Ep. 48 – Elaine & Ron Comeau – Mommy’s Had A Stroke: When Life Interrupts
- Signs and symptoms of a stroke.
- The art of single tasking.
- The pressures of people pleasing.
In this episode of family360, award-winning creator of Easy Daysies, and mom of 3, Elaine Tan Comeau, tells the story of her stroke; how it happened, how she coped and how it changed her perspectives on caring for herself and her ‘running the show,’ at home and at work.
Elaine and Ron ComeauElaine Tan Comeau is an award winning entrepreneur, author, and popular podcast host. She has been featured in Forbes, Macleans, CBC, FOX, CTV, Canadian Business Magazine, and the Financial Post, to name a few.
Elaine's a mom to three children, a partner to Ron, and a daughter of immigrant parents who marvelously modelled the potential of hard work and its ensuing rewards.
Elaine saw the power of planning, practice and perseverance, until one day, what had always worked well...wouldn’t. What she’d counted on controlling...she couldn’t. In climbing out of her bed one morning, everything shifted.
And this is our conversation with Elaine and Ron on how they are finding a new sense of balance in their days.
Ep. 48 –Elaine & Ron Comeau – Mommy’s Had A Stroke: When Life Interrupts
Rachel Cram – Well, Elaine and Ron, thank you so much for coming to the studio today for this conversation. Covid restrictions are just lifting enough to allow us to be in the same room together rather than an online chat. So this is a real treat to be face to face with beautiful people in a room.
Elaine Tan Comeau – We are excited to be here across a table from another human other than my children and my husband. So thank you for having us.
Ron Comeau – Thank you.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, we’ve been living on Zoom for a long time.
Elaine Tan Comeau – Yes. Thank God for Zoom though.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. And it’s gotten a lot better. If people listen back to our episodes the first few with Zoom sound pretty Zoomie and then it’s really improved.
Elaine Tan Comeau – What I appreciate is people’s backgrounds always change. I love the waves and the tropical trees behind these people. And they’re just in their bathroom.
Rachel Cram – That is so true. Well listeners will know from the title of this episode that we’re going to be talking about Elaine mostly in this interview and your stroke. I’m going to give that spoiler alert. And you’ve just passed the three year anniversary of that stroke I think?
Elaine Tan Comeau – That’s right. April 25th was three years. Yeah, it’s a celebration day.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. And Ron, I so appreciate you being here for this interview because when major life events happen with our spouses, of course, it affects us as well. Your perspectives are really important and valuable. And only yesterday we threw out a spontaneous request to see if you could join Elaine for this conversation. So thank you so much for shifting your schedule to be here today.
Ron Comeau – Happy to be here.
Rachel Cram – Well, before we go into hearing more about you as a couple, I often start interviews with this question just so that listeners can get to know you more beyond the professional platforms that you hold. And we’re going to talk about those platforms as well. I’d love both of you to answer this question. Maybe Ron, you can even start. I know you haven’t had much time to think about this.
Aristotle stated, “Give me a child at seven and I will show you the adult.” And Ron, I’m wondering, is there a story or experience from your childhood that you see as formative in the person that you are today?
Ron Comeau – Well, I’m sure there’s some from when I’m seven, but the first thing that popped into mind, I was 13 years old and I was at the time the third of four children in the family. And then my parents had a surprise baby. We had the family meeting in the living room and my parents announced this pregnancy. And at the time my mom was 42 and this was in the eighties. So that was considered old. Now a lot of people have their first baby at that age. But I was actually against the idea, like “I don’t like the sound of this.”
And then when my little sister was born it was completely life changing for me because it was great practical parenting. And it really did shape my life, because everything I’ve done professionally as well has always been family and kid oriented. I’ve gravitated towards that as well.
Rachel Cram – Did your mom have you changing diapers and doing all those types of things?
Ron Comeau – Yes. We did all that parenting type of stuff that I wouldn’t have done otherwise.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, that’s invaluable. Really it is. It’s too bad we can’t all have that experience before we become parents because a lot of the time we are just hitting the ground running, right. So that was your good shot at a practice run.
So, Elaine, for you, is there an experience from your childhood that you see as formative in who you are today?
