It was May 3, a Monday night, Rhythm Riot’s regular gig at Bay Street Blues. The classic rock quartet was due to finish playing at midnight. Lead singer Lori Stuart had been complaining of a headache for several hours; at 11:45, after performing “Losing My Religion,” she left the stage, pale and visibly disoriented, and took a seat behind the amplifiers.
She never got up again.
Lori Stuart, 45, had suffered a stroke, and later at the hospital she was diagnosed with Locked–in Syndrome, total paralysis of nearly every muscle in the body.
“She’s fully aware and can communicate with her eyes,” says Rob Stuart, her husband of less than two years. “We have a little alphabet chart that we use, so she can spell stuff out.”
Locked–in Syndrome – the French call it “walled–in alive disease” – is not curable, and not treatable. Partial recovery is possible, although a fully functional return is rare.
A lot of it has to do with the patient’s attitude and will to live. “They said she wouldn’t live through it, but she did,” points out Bill Hodgson, who’s been in the band with Lori for five years and is one of her closest friends. “Then they said if they took her off the ventilator, that she would die in a matter of hours. Well, they took her off the ventilator and she lived through that. Everything that they told us, she’s whizzed right past.”
Lori’s husband, and her bandmates, have been at her side virtually every moment. “She’s been smiling for quite a while now,” Rob Stuart says. “And the smile’s gotten better.
“She’s laughing – you still can’t hear anything, because the voice isn’t there – but she can laugh. She just started yawning. That’s a good sign.”
During Lori’s first days in the Intensive Care Unit, doctors told Rob not to expect much progress, if any. “They’re amazed and what she’s done so far,” he explains. “Still, they’re basically saying what you see is what you get, and that’s pretty much it.
“And I don’t believe that. I believe she’s going to have some sort of recovery. I’m seeing little baby steps every day.”
‘She lives for music’
Born in Newark, Ohio, Lori moved with her family to the east coast of Florida in the early 1970s, graduating from Cocoa Beach High School in ’82 (her two adult children, from a previous marriage, still live in Florida).
Her last name was Frisby when she relocated to Darien, Ga. in 1991; when she met Savannah musicians Todd Shoemaker and Lee Cheek, she was running Karaoke nights at a nightclub in Brunswick.
A woman with a powerful singing voice that always made people think of Janis Joplin, Lori lived and breathed music.
“My God, her knowledge of music is so vast it’s unbelievable,” Rob says. “She never ceases to amaze me with how much she knows about music. She said that growing up, she’d always just sit and listen to the radio, and play her records and tapes. Just constantly into music.
“She lives for music. Next to finding someone that really loves and cares about her – next to finding me – that’s Number One to her.”
Lori joined Shoemaker and Cheek in Rhythm Riot in 2004, and began making the long commute back and forth between Brunswick and Savannah. Two years ago she and Hodgson started a side project, a duo they called Electric Cheese. The idea was to perform “guilty pleasure” songs by the likes of ABBA and the Captain and Tennille.
“Lori has a remarkable memory for lyrics,” Bill explains. “In Rhythm Riot, it got to where we were doing requests. Because if she could sing it, I could play it. She remembered the words to everything – I’m talking crazy things you ain’t heard in 30 years”
One day Rob Stuart – a computer security expert who’d done sound and lights for big–time rock bands in another life – walked into Lori’s Karaoke bar in Brunswick. They hit it off.
“We were just hanging out for a couple of years,” he says. “It was March 8, 2008 when we started dating pretty seriously, and in June I asked her to marry me.”
The newlyweds moved to Savannah right after their July 10 wedding.
There weren’t really any warning signs that Lori’s brain was about to give her up. Or were there?
“Less than two years ago – in fact, it was a week after we got married – we thought she was having a heart attack,” Rob says. “So we took her to the hospital. Turns out it had something to do with the esophagus being inflamed from acid reflux. It put pressure on the heart and mimicked a heart attack.
“Looking back, I kind of wonder if that really was what the problem was. I’m wondering if that might have been a sign, a precursor, to what happened.”
Just two days before the stroke, Lori noticed that the tips of the fingers on her left hand had turned blue. And, she told Rob, they hurt.
The emergency room physician diagnosed Raynaud’s Phenomenon, a condition usually associated with stress or exposure to extreme cold.
Raynaud’s has no known direct medical correlation to stroke.
On the afternoon of May 3, Lori’s regular doctor prescribed blood pressure medication for Raynaud’s; she had swallowed the first pill just a few hours before taking the stage that night with Rhythm Riot.
“So,” Hodgson recalls, “we attributed her feeling weird and having a headache to starting this new medicine. I kept asking her, ‘You OK? You OK?’”
“She was like ‘Yeah, I’m fine. I’ve just got a headache. Let’s go.’”
Rob Stuart is convinced his wife was misdiagnosed. “From what I’ve read about Raynaud’s,” he says, “this wasn’t Raynaud’s. I think it was a precursor to the stroke.”
Making a difference
Dave Whidden, a close friend of Lori and Rob Stuart’s, and Rhythm Riot’s self–described “biggest fan,” is organizing a massive benefit concert for Lori on July 29. On that night, more than a dozen Savannah-area bars will raise money – through donations, admissions, alcohol sales and live music – for the uninsured couple’s medical bills.
The first month alone, Rob says, cost $700,000. He’s applied for Medicaid, which should help, and once Lori leaves the private care facility where she’s been since the end of May, she’ll need a special bed, and a chair, and more medical stuff than Rob can even think of.
Top on the wish list is a $16,000 Dasher computer, which would allow Lori to communicate verbally. “She’ll be able to talk to us with her eyes,” he says. “She’ll be able to type on the computer with her eyes, and it’ll come out in a computer voice, or we can read the screen.
“When we get her home, she’ll be able to control the TV with it, she can do Internet. That’s my primary goal, is to get that computer asap. Because that’s going to make her feel more human for the position she’s in. Because she’ll be able to communicate at will.”
Plans for the benefit, to be called “Living it Up For Lori,” get bigger every day. “If there are clubs, bars, restaurants or even individuals that want to participate on any level, we welcome anyone who wants to get involved,” says Whidden, who’ll start a public donation drive (look for the forms all over town) beginning July 5. “This is all about helping a member of our community, someone that we love, who’s given so much to us all.”
Hodgson and Shoemaker, meanwhile, are still playing as Rhythm Riot, with several other musicians filling in.
“Lori has a big voice,” says Hodgson. “It ain’t like there’s a bunch of chicks out there who can sing as good as Lori.
“So the idea was, don’t even try to replace Lori.”
We’ll have more on the July 29 Savannah–wide Lori Stuart benefit as it becomes available. In the meantime, a trust fund is being established. For information on how you can help, call Dave Whidden at (912) 667–5501, or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.