From Locked in to Pageant Queen


At 30 years old, social worker Jeri Ward was incredibly busy. Perhaps too busy. Having a stroke was the not even on her radar. But then again, is it ever?

Multiple hospital visits and a failed thrombectomy later, she found herself completely paralyzed and unable to speak for months in a hospital bed. Scared, bored, and frustrated she would go on to recover, win the title of Mrs. Ohio International, and partner with the American Heart Association to raise awareness of stroke in the general population.

Jeri spoke to me for over an hour in the days leading up to the Mrs. International.

About Jeri Ward

Jeri Ward wears a gray blazer in a white/off white room near as window. She has long, brown hair.

Jeri Ward lives and works in Ohio. She built a busy career as a social worker, Autism specialist, and volunteer. Jeri was always on the go, with one project after another.

In the midst of that hectic schedule she nourished her passion of pageant life and lived it for decades. In 2018, Jeri was crowned Mrs. Ohio America.

Later that year, Jeri barely survived a massive ischemic stroke. She was locked inside her own body in an ICU bed for months. Gradually, she recovered her speech and movement. And she rededicated herself to the cause of stroke awareness and advocacy.

In 2021, Jeri returned to pageant life, winning the title of Mrs. Ohio International with a new platform of raising stroke awareness and advocating for survivors both at home and around the world.

She started the Lemonade Project to help folks learn and practice appropriate self-care.

Jeri currently works at the American Heart Association as a Development Director.

Mrs. International Pageant

A  lot of folks have preconceived notions about pageant winners, and often those notions are not true. Jeri is the fourth pageant winner I've had the pleasure meeting. Marsha Scmid was a guest on the show a couple years back after winning the title of Ms. Wheelchair USA. It was a stroke caused by a chiropractor that her eligible for that pageant.

Ina previous job, I had the pleasure of working with Hilary Billings, a former Miss Nevada. I interviewed Hilary for my other podcast, 2-Minute Talk Tips. You can hear that conversation here.

And I went to college with a woman who would go on to become Miss Montana. They have all been some of the smartest, hardest working people I know. Really incredible individuals.

The Mrs. International pageant, as Jeri describes it, puts a premium on contestants' platforms, a I don't mean their shoes.

This was a great match for Jeri who has turned her stroke into a cause -- to take every opportunity she can to help with stroke education and advocate for survivors.

Jeri did an amazing job at the finals, coming in in third place. She chronicled her journey on Instagram

Ohio Legislation

Jeri channeled her career experience, her stroke advocacy work, and the drive she uses in pageant life to help the Ohio State legislature pass SB21, which updates protocols for EMS. The short version is that this law will require ambulances to take stroke patients to an appropriate hospital, rather than the closest hospital.

As we know, time lost is brain lost, and moving folks from hospital to hospital costs time, money, and long-term disability

This legislation will help change that in Ohio.

Hack of the week

Explain things to people simply. Jeri talks about the headphones she wears due to her sensory processing challenges. She'll mention briefly why she wears them in meetings at work.

Disclosing and talking about disabilities is a challenging subject. Outside of our doctors, no one is entitled to know our medical history. Even then, there are limits. There are lots of very good reasons for minimizing disclosure given how wide-spread ableism is in this world.

At the same time, there's something to be said for acknowledging the elephant in the room. The elephant is metaphor in this case. Imagine you are having a conversation with a few people at somebody's home. You are not circus or zoo folks. Then an elephant walks into the room and just sits there. And no one says anything. How can anyone focus on the main thrust of the conversation?

A fraking elephant just walked into the room!

In order for conversation to continue, someone needs to say something about the elephant. Pretending it's not there isn't going to work. Once the owner/roommate of the elephant says, "Oh, that's just Bob. He's cool. So, anyway…"

You may still have a lot of questions about Bob, but you can put those aside from now and get back to a productive conversation.

When folks mention "the elephant in the room," they are talking about something that is big, unexpected, and that folks might want to ignore, but can't. Acknowledging the elephant lets us get back on track.

Sometimes, all we need to do is acknowledge our elephants.

When Jeri puts in her earphones in a business meeting, is that an elephant worth acknowledging? Often, yes. Should it be? Probably not.

But someone who isn't familiar with sensory processing challenges may be speaking, see someone put on headphones and assume they are being blatantly rude and ignoring them in an aggressive manner.

By telling people what you need, such as when Jeri mentions why she uses them without going into detail, it lets the meeting get back on track without someone taking offense.

On another note, this is why it's important, if you're comfortable doing so, to share your story. To normalize disability and the tools we use to make our world more accessible. Canes and headphones and rollators and splints and service dogs may be elephants today, but they don't have to be in the future.


Where do we go from here?

Here is the latest episode of The Strokecast

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