By Jerry Huffman
As host of "Outside The Box" on WIBA radio for nearly twelve years, Mitch Henck compares his show to a good newspaper. The topic of the day often comes from the front page—don’t forget the sports and comics—and he wraps it all in the lost art of neighbor-to-neighbor conversation, all in three hours a day.
Unlike many in talk radio, Henck chooses grace over flying elbows. Humor can trump over-amped outrage every time.
Henck had the world by the tail. He was a consistent top-five performer in Madison radio, averaging more than 30,000 listeners weekly. Life truly was good ... until the night Henck nearly died.
Late last October, Henck was closing up the house when he knew something wasn’t right. "Huge waves of dizziness overwhelmed me," he said. "I lay down and when I couldn’t get up I knew I was in trouble."
Henck was one of about 800,000 Americans who had a stroke in 2012. A clot broke loose and was keeping blood from reaching his brain. That tiny clot turned Henck's evening at home into a fight to stay alive.
One of the oddities of having a stroke is you can often function even in the middle of the attack. Henck's first thought was to call Tim Scott.
"I never heard the phone ring," says Scott, Henck's supervisor and operations manager for WIBA. "He left a voicemail that he thought he was having a stroke and then the phone hit the floor and we couldn't reach him."
Scott called 911. Henck woke up the next morning in UW Hospital. He couldn’t walk, couldn’t swallow and could barely speak.
"That was terrifying," says Henck. "I talk for a living, and you could barely understand me."
His left side was weakened by the stroke, but Henck was alive. "Physically, I was like Silly Putty in that my left side wasn't working, but my only thought was to do whatever I had to do survive."
The challenge for any stroke survivor is learning the patience to adjust to a new life. "My cognitive skills were never an issue," says Henck. "The brain was working just fine but doing the simplest things, like putting on a tie, was exhausting because it took twenty minutes. Suddenly, I had to think about each step, each loop, and wait for my body to catch up with my brain."
After seemingly endless sessions of physical and occupation therapy, the pieces of a new life slowly emerged. A life that included going back on the air. "It never occurred to me to not go back to the show," says Henck.
Less than one hundred days after the stroke, Henck was back behind the microphone. "The day I went back to work," said Henck, "I had hope and purpose again."
"There was never a doubt we wanted Mitch back," says Scott. He was back on the air part-time at first, sometimes with a co-host to help carry the load—and Henck's audience was ready.
"I am humbled by this experience," says Henck. "Hundreds of listeners reached out to let me know they care about me. You can’t hide who you are on the radio. People see my flaws, but talking to my audience again was great therapy."
The hardest part of Henck's recovery was his speech. "I sounded like I had a couple of Scotches before a show," he says. Henck was as sharp as ever, but the voice just wasn't there.
A friend of a friend made the suggestion that elevated Henck's recovery to a new level. "What about acupuncture?" asked the friend. "I needed something dramatic," says Henck. "This was my two-minute offense. I needed help fast."
Acupuncture uses tiny needles to stimulate nerve endings in the body. A stroke is a massive assault on the body's nervous system, and if licensed acupuncturist and Chinese medicine specialist Xiping Zhou could open the right pathways, Henck's speech might improve.
"The doctor had me repeat, 'Newstalk 1310, WIBA, Madison,' over and over," says Henck. "I had a few needles in my head and he would poke certain points on my tongue with another one. Eventually it worked, and I started speaking more clearly."
Away from the job, the "new" Henck still pursues his twin passions of golf and singing ’50s- and ’60s-era music but with a lighter sense of self. "I hit a driver on par threes now," laughs the former college golfer. "I have no more ego on a golf course."
"Mitch not only has his life back but he still has that wonderful platform of his show," says Scott. "So many things fell into place for him; EMS got him to the hospital in time, his recovery continues to be amazing and he’s back on the air. Someone was watching out for him."
One year after the night he nearly died, Mitch Henck has found his voice again.
This story is from the November issue of Madison Magazine. Read more Madison Magazine stories here.