Encore! Topeka performer returns to stage following rare spinal stroke

Danny Lassley is returning to the stage following a four-year absence while he recovered from cervical spinal stroke.
Published: Dec. 7, 2022 at 5:20 PM CST
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Danny Lassley found a home on stage.

He says he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t performing, estimating his first show was probably in first grade.

“It was just one of the things that I was good at,” he said.

It’s also where he’s finding his next act after a life-threatening health scare kept him away for four years.

It happened in March of 2018. Danny got home from work, and he and his wife Jo headed out for a walk with their dog.

“About two thirds of the way through, I had a sharp pain radiating from my neck down the top of my right shoulder and I knew it wasn’t a normal kind of pain,” he said.

They headed to the emergency room. Through hours of tests, including a CT and MRI, the pain kept getting worse.

“When I think it couldn’t possibly get more intense, it’s getting more intense,” he said.

Finally, he fell asleep.

“When I woke up, I couldn’t move anything below my shoulders and I could barely breath...and it was terrifying,” Danny recalls.

Danny was transferred to University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City. At first doctors, thought he had a condition causing inflammation in his spinal cord. They’d later determine that he most likely suffered a stroke in his cervical spinal column. Regardless the cause, Danny, who was on stage for opening night of Mamma Mia at Topeka Civic Theatre just days earlier, thought he’d lost the spotlight forever.

“I was very depressed and just scared,” he said. “While I was at KU Med was the first time I was able to twitch just one finger - my index finger - and, when that happened, it changed everything. I had hope.”

He spent two weeks at KU, then transferred for what turned into a three month in-patient stay at Kansas Rehabilitation Hospital in Topeka.

“At first (I was) just learning how to tolerate sitting up and gaining strength in my neck to hold my head up and learning how to grip something,” he said. “Slowly things started coming back. I could twitch my toes, I could then move my feet.”

For a time, Danny said he’s found a new stage.

“That became my performing venue - because I love applause, and my therapists and all the staff there were applauding for me every day,” he said. “Just doing the simplest thing that I couldn’t do the day before was a big deal, and they made it a big deal.”

But after about a year of physical therapy, he realized some things would never fully return.

“I have great skills with my hands and I’m very grateful for that but I can’t reach, I can’t lift, I can’t carry,” he said.

Also, his walking is limited. He can stand and shuffle a bit to assist with transfers, but mainly uses a wheelchair to get around. Danny says the realization full walking likely will never return sent him into another depression - until he learned about a vocational rehabilitation program. He enrolled in an online program to get his masters degree in mental health counseling.

“That helped so much, just having a focus, having a goal, and being able to do pursue something that would be very meaningful,” he said.

Danny earns his degree this month, but he’ll miss the graduation ceremony because of another major milestone. He’s returned to the stage, starring in The Story of My Life at Topeka’s Helen Hocker Theatre.

“It’s incredible. There’s just no better feeling,” he said. “It felt very familiar to me and in some ways it feels like it’s only been maybe a few weeks since my last show, but in other ways, because of how I navigate now, how I move, it’s a new adventure.”

Danny is realistic. He said he specifically chose The Story of My Life for his return because the role did not require anything too physically demanding. Plus, he identified with its message of friendship and connection.

“I’m very aware of my limitations and the obstacles,” he said.

As he navigates his new normal on stage and in his new career, he’s grateful for this encore he’s been given.

“It’s all about resilience and coping and building the skills to manage whatever life throws at you,” Danny said. “Frustration is probably a thing I live with every day, every day, and being able to manage my frustration and still achieve something or ask for help. In reality, we depend on each other all the time - and it is no weakness to ask for help.”

Danny says he’s learned how to ask for help - and a few other lessons, too.

“Stay close to your friends, manage your fear, stay focused on what’s important to you and remain hopeful,” he said.

Danny says the theatre was great about adapting things for him, including making his personal care attendant part of the crew to assist him.

The Story of My Life is at Helen Hocker Theatre through Dec. 18, 2022. Ticket and show information can be found here.