in 1974?
I’ve been passionate about skating since I was about 4, when I had to go sit and watch my brother and sister’s lesson. I started skating when I was 5 and training for competition when I was about 8, two hours before school and 4 hours after school. The novice level is at test number 6, so by 1974, I was deep into competing. That year I was second in the Midwest which qualified me for nationals, where I won the freestyle and became the silver medalist over-all. The next year I headed into the season as the national freestyle champion but broke my leg right at the top of the season. It was devastating. I never thought I would get through it. Never thought anything positive would come out of it. But I fought on, realizing that luck resides in the back pocket of hard work and a positive attitude. I switched coaches and moved to Los Angeles to train with the best of the best, John Nicks. I never made it to nationals again but I definitely had a lot of luck going for me. I can’t say what could’ve happened if I did not break my leg, but I so grateful for the luck that I had. It is a great lesson to tell my kids, there is a reason for everything.
2) Tell us about your role as Alexis Winston in the film, “Ice Castles”. Were you up against anyone for the role? Despite being a professional ice skater, were there any challenges in playing Alexis?
I was up against all the top actress for the role in Ice Castles, Kristy McNichol, Jodie Foster and even Marie Osmond! The studio wanted to dub in the skating and the director argued he would only make the film with a skater playing the lead. John Nicks and Michael Kirby suggested me as I was on tour with Ice Capades. By that time I had already done over 100 television commercials, 10 films in the Chicago area and played Helen Keller opposite Rita Moreno in theater where we won a Joseph Jefferson Award. That was luck! And the only reason I played Helen Keller was because of a snowstorm that delayed the props for a modeling project which allowed me to run over to the theater to audition. There is a reason for everything! When I met the Ice Castles director, I told him all the nudity had to be taken out of the script or I would just stay on tour and not do the movie. That was pretty brazen for a Midwest 19 year old but now I’m so glad I fought for that. Even during production, there was a huge argument and shut-down, but I stuck to my guns! An R-rated “Ice Castles” would have been a disaster and it would never have the legs it still has this many years later “Ice Castles” became a great family film, that’s what it should be.
3) Tell us about your role as Bond Girl Bibi Dahl in “For Your Eyes Only”. Were you up against anyone for the role? What were the challenges in playing Bibi?
Bibi Dahl came about after Cubby Broccoli saw me in “Ice Castles,” Michael Wilson wrote in the character. My challenges on that project were many, all having to do with Roger Moore! How does an actress keep a straight face while working opposite the delightful Roger? Sir Roger Moore is a wonderful charismatic gentleman, unbelievable quick-witted. The director John Glen would say after a few takes, “Ok Roger, can we just do one take with the scripted line?”
4) In January 2010, you suffered a stroke while on a flight. Can you tell us about this frightening experience?
January 4, 2010, the end of a flight from Atlanta to John Wayne, southern California, my Mom grabbed my shoulders and pleaded, “why aren’t you talking?” Everyone was off the plane including flight attendants, the last part I know is trying to figure out how to get off the plane. Then my brain shut down. The damage had started yet no one knew. Not even me. I clung to my dad’s arm, trying to navigate my way to baggage claim. For me it was balance, but my dad didn’t know.
The blood clots in my brain blocked all the oxygen. I was suffocating, as I kept falling over bags while 300 people around me busily retrieved their own luggage. In 2 minutes I was incoherent, my starving brain was shut down and my mom yelled “get her to the E.R.” I was carried into Hoag Hospital where immediately they yelled “Code 20”. My dad and husband were told that meant ‘stroke victim’ as the frantic eerie scene began. I was whisked away for tests. A blood clot rested on the right side of my brain. 2 more emboli were parked in the middle cerebral artery where they say 3 out of 10 people die.
My Dad, fighting his own cancerous war could not grasp the insanity of losing his daughter first. They talked about TPA, the clot busting drug but that is only safe given within 4.5 hours of the onset, beyond that it could burst an artery causing death. I laid there, nearly comatose, eyes vacant, when they tried to calculate the onset.
