Brad Spence was just 43 years old, and on the cusp of opening a new restaurant, when life abruptly hit the pause button.
As an artisan and an artist, Brad Spence thrives on creative energy and new challenges. The 43-year-old professional chef is renowned for innovative Italian cuisine. He has been at the helm at some of the hottest restaurants in Philadelphia, having trained under some of the best in the business. When he isn’t cooking, Brad turns to painting. Blank canvasses are transformed into brightly colored, neo-impressionist oil paintings that reflect life in the culinary world. Some of his pieces have been displayed in art galleries and sold.
“I love the freedom of it,” says Brad. “I love the ability to work with my hands.”
Brad was taking a little break from work in February, on the cusp of opening a new restaurant, when life abruptly hit the pause button. He was cooking in his kitchen at his home in South Jersey, when a terrible headache set in and his arm began to twitch.
“I was disoriented and I remember being very hot,” he recalls. “I didn’t waste any time. I told my son to call an ambulance right away.”
At a local hospital, doctors discovered Brad had suffered a massive stroke–the result of an undiagnosed preexisting condition. It impacted the entire left side of his body. Brad was transferred to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital for several weeks of recuperation. In March, he arrived at Magee Rehabilitation – Jefferson Health to begin intensive inpatient rehab.
“All I remember is having the stroke and passing out,” Brad says. “I don’t recall anything about the first month at the hospital.”
Recipe for Recovery
The stroke was a devastating blow. Although Brad was never one to back down from a challenge, the road ahead would prove to be both a physical and a mental test.
“My left hand shakes a lot and I have trouble using it,” explains Brad. “I can’t really see well out of my left eye and I have a lot of trouble walking.”
The Magee care team mapped out a plan to help him regain his physical strength and coordination, so he could learn how to care for himself, start walking again and eventually get back into the kitchen. Magee’s physical and occupational therapists worked with him for several hours a day, building the muscles in his limbs and core and performing various exercises, essentially retraining his brain to tell his body what it needed to do.
“Brad had double vision. He couldn’t stabilize his body and his movements were jerky,” explained Magee occupational therapist Paula Bonsall. “We kept pushing him during every session to help him get better.”
A stroke can also affect the way the brain understands, organizes and stores information. In Brad’s case, he was able to communicate well and engage in conversation. He had some struggles though with memory, concentration, speech and multitasking skills. During speech therapy sessions, Brad was assigned various mental tasks and verbal activities and was taught strategies to improve his articulation and sharpen his cognition.
“Brad has always been a person who has done things very quickly,” said Sarah Lantz, a speech language pathologist who has been working with Brad at Magee Riverfront in South Philadelphia. “The stroke has challenged him to slow down.”
Setting the Table for Life After Rehab
Brad’s life has revolved around restaurants for more than two decades.
His fondness of Italian food is rooted in tradition, history, simplicity and passion.
“I’m not as inspired by the food of professional chefs,” he explained. “I’m much more inspired by the grandmother in Italy who’s been making tagliatelle for 50 years.”
Getting back into the kitchen meant he was one step closer to getting back to his normal life. It wasn’t going to be easy. Cooking requires a complex set of movements and coordination: standing, bending, reaching, lifting, chopping, and stirring. His rehab was structured to meet these goals.
“Brad is a very hard worker,” said Paula. “He wanted to do everything he could to get back to his life as a parent, husband and chef.”
When his care team deemed him ready, Brad got to work planning the menu. His own boxing wraps and a splint stabilized the weakness in his wrist and an eye patch addressed his double vision. Under the close supervision of his therapists, he did everything from the meal prep to the final presentation.
“He actually used a brick to cook the chicken and it was quite delicious,” Paula recalled with a laugh. “We worked as a team and it was a lot of fun. The therapists enjoyed laughing at him and me in the kitchen together.”
First on the menu was pollo al mattone. Also known as chicken under a brick, it’s a method for ensuring extra crispy skin, with a shorter cooking time than a traditional roast. Next Brad made bucatini all’amatriciana, a classic Italian pasta made with bucatini pasta, tomatoes, guanciale (Italian cured meat made from pork jowl), Pecorino cheese, and black pepper.
“It feels great to be cooking again. The stroke has made me appreciate how much I know about cooking, and all the amazing experiences I’ve had as a chef,” said Brad. “All this knowledge is a gift and I can’t wait to cook more for my family and others again.”
Healing Power of Art Therapy
When Brad picked up a paintbrush for the first time a few years ago, it was a turning point in his life. He had discovered a much-needed outlet to release stress and express himself beyond the parameters of cooking in a restaurant. Influenced by neo-impressionist Jean-Michael Basquiat, Brad uses bright and bold colors and expressive strokes to reflect the pandemonium inside the kitchen.
“The way he painted inspired me – it was so freeing and there was no precision involved,” Brad explained. “It was much like Italian cooking or jazz; you feel your way through it. It opened up my senses in the way that cooking did for me. I could be creative. I didn’t have to know exactly where I was going from the start. I found my way there.”
When Magee’s art therapist, Julie Nolan, learned that an accomplished chef/artist was in their midst, she found her way to his room on the fourth floor.
“Brad was motivated to get up to the art studio right away,” she said. “He was cognizant of the way his body was working differently, but he was unafraid of diving right in with the materials.”
Painting was pivotal to Brad’s recovery. Over the course of his inpatient stay, he was in the art studio every chance he could get. Julie and Erin Freimuth, Brad’s physical therapist, held co-treatment sessions with him in the art studio where they’d have Brad paint standing up. This tactic helped him work on his balance, dexterity and hand-eye coordination. Art therapy also helped Brad maintain his positivity during such a challenging time in his life.
“His art is a place for him to be super creative and free,” Julie noted. “For Brad, it is a light-hearted form of self-expression, as opposed to how serious his life is as a chef.”
When he was discharged, Brad was so moved by the impact of art therapy, that he gifted some of the paintings he made there to Magee. Using acrylic paints on large canvasses, the images depict what he calls “mad chefs,” as well as a self-portrait and a shark that was inspired by the movie “Jaws.”
“Julie was amazing,” said Brad. “I worked with her every day. It was really nice and I will never forget that.”
Taste of Progress
The Magee care team is optimistic for Brad’s recovery and return to restaurant life. He is now home in Haddonfield, New Jersey, with his wife, Kim, and his three children, and continues to make great progress in Magee’s outpatient rehab program. Through continued physical, occupational and speech therapy sessions, Brad is on his way to achieving independence. As he has learned over the last few months, even the smallest victories are reason to celebrate.
“I peeled an orange for the first time the other day. I was able to use my hands again. It felt good,” said Brad. “I believe I will be able to overcome it, somehow, some way. I have had to fight through a lot of things in my life and this is going to be another fight.”