When a Stroke Ended his Career as a Surgeon, He Learned to do More Things – Like Help Young Surgeons

Stroke survivor Dr. Mike Willis.

Aboard the airplane carrying him from Billings, Montana, to a hospital in Denver, doctor-turned-patient Mike Willis began a curious routine. Every few minutes, he lifted his right arm and thumped his chest.

"You OK?" the flight nurse said.

"Just checking to see if I'm alive," Mike said.

Mike understood his life was in jeopardy from the moment his wife told the 911 dispatcher, "He could be having a stroke." He also knew that if he survived his quality of life would never be the same.

Six years later, Mike now calls home an assisted living facility in Charleston, South Carolina. He's divorced. Seeing his three kids requires a 15-minute Uber ride.

But why focus on what's lost? Mike doesn't.

He'd rather talk about how he advanced from a wheelchair to walking long stretches with a cane to taking steps on his own.

The former guitarist loves telling about learning to play jazz on the piano with only his right hand.

And the retired orthopedic surgeon is especially proud of the outlet he's found for his medical expertise: mentoring.

Although his life has been altered by stroke – the No. 5 killer of Americans and a leading cause of adult disability – it's important for survivors and their loved ones to know that stroke is not an end. As Dr. Mike Willis can attest, it can also spark a new beginning.


Appreciating what Mike lost on June 1, 2013, requires knowing what he had when he woke up that morning.

He and his wife, a pharmacist, worked at the same hospital. They'd lived in Billings for 11 years. Their kids were 7, 5 and 4.

A typical weekend involved loading up the truck on a Friday afternoon and heading to a rented cabin or condo. In the winter, they skied. In the summer, they rafted, hiked and fished.

He also was an avid cyclist.

A year before, he pedaled nearly 500 miles during the weeklong Cycle Oregon trek. A month before, he spent four days riding across mountains in New Mexico with a fellow surgeon. A week before, he and another buddy did a 100-mile road race in Salt Lake City.

In the days since the race, he battled a cold and cough. The day before, he noticed some shimmering in his left eye.

On the pivotal morning, Mike walked across his kitchen, felt wobbly and dropped to his right knee.

When he spoke, the words came out slurred.

His wife tried helping him stand but couldn't. She eased