Elaine Tan Comeau – When you asked me that earlier, right away I thought of an instance, and I don’t know if it was formative but it’s definitely reflective of who I’ve become. And it was at a piano recital and I was 10 years old. And I remember being nervous. And I remember walking up to perform and there’s these two grand pianos, and I sat at the one and I started playing my song. And part way through I forgot. I forgot what I was playing. I could not recognize the keys on the piano. So I paused and I got up and I sat at the other piano and I started again and I played the whole song and it was just my restart. I finished and I did the song really well on the second piano, and I’m sure my parents and my piano teacher were just absolutely mortified. But I did it and it showed me now, when I reflect on it, that it’s important to take risks. And don’t let yourself stop you from trying again. And if it’s embarrassing to start over it, that’s OK. Just go for it and see what happens.
Rachel Cram – Such resilience. I love that. Well, you know, as I listen to both of your stories, you obviously have come into adulthood with degrees of confidence. And you are both entrepreneurs, which requires a degree of confidence and risk taking. Did you grow up in families where that was a role model for you? An entrepreneurial lifestyle?
Ron Comeau – Yeah. So my father was actually a banker and an accountant, which are very steady, non entrepreneurial jobs where you know exactly what’s going to happen when you walk into the office the next day. Except that they were making him travel around and as a family man he didn’t want to keep moving every few years. So he struck out on his own. And then when I was nine he started the current business that we are running now. And so I grew up in that. At the age of 10, I was working in the store. And that’s the life I knew. But I know the entrepreneurial life is a lot more inconsistent than the banking life. So you have to roll with that. There’s a lot of unplanned stuff that happens. I think it made all of us in the family more resilient. As an entrepreneur, you walk out the door in the morning and you’re like, “Is someone going to attack me from the right or the left?”
It’s not a question of if, but how. Something it’s going to come up that you weren’t expecting.
Elaine Tan Comeau – I love the description of what an entrepreneur may look like. And that description said that it’s a person who jumps off a cliff and builds the airplane on the way down.
Rachel Cram – That’s good.
Elaine Tan Comeau – Yes. And, you know, with my growing up in Malaysia, my father worked hard and co-founded a company and because of political reasons and racial issues, they decided to move to Canada for a better life for my sister and I. And when we arrived in Ontario, my father started from scratch and was cleaning toilets at Harvey’s hamburger restaurant for two years. And then he did become an entrepreneur. And my parents taught us that you do work hard and you do enjoy family. And I always remember big family events at our home and lots of food. But to work hard. And I knew that things didn’t just happen.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. Well, as you’re describing your parents’ history and Ron, even as you were saying, with not knowing what’s coming at you, you really don’t know what life is going to bring, whether we’ve chosen an entrepreneurial path or not. Being human alone is an entrepreneurial venture, and one of the challenges is figuring out how to balance hard work, working hard with playing hard and then of course our family life too.
Elaine Tan Comeau – Yes indeed. And there’s no manual. There’s a driver’s manual but there’s no parenting manual.
Rachel Cram – No manuels. And something is always going to come up that we weren’t expecting, or attaching us as you said Ron and your health story Elaine, your stroke, is case in point of that. But before we go into that, can we talk about your wonderful entrepreneurial work, because it ties into our need for creating order and structure within the unknowns of our daily lives. Elaine, can you describe your mission for bringing balance by clarifying routines for children and now for adults as well?
Elaine Tan Comeau – Absolutely. Yes. So I was a school teacher and when I was a school teacher I had so my parents asked me to create a visual schedule similar to what I had in the front of my classroom for them at home to just help their children just get out the door faster in the morning, to become more independent and cooperative. And when one in four are coming into a classroom with anxiety issues, one in six with learning disabilities and one in five with mental health issues and that list goes on working against our children. But being a school teacher, I know that over 85 percent of learning for a child is visual. And I have taught grade five classes where half my class is at grade one reading level in inner city schools. And having a visual indicator just helps them have confidence because when you have a visual indicator saying, “OK, well, after science we’re going to the gym,”
And when you have a visual aid they know what’s happening. And there’s a new confidence and assurance that they belong. And so those visual indicators are so important. And so I was making them for free for about eight years.
Rachel Cram – Free for your families?
Elaine Tan Comeau – Yes, for my families, because I fall in love with my class every year and of course I’m going to make anything that could help children to be successful and families feel that their child is feeling confident and happy.
Rachel Cram – So you were making planers for parents to use at home with their kids. So what sort of things would be on that planner for a child?
Elaine Tan Comeau – Well, when I was making them on demand by parents, it would be as specific as, ‘Come home. Change into your soccer clothes. Change out of soccer clothes. Do homework. Have dinner, or it’ll be the morning routine.
Rachel Cram – So like, brush your teeth. You put your clothes on.