They discussed the journey to find conclusions and timing. They told the docs I had to carry my 60 lb, 3-legged dog in and out of the airport. When I got on the plane I was sweating profusely and said I felt strange. Then during the flight I had very loud hiccups, and at some point my arm was flailing around, but no one knew the timing. The doctors found a hole in my heart, a PFO, when I hiccuped at some point during the flight, it put pressure on that hole allowing clots to shoot through and go straight to my brain.
Still, they could not determine the exact timing of the onset. The decision was carefully made. The clot-busting drug, TPA is too risky, they told my husband we’ll wait and hope.
Intense hours go by, the doctors are continually asking me “what is your name, what year is it?” I showed no awareness, eyes glossed over, no sounds. They continued to push and ask, all night long. Then in the wee hours of the morning as they strived to get some life out of me, they ask again, “what is your name?” still nothing, “what year is it?” this time, I mumbled “1968.” They pointed to my husband and said “who is this man?” I muttered “boyfriend”. The doctor smiled and said “there you go, you got your gal back!” My husband of 18 years grinned and melted.
I was in the hospital for a week. Talking, chewing, walking were fine but the clots that migrated to the left side locked all file cabinets, my memory skills were lost. My husband said I was like an etch-a-sketch, with an elaborate drawing of my life, but someone flipped it over and shook. When they told me I had a stroke, I wasn’t sad, I had no comprehension of what that meant, nor did I care. I was a blank etch-a-sketch.
5) Did you know about your heart condition – patent foramen oval?
We did not know of a PFO. When my dad had a stroke his doctor never made an issue of it, of stating why my dad had a stroke. That makes me very sad to know that information was just a statement on a medical record, just slipped in on a file. I wish that doctor had elaborated that fact. We would all have been checked. However, things happen for a reason. For months as I was recovering my mind, memory file cabinets, learning numbers, letters and words, my dad and his pancreatic cancer was going to polar opposite route.
6) Being on a plane when this happened, do you blame air travel for things such as blood clots? Have you been afraid to travel by plane since then for fear of recurring blood clots and strokes?
I can’t blame air travel at all. My blood was clotting for some reason, it was like a perfect storm for me. There was concern for my dad, carrying my 60lb dog back and forth in the airport, deep hiccups, a cross-country flight and throw in a stroke and a PFO as the hurricane. Now I have had the heart surgery and I will remain a stroke survivor! Oddly, I was hesitant to fly for a year prior to the stroke, never knew why. Some innate feeling? I’ll never know. But I sure was lucky. That was it that was my perfect storm and now I am sailing on with fair winds and following seas!
7) What have the challenges been for you in bouncing back from your stroke?
There is definitely no “bouncing back” after a stroke. It is a long slow process to get the plasticity of the brain to recover to some extent. I had one full year of cognitive therapy. Isn’t this typical, an actress talking about therapy but in the Acquired Brain Injury Program certain tests put me in the Severely Impaired category. I plowed through running a brain marathon everyday to exhaustion. My challenges are all within memory and linearly thinking. When I was in the hospital, every few hours Dr. Brown would ask me to tell him as many animals as I could in one minute. I came up with 4. Then he would ask me to spell out loud the word “world” backwards. I kept thinking if I had a piece of paper I could write it down for him and he could put it in his pocket and study it whenever he needs to see how that word looks backwards. I thought I could help him! That is textbook left mind injury. I had no ability to think linearly, to know what he was doing. My right mind took over with all of its “comme si comme ca” joyful thoughts, they say the right mind promotes blissfulness. My left mind, all about numbers, letter, language and the memory file cabinets needed to find the key. I had to learn the age of my 2 children, their birthday, my birthday, my phone number, etc etc. Each day I needed to learn what happened the day before, even one hour before. Numbers which are usually my forte actually looked like worms crawling on a page! In therapy I learned how to write out a check. But they forgot one thing. To me, left mind injury, numbers had no value, so when that Kirby Vacuum Cleaner Salesman came to my door, immediately I bought that fancy Hoovering machine, $2400! Wow! And I could write out that check. Yippee!
