A Former Miss America Tells of Her Crowning Achievement: Recovery from a Stroke

She had dreamed of a career in show business and had left Northwestern University after her freshman year to tour as a singer with bandleader Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. Then Jacquelyn Mayer joined one other contestant in a hometown beauty contest in Sandusky, Ohio.

Three months later she walked down an Atlantic City runway as the newly crowned Miss America of 1963. For the hazel-eyed brunette, however, even that most glittering triumph would later be overshadowed by a moment of peril. On a November morning eight years later, she was awakened by cries from her infant daughter but found herself unable to move or speak. At 28, Jackie was the victim of a stroke. In the weeks that followed she began the struggle to overcome her impairment, and in 1974 she reached an out-of-court settlement with Ortho Pharmaceutical Corporation, manufacturer of the birth control pills that doctors blamed for her illness. Now 39, she lives on a 50-acre trotting horse farm outside Pittsburgh with her husband, John Townsend, 43, a racing executive, and their son, Bill, 17, and daughter, Kelly, 12. There she spoke to PEOPLE’S Cable Neuhaus about her life’s darkest day and its aftermath.

Thanksgiving 1970 seemed kind of hectic because I had about 20 people for dinner, and I had very bad headaches most of the day. I had been having headaches for the past two weeks. I remember going to bed early, about 7 or 8, that night. I was tired, and headaches just drain you.

It was about 6 o’clock in the morning when Kelly, who was 9 months old, woke up crying. I tried to see what was wrong with her, but I could not get up, and I felt like I had been sleeping wrong because everything on the right side of my body was numb. I remember taking my left hand and raising my right arm up, and it dropped down. I tried to tell John, but nothing would come out of my mouth. I could think; I was very much aware of what was going on around me, but I could not communicate. All I could really do was cry, and when I started crying, John woke up.

He asked what was wrong, and I could not tell him. So he telephoned the doctor, my gynecologist, and asked what he should do. I had been in the hospital about five days earlier for a Pap smear and biopsy. They found nothing wrong, but the doctor thought I might be suffering postoperative shock, which sometimes causes a variety of temporary symptoms; he said it would wear off. Later in the morning John helped me downstairs to the couch. I could use one leg, so I dragged the other one. I had great fear and was crying on and off. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, and I could not understand my inability to talk. Finally, about 1 o’clock, John called the doctor and said that he was going to bring me to the hospital.

The doctor still thought it was postoperative shock, but fortunately there was a neurologist visiting the hospital. He gave me a spinal tap and from that he could tell I had had a stroke. Then they took me by ambulance to a hospital in Pittsburgh, about 40 minutes away. When we got there, one of the first questions they asked me was whether I was on the Pill. I had taken one brand for three years after Billy was born in ’65, and I had been on another brand for just four weeks.

Those first days in the hospital are mixed up in my mind, and I don’t really remember how long I was in intensive care. They had the EKG hooked up to me, and I can remember lying there and seeing my parents looking through the crack in the door. A blood clot had blocked off an artery on the left side of my brain, which controlled the right side of my body and my speech. I was not in pain, but I didn’t want to fall asleep because I didn’t think I would wake up.

I did not want to die, and I prayed a lot during that time. I asked God to make me better and keep me alive so I could see my children grow up. I felt that He was listening, and I felt a calming effect come over me. When the doctor told me that my stroke was completed and that I would get better if I wanted to, then I realized that I was going to get better.

John came to the hospital twice a day, and he would help me walk. My former boss, bandleader Fred Waring, visited four times. When he came in, he said, “You are going to speak,” and he started me saying the ABCs after him. I was very slow. He would say “A,” and I would say “A,” and he would say “B,” and I would say “B.” He showed me how to shape my mouth to make sounds and use my voice to pronounce the words.

I soon went to see a therapist at the hospital. She would show me pictures, and I would have to tell her what they were. For instance, she would show me a safety pin. I knew exactly what it was and what it was used for, but there was no communication from my brain to make speech. I could think “safety pin,” but I could not say it until she said it for me, and then I would repeat it very slowly.

I was in the hospital about 14 days, and when I came out, I was able to move and to say a few words. The paralysis was mainly in my face and my thumb, although I also couldn’t feel the bottom of my right foot, and I could not read. Once I focused my eyes on a word and it came back into my brain, it was all jumbled up. So when I got home I began with Billy’s schoolbooks: “This is Jane. Jane is happy.” A lot of words, even simple words, I could not say correctly; I would have to say them over and over again to get them right. I would get so frustrated, and Billy, who was 6, would start laughing at me. And then I realized that I shouldn’t get so upset; I had to treat it almost humorously and laugh with him.

Billy also had to help me button coats, zip zippers, and he even taught me again how to tie my shoelaces. I had someone come in for the first year to take care of the house and Kelly. For a while I could not use the telephone. I would look up a number in the phone book, forget it by the time I started to dial, and have to keep going back and forth. I had great difficulty making everyday decisions, selecting which shoes to wear or what sheets to put on the bed. Even TV watching was difficult; at first I wasn’t understanding a lot that was said or remembering what I’d seen.

My husband, John, was always an encouragement, telling me that I was going to recover and that he understood how hard it was for me. He was carrying the whole household and had a great deal to do because, including me, he really had three children to raise. Many times I could not understand what he was saying. He would be talking to me, but it would be like trying to talk to a child.

Fred Waring was fantastic. He called almost every day. He’d always ask what I was wearing, just as an exercise so that I would have to describe it. He would also give me three words to practice. They were simple words at the beginning, but they got harder and harder, and I would have to practice them until our next phone conversation. Finally he said, “Now when you can say this one word, you can say anything.” The word was “juxtaposition.” I practiced it a great deal, but I think it took me about three or four years to say that word.

I’m still progressing, still getting better, and I can see improvement even since last year. I’ve gotten stronger by trying to play tennis, horseback riding, exercising at home and just using my arm. I can’t raise my eyebrow like I used to, and the right side of my face droops a bit. But it used to droop much more than it does. I wish I could speak a little bit better and more clearly, and I wish I could think faster. I still hesitate and grasp for words. And I still have trouble remembering what I’ve read. Often I have to do it over and over again, and the only reason I can remember is because I ask myself, “What did it say?” But it’s going to improve. It’s just a process, like learning to speak again. You do it enough times and the more you do it, the faster you get. Now I read magazine articles, newspapers, anything that interests me.

I would like to have had more children after my stroke. I had wanted two boys and two girls, just like my parents. But my doctor said that if I got pregnant again, going through labor could cause another stroke, and he could not guarantee my life. I did get pregnant three months after my stroke, and I had an abortion. Now I use an IUD.

Despite what happened to me, in many ways I feel very lucky. If I hadn’t had my stroke, I think I would have just lived on and on without really doing anything interesting or challenging with my life. I’ve been through good times and bad times. I think God had a purpose for me. I prayed a lot about this and I think that purpose was to go out and tell my story and try to convince people that there is always hope. Now I am a volunteer with the American Heart Association, and when I talk about some of the things I’ve learned overcoming my stroke, people see me as human. I’m a different person now than when I was Miss America.

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