Elaine Tan Comeau – Yes. And pack your schoolbag, and go to school. And so I was making these visual schedules for free for many, many years and I thought maybe there’s a product here, maybe there’s a market. So I did the research and there wasn’t a product out there that was a daily visual schedule. And I saved up by tutoring and selling crafts to raise that first fourteen dollars I needed. And it’s called Easy Daysies because it’s created to help kids have easier days.
Rachel Cram – So catchy,
Elaine Tan Comeau – And then lots of sleepless nights because I was never trained to be a manufacturer or a distributor or a sales rep, but
Rachel Cram – So a huge learning curve,
Elaine Tan Comeau – A huge learning curve. But what keeps me going is the emails from families, from a mom with three children under the age of seven, all with autism, sharing that she doesn’t have to talk, talk, talk all day long now because of Easy Daysies. Or a divorced father sharing there’s consistency in both homes now because of Easy Daysies. Or a foster mom sharing that when there’s high anxiety in their family, Easy Daysies helps them feel calm and safe.
Rachel Cram – And obviously, this is what you’re passionate about as your emotion is showing right now. Well, you know, I think as parents. We can not realize that our kids, especially when they’re young, or if they have particular needs, they don’t realize the flow of the day and how vulnerable you feel in that.
Elaine Tan Comeau – Oh absolutely.
Rachel Cram – I remember once, I remember once I was driving my kids, they probably like three, four or five. I was driving them actually to my mother in law’s place. And we went past our school and my five year old said, “Mom, you just passed the school.”
And I said, “Well, we’re going to grandma’s place.”
And they said, “Oh, I thought we were going to school.”
And it was just this, “Oh, my goodness, you don’t know what I’m taking you through in the day.”
And I know for myself how overwhelmed I feel when I don’t know. I’m one of those people. I like to wake up in the morning and kind of know what the day is going to hold. And for children, they don’t know.
Elaine Tan Comeau – It’s intrinsic. Yes. It’s an intrinsic need that they need to know what’s happening next. And that’s why studies will show that having that visual indicator helps them to feel secure and safe because they can see and predict what is happening next. And so I do feel very honored that Easy Daysies is recommended by child psychologist, and occupational therapist. And how our chart alleviates anxiety. The length of the board can only hold seven tasks because studies will show that even adults cannot memorize or remember more than seven tasks. And it’s just to help establish a good routine. And then you can move on.
Rachel Cram – And you have them coming up for adults now, too, I think. Is that right?
Elaine Tan Comeau – Yes, and how that one came about, is we had so many families saying that they aren’t buying Easy Daysies just for their children, but for adults with memory loss issues and early dementia or brain injury or adults with special needs.
Rachel Cram – Well, I know in Wind and Tide, the company that I run, the early childhood education company, we rely on that day in a row process for our children. We start every class with actually a song that Roy’s wife Gayle wrote. I don’t know if I dare sing it to you, I will sing it to you. And then edited it later. It goes, how does it go? “This is our day in a row. Doo doo doo doo doo. This is our day in a row. Doo doo doo doo doo. What will we do today, where will we go? This is a day in a row,”
Ok, that was terrible. Roy is probably dying in the recording room…
Musical Interlude #1
Rachel Cram – but you get the gist. But you can just see as you sing that song, which is exactly what your company is about, children relaxing. You can see their shoulders go down. You can see them just take a deep breath and go, “OK, this is what today is going to hold for me.”
So it’s so important. And then science absolutely backs up what you’re doing. So it’s fantastic. It’s a wonderful gift that you’ve put out to the world.
Elaine Tan Comeau – Well, thank you very kindly. And during this pandemic, it was amazing to see on social media how many families were creating their own visual schedules and the fact was that children felt now they were in this chaotic unknown when school closures happened and learning from home, nobody knew what day it was. And just having a visual schedule gives that child some peace and assurance to feel this is what my day is going to look like. I often share with parents that you have to start this when they’re infants. Routine is so essential for helping anyone to have an easier day. And that’s why routine is so important,
Rachel Cram – So important. Well, so clearly, you are both accustomed to some routines in life amidst the entrepreneurial flurry. And obviously you are accustomed to a life that goes at a fairly fast and productive pace, which requires a lot of control over the comings and goings of daily circumstances. When life is going well, I know for myself it can be really tempting to think, well, it’s because I’ve worked hard to get where I’m at. I’ve got my ducks and days in a row. Our family is functioning with great routines that we’ve worked hard to establish and maintain. I can feel like we’re being great parents. I’ve got great work happening, got great kids, got a great life. And then through circumstances, there can be things that shake that illusion of control. And that happened to you three years ago. I’d love to speak to you about your stroke, Elaine, because I think that was a huge life shift for a family that was used to running with a really good schedule in place.