Today my challenges are lighter but within the same spectrum. I can be sitting at a dinner with 8 of my very best friends and still I am unable to recall their names. This is why I don’t introduce people. It is like a spinning brain and nothing comes to the forefront to be an answer, including my children’s age. That’s embarrassing. I have algebra and geometry books that I work on. When I find the correct answer it is thrilling because the everyday confusion is still so prevalent.
Sometimes I think my brain needs a new manager. If I have more than 2 commitments per day, everything swirls in my brain like scrambled eggs. I miss appointments, calls and bills. When I think of my challenges I have to remind myself about the lucky shape I am in. There are thousands of stroke sufferers with much greater challenges. Everybody has a full suitcase to deal with. You have to recognize when your own suitcase is merely a carry-on. That’s when you have to stand up and help those hauling a trunk! This is exactly why I am a spokesperson, because I can still get out there to forewarn people about the impending disaster that could’ve been.
After Ice Castles I received so much fan mail from people thanking me for doing a movie that inspired them, to have the gumption, fight on and go for it. All those years it was a great feeling to be told how I encouraged so many people. God put me on this planet in order to help others. If I needed to have a stroke in order to continue helping, then that’s just the way it goes. Everything happens for a reason. I’ve always believed everyday of life should be your very best audition for your next role tomorrow. If I’m still able to walk and talk, then I’ve got this great opportunity to once again help people this time through their health, to educate people about stroke risks and stroke recognition.
8) You are a spokesperson for The American Heart Association. What are your key points?
I wanted everyone to be aware of a PFO and other heart risks. 23% of the population has a PFO!! Percentages of having a stroke and heart attack dramatically increases when there is a PFO and atrial fibrillation. There are 100,000 PFO related strokes per year. Many are not as detrimental as mine. I was truly lucky as are many others. If that stroke started any earlier on the flight I would not be walking or talking, or even on the planet! I want people to be aware of stroke and to recognizing a stroke. A person may seem odd or perhaps tipsy yet it could be a devastating stoke, with every second thousands of brain cells dying. I’ve been all over the world, traveling mostly by myself. This stroke could’ve happened skiing in a blizzard in Argentina, roaming Hochiminh City at night after working on a movie or sailing the Tasman Sea. No one would have saved me even if I was in a big city. She can’t walk. She can’t talk. She must be drunk, leave that girl alone. That is what people must have thought at John Wayne airport. My goal is to change that scenario. I did not want to lose a year of my life. Some have lost many more years of life, and others, their life is completely turned upside down.
9) Have you had to change your diet due to your stroke?
I’ve always had a very healthy diet. I don’t even like fats at all. The stroke had nothing to do with my diet . Many people think a stroke is because a person is overweight, a smoker, or an alcoholic. That is a farce. The reason I am a spokesperson for the American Heart Association is to get people to understand that point exactly. At 51 years old I went in for my first cardiac check-up. As a nationally ranked athlete, marathoner, low-blood pressure, low cholesterol, slow heart rate, I just breezed thru all those cardiac tests. The problem was my dad’s doctor should have been specific about my dad’s PFO and stroke! I should have grabbed that technician when he was doing the echo-cardiogram and said, “you must scrutinize for a PFO, my dad has it, my dad had a stroke, and my dad had a atrial FIB!” Unfortunately I was not that adamant. Six months later I had a stroke! People need to be clear, full of information, and specific when they go in to see their doctor. It is your time in that office, make it feel like your Olympics. Tell that doctor everything! A year after my stroke my brother who is a commercial airline pilot had a very tingly arm. He went to the ER and the same frantic eerie scene began with him. Yes they found a PFO. How would you like to be on his fight, high above the earth locked in a metal cylinder with your captain’s arm flying around uncontrollably? And my bother thought the airline medical check-up cleared him! Now he has had the same surgery as me, the PFO is locked shut!
10) Lynn-Holly, what new and exciting projects are you working on today?
My latest interesting projects all include my family. I am back on track so my goal is to be the best mom and wife, and to encourage, help, and guide my children. I want to be there for my kids and my husband 100%. When you almost lose your life, everyday is a true joy. I am so grateful to be laughing and dancing. Once again, everything happens for a reason to prove something to myself or to teach my children, or make our marriage grateful. Once again, everyday should be your very best audition for the next role tomorrow.