SHAWNEE CO., Kan. (WIBW) - Kerry Livgren picks up a guitar from the corner of his rural Shawnee County studio and starts to strum, the notes tumbling slowly as his fingers deftly move over the strings.
"It's just a few chords," he says with a wry smile. "I'm reduced to playing slowly."
If it weren't for the occasional stumble over a word, one might not realize that one of the most iconic voices in a generation of musicians was nearly silenced two years ago. Livgren was a founding member of the rock group "Kansas" and wrote perhaps their best known songs, "Dust in the Wind" and "Carry on My Wayward Son."
In September 2009, days shy of his 60th birthday, Livgren suffered a massive stroke. He remembers going to bed feeling normal, then waking up on the bathroom floor, unable to feel or move the right side of his body. He'd had no obvious risk factors or no warning signs.
Livgren says doctors told him it was the worst stroke and largest blood clot they'd seen. One, he says, he's lucky to have survived.
But that's where a miracle met the miracle of modern medicine.
Dr. Tim Allen, an interventional radiologist with Radiology and Nuclear Medicine, treated Livgren when he was brought to Stormont-Vail HealthCare's Topeka emergency room. Just a few months earlier, Stormont installed and began using a 128-slice CT scanner, fast enough to capture blood flow and blood volume patterns in the brain.
Allen says Livgren's scan showed a large area of the brain that wasn't getting enough blood. Without blood flow, the tissue doesn't get the oxygen it needs to survive. The longer it goes without blood, the more likely it is to die. Despite the large area impacted, Allen said Livgren's blood volume scan showed them only a small area of tissue had actually died. If they could intervene quickly, the rest of the brain could be saved.
Allen says Livgren's scans also showed two blockages - one in the brain, the other a carotid artery in the neck. Those high-speed scans helped doctors pinpoint where the problem was so they could quickly take action to correct it, rather than taking more time to find the problem.
Plus, Allen says, doctors discovered something else on their side. Livgren's blockages had developed slowly over time. His brain seemed to sense that and had developed new, small vessels which allowed at least a small blood supply to reach the brain while doctors worked.
It took nearly two weeks for Livgren to completely come to. When he did, it was remarkable. He could move his right side, although not perfectly. He couldn't immediately speak, although his words quickly returned. He could walk - the only one to walk to the dining table when he arrived at his rehabilitation facility, he said.
But he couldn't play the guitar. Well, at least the way he used to play, he says.
"I was never even a bit frustrated. It never entered my mind," Livgren said. "I feel like I've been given such a great life. I got to play more guitar and more keyboard and enjoyed more success than other musicians would only dream about. So what would I have to be frustrated about not playing the guitar?"
But Livgren is a musician, and, as he worked to improve his speaking ability and strength, music kept its hold. He ventured back into the studio and realized he could do recording and mixing work. He also picked up the guitar again, practicing daily to make up for his fingers no longer fully feeling the strings beneath them.
As he concentrated, Livgren says he realized the stroke might actually have improved his guitar playing, even though it doesn't have the speed by which most guitar players set their standard.
"I mean every note," he said. "It's very slow, very deliberate, much more methodical, more melodic."
He uses a thumb pick to play now, and, with only about 70 percent feeling in his right hand, there are limits. He says the one song he has the most trouble playing is "Dust in the Wind."
"I may never play 'Dust in the Wind' again," he said. "But I practice every day, so it still may come."
Livgren says he's learned recovering from a stroke takes a long time and the process continues for him. As it does, Livgren forges ahead. He and an earlier version of Kansas called "Proto Kaw" released an album in August. He also wrote the forward for a new book telling the story of "Dust in the Wind."
And he's working harder than ever on a project more than three decades in the making. He calls it "Cantata: The Resurrection of Lazarus." In 33 years of bringing the work to life, over the past two he's perhaps come to understand the subject matter even better.
"They don't know why I recovered. I know why I recovered," he said. "I believe it was the thousands of people that were praying for me."
Prayers, he says, that will help him complete the new score God has composed for his life.
"You can be here one second living your life and then the next second something calamitous happens to you," he said. "Anyone who's had a stroke, I would tell them never give up hope. Never give up hope."
A portion of the sales from the 35th Anniversary "Dust in the Wind" Collector's Book will benefit the organization, Autism Speaks.