Elaine Tan Comeau – Yes, indeed. I don’t think there could have been something bigger that has happened to us that disrupted the way we did life.
Rachel Cram – I know you now work for the Heart and Stroke Foundation. Not everyone knows what a stroke is. Ron, can you even just maybe describe, what is a stroke?
Ron Comeau- Yeah, I tell everyone I can because I never really knew what a stroke was before, because I think the name stroke is kind of mysterious. I’m actually not even sure where it comes. I figure you should just call it a brain attack. If you even look at the name of Heart and Stroke Foundation, it’s heart, which is a good thing, and stroke, which is not a good thing. So it should either be the Heart Attack and Stroke Foundation or I think maybe like the Heart and Brain Foundation. But anyway, a stroke is similar to a heart attack and that’s why there is that foundation, in that is to do with blood flow and can often stem from the heart. But essentially it’s a blood clot or a stop of blood flow in the brain, which is why I call it a brain attack, because a stop the flow in the heart is a heart attack. It can range in size and severity and consequences, and number that you have. But essentially that’s what it is. Blood flow to the brain stopping for some reason.
Rachel Cram – Hmm. I think a lot of us are familiar with ‘fast’ F.A.S.T. You see it on the side of ambulances. I’ve seen it at bus stops. Which speaks to the urgency and importance of us having this information associated with a stroke. Can you describe Ron, what that’s about?
Ron Comeau – Yeah. So fast is face. Usually when someone has a stroke it’s on one side of their brain and of course each side of your brain controls the opposite side of the body and you’ll see half of the face start to get paralyzed or droopy.
Rachel Cram – And so that F is for face.
Ron Comeau – A is for arms, and Elaine will probably have a good story about that. You can test lifting your arms, and oftentimes during a stroke, you’ll have lost control.
S is for speech. And of course, when half your face is paralyzed, it can be hard to talk and also depending which part of your brain it happens in you can lose speech functioning altogether, at least temporarily. So if speech is slurred and they can’t lift the arm on that side, T is for time, as in time to go to the hospital. Time to call the ambulance. Time is of the essence. You want to handle it as quickly as possible.
Elaine Tan Comeau – Because brain cells die instantly when that blood flow stops and they start just turning black. And if you aren’t treated right away, it can result in severe brain injury or fatality.
Rachel Cram – Are there any precursors to stroke previous to that F.A.S.T? Through your understanding now, is there anything that could have been an indicator before Elaine had her stroke that it was about to happen?
Ron Comeau – Well, in general if people are older, they’re more susceptible to stroke. Also people who have a certain underlying health conditions, like they may be obese, have heart problems, heart failure in the past, that type of thing, are all indicators, for stroke. In Elaine’s case, she didn’t have any of that, which is why it’s a bit surprising. But in hindsight, there was plenty of warning.
Rachel Cram – What sort of things?
Ron Comeau – Should I go into it now?
Rachel Cram – Or do you want to go into it through the story?
Ron Comeau – It’s part of the whole story. But she had been showing symptoms for a couple of years before this incident.
Rachel Cram – OK, well, let’s jump into the story then and hear what some of those precursors were. Elaine, do you want to start into that?
Elaine Tan Comeau – Yes. And I am honored now to be a spokesperson for The Heart and Stroke Foundation, helping women particularly to be aware of stroke when it kills twice as many women as breast cancer, is the third leading cause of death for women in North America.
Rachel Cram – And those are things we don’t know.
Elaine Tan Comeau – No, we don’t.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, I was looking up stroke in preparation for your interview and I think it said that one in four people,
Elaine Tan Comeau – Globally,
Rachel Cram – Globally will have a stroke in their life. Over the age of twenty five.
Elaine Tan Comeau – Over the age of twenty-five. Yeah, one in four. And we do need to know what it looks like. There are three types of strokes. The most common one is the one that I had, ischemic stroke and 80 percent of stroke cases are this, and that’s the blockage of a blood flow to the portion of the brain. And how you can recognize that is, like Ron said, you might lose sensation or ability of function on half the side of your body.
Rachel Cram – So this is when the F.A.S.T starts to kick, OK.
Elaine Tan Comeau – And speech can be affected and also vision or balance. So that could be an indicator as well. The second type of stroke is the hemorrhagic stroke. And that’s a burst of a major vessel. And then the last one is a TIA, which is a transient ischemic stroke. And those are mini strokes that happen. And so that may have been my case as well, because April twenty fifth, three years ago when I had the stroke, I always call it a blessing, because if I didn’t have that stroke, I wouldn’t have learned that I have had previous strokes and.
