Longtime park district volunteer switches gears after brother's stroke
by: Jaime Valdez Wendy Kroger opened her home to her brother, Tracy MacEwan, after he suffered a stroke. Kroger, a master gardener, recently stepped down as a longtime volunteer with the Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District.

A born go-getter, Wendy Kroger realized early she'd have to keep her inner multi-tasker in check to avoid certain overextension.

'One of the things I learned growing up was I couldn't do everything,' she says. 'I could try.'

So, try and try she did. Mothering. Volunteering. Public advocacy. A Washington, D.C.-based career. Counseling. Gardening. You name it.

After moving back to her native Oregon in 1993, Kroger, 70, channeled her passion for the outdoors into volunteer roles with the Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District.

She joined the Bond Oversight Committee after the 2008 bond measure passed, and eventually rose to chairwoman of the Trails Advisory Committee by 2004.

'I looked at the trails and thought maybe that's where I could help,' she says. 'You know how you get on these committees, then they turn around and elect you chair?'

Kroger set her agenda with a cheeky question about the district's ambitious yet incomplete trail system plans.

'I said, 'Could we just finish one trail? Just one?' she recalls with a chuckle. 'They just kind of laughed and said, 'That's not a bad idea.''

But not long after her beloved younger brother, Tracy MacEwan, suffered a stroke last summer, Kroger realized she'd reached a limit.

'I lost 20 pounds. I didn't intend to,' she says. 'I was running so hard, I realized I couldn't do that. I wasn't going to be any good anywhere.'

Something had to go. And as much as she cared about the area's trail systems and ecology, when the chips were down, family came first.

'I really, really enjoyed it,' she says of her years as an active park district volunteer. 'But I feel (fellow committee members) were really capable of doing what needed to be done. I feel they don't need my help as much as here.'

Shifting gears

'Here' is the house she shares with her husband, Bill, and brother Tracy. In October, she officially stepped down from the trails committee to focus full time on the care and rehabilitation of MacEwan, an artist and photographer who until recently resided in Lincoln City.

Park district officials presented Kroger a 'Distinguished Service Award' at its December board of directors meeting for her devotion to trails and parks.

THPRD General Manager Doug Menke praised Kroger's contributions to the district this week.

'I think Wendy embodies the word 'inspirational.' Whenever I'm around her, more things seem possible,' he says. 'She's intelligent, driven to succeed and politically savvy. On top of that, she's just a nice person, and that smile of hers lights up a room.'

Menke says he understands Kroger's change in focus. 'We miss her presence, but we totally understand that she has a greater purpose in her life right now.'

That 'greater purpose' is MacEwan, who specializes in impressionistic painting. He works daily with Kroger and his niece, Alison, to relearn skills - walking, balance, cognition and Tracy's once-fluid speech patterns - that the stroke in June robbed from him.

'It's kind of a family affair,' Kroger says. 'We do the care giving and help with doctor's appointments and physical therapy. My daughter, Alison, works on speech therapy and cognitive skills. Bill helps Tracy with his physical therapy and walking. There's a lot of walking. (Tracy's) graduated to the Cedar Hills mall. He's trying to get some stamina going. It's those kinds of things.

'It's pretty much a full day. He sleeps through the night and takes a nap during the day.'

Despite the significant setback, MacEwan, 58, is mostly upbeat, observant and witty as he relaxes on the sofa in the Krogers' family room on Tuesday morning, a blanket covering his slender frame.

'I feel like I'm doing pretty good,' he says. 'I look for a better way to describe it. There's a slight fuzziness. They redid part of my head. I think I struggle with what is new. My head seems mostly normal, except it doesn't.'

A full plate

Kroger still struggles to understand why Tracy, her full-of-life little brother, would have to endure an ordeal that - at least for the time being - took away his singular talents.

'I felt it was so unfair,' she says. 'I've always been such an admirer of Tracy's artistic gifts. We've always been close. I'm 12 years older than him. He's my younger brother.'

While admittedly skilled at putting up a brave face, Kroger reserves her catharses for when she's alone and on the road - often to or from Lincoln City to deal with MacEwan's belongings and personal affairs.

'People say to me, 'You're holding up well.' Well, you're not with me in the car,' she says.

Kroger's decision to forgo public volunteerism to care for her brother just came naturally.

'When you have to step into somebody's life, if you're gonna do that, you have to do it right, so that's what I did,' she says.

Kroger, a retired counselor and auditor with the U.S. Labor Department, says she's doing her best to keep up with developments on the Trails Advisory Committee. That said, she's confident the nine-member group can carry the vision forward.

'I purposely pulled back,' she says. 'I want them to understand they're really good at what they do.'

As her brother regains his independence, Kroger realizes her volunteerism itch will eventually need another scratch.

'I know I need that, but I don't know what the role will be,' she says. 'Being a volunteer is fun. You can give your two cents and walk away. I find that extremely satisfying.'

Relocated artist recalls day everything changed

Tracy MacEwan remembers working out at the gym in Lincoln City last summer when something happened. He wasn't sure what, but the artist was frightened and took refuge in the restroom.

'I knew it wasn't getting better,' he recalls of the episode. 'After about an hour and a half, I knew I had to get out of there. I headed toward the front entrance. I was going to go to my vehicle and go home, but (a friend) said I (couldn't) go.'

Instead, an ambulance took MacEwan, brother of longtime Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District volunteer Wendy Kroger, to a Lincoln City hospital. He was later transported by Life-Flight helicopter to the Oregon Health and Science University Hospital, where he spent 15 days in intensive care.

Doctors discovered MacEwan, who Kroger describes as the proverbial 'starving artist' with no regular health insurance, had undiagnosed chronic high blood pressure. The untreated condition had apparently enlarged his heart. An initial hemorrhaging stroke led - after his heart went into atrial fibrillation - to a series of smaller strokes.

Once out of the danger zone, MacEwan started physical therapy at the Forest Grove Rehabilitation and Care Center before moving to the Rehabilitation Institute of Oregon, based at Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center in Northwest Portland. He maintains his therapy regimen several times a week.

MacEwan recalls the aftermath of his stroke as a haze far-removed from his previously productive, dynamic daily routine in Lincoln City.

'I was off,' he says. 'I don't think I had any physical pain. I either went to sleep a lot or passed out a lot. I would be fine. Then I wouldn't recognize anything for a long time.'

Several months from the traumatic medical events, his family members marvel at his progress. He cautiously looks forward to doing things he used to do, with painting near the top of the list. Right now, however, he's dogged by a limited range of motion and perhaps more frustratingly, a lack of inspiration.

'But that takes time,' he concedes. 'I'm not ready for that. I've worked with a friend of mine and done some cards, gluing and cut-outs. I think that's a starting point. My hand isn't good for small movements.'

MacEwan takes four types of medication to control his high blood pressure. Now covered by the Oregon Health Plan, he counts his blessings.

'In terms of speaking, I get frustrated because I try to speak the way I used to,' he says. 'But on one level I consider myself very lucky because I still have most of my function. My legs are not as good as they used to be, but they're much better than they were six months ago, or three months ago.

'I'm really focused on the future. My tendency is not to focus on what I'm doing in a week, because in six months or so, in theory, I will be more developed.'

MacEwan pauses, before offering a conspiratorial grin.

'I have a tendency to be optimistic.'

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