Rachel Cram – These mini strokes.
Elaine Tan Comeau – Yes. So the stroke that I had on that day occurred on the right side of my brain because I had lost the left side of my functions of my body gradually through the day.
Rachel Cram – We’ll get to that story in a moment.
Elaine Tan Comeau – Yes. But I had a previous stroke in my occipital lobe, which is at the back of your brain, which affected my vision.
Rachel Cram – And you hadn’t known that you’d had that one?
Elaine Tan Comeau – No, I just thought it’s age and I cannot see properly. I thank God that I didn’t go blind because that is often a case of having a stroke in your occipital lobe.
Rachel Cram – How far previous to your big stroke had that happened that you weren’t seeing properly?
Elaine Tan Comeau – Maybe a year before.
Rachel Cram – OK, and so had you gone to the doctors to test your eyes or.
Elaine Tan Comeau – I eventually did get glasses, but glasses are really difficult for me because my vision continues to change because it’s my brain cells rather than my eyes.
Rachel Cram – So when you went to get your eyes tested, the doctor didn’t pick up on the stroke possibility?
Elaine Tan Comearu – No.
Rachel Cram – And is that surprising or is that common?
Elaine Tan Comeau – That’s an excellent question. I’m going to guess that it’s common.
Rachel Cram – Well, you guys have quite the story. And I ask you all this as a prelude because whether it’s workplace strategies, or parenting, or health, sharing lived experience can be really helpful to others. We learn from each other. So, can you take us then to the morning of your stroke? What happened?
Elaine Tan Comeau – Absolutely. It was just another day in the middle of the week and I got up like I normally would and I fell and I had no idea why I fell.
Rachel Cram – As you were getting out of bed.
Elaine Tan Comeau – Yes. I have never fallen out of bed before, so I went to push myself up, but my left arm gave out on me and I still didn’t think anything of it. I thought maybe I’m just super tired, but I somehow managed to get to the bathroom.
Rachel Cram – Was Ron in bed beside you?
Elaine Tan Comeau – Yes, he was asleep.
Rachel Cram – And you didn’t think of calling out to him?
Elaine Tan Comeau – No, I just like going to another piano.
Rachel Cram – Nice tie-in. I like how you worked that. Ok.
Elaine Tan Comeau – I went to the bathroom and I am left handed and I
Rachel Cram – Was it your left hand that was affected?
Elaine Tan Comeau – Yes. And so I went to brush my teeth and my toothbrush just flew right out of my hand. And I don’t know why, and so I had to go get it and I tried again and my toothbrush would just fly across the room.
Rachel Cram – Like, was your hand flinging?
Elaine Tan Comeau – Well, eventually I got the toothbrush into my right hand and I was brushing my teeth and it was very awkward to do with my right hand. And I just looked in the mirror and my arm just swung like a pendulum. And I was very puzzled. I knew that something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. But I was able to walk.
Rachel Cram – What made you decide to just keep going with the day?
Elaine Tan Comeau – Because I have three small businesses and three children. And the day must continue.
Rachel Cram – Well, you know, as I’m sitting here listening to you, I can think, what were you thinking? But I can also think of so many times when inconvenient things have come up with me and I’m like, no, the show must go on. And you just don’t pay attention because you think you’re young, you’re healthy, you’re eating well.
Elaine Tan Comeau – And so the day continued. But I couldn’t even hold up a mug.
Rachel Cram – So Ron, were you seeing her during this time?
Ron Comeau – During that time, no. I had a big photography job to go to that day. So I got up, got ready and left. The last thing I saw as I went out the door was her doing an exercise video.
Rachel Cram – OK, so you still exercised?
Elaine Tan Comeau – Well, I tried my best with half a body. OK, OK. I’m just going to get through what I’m normally going to do. And I was amusing myself because I was like, “Something is wrong.”
Rachel Cram – And you didn’t notice that as you saw her doing the exercising?
Ron Comeau – I did not notice that she was doing it with half her body. No, I just saw that she was doing what you normally did in the morning, this little seven minute video. And so I had no idea that anything was up.
Elaine Tan Comeau – Yes. And my assistant was coming over to work at our house that day. And when she arrived, after the kids went to school, I told her, I’ll be right back because I knew something was wrong. And I just thought, “OK, I’m just going to call my family doctor just to make an appointment because I can’t do normal things with my left arm.”
Rachel Cram – Were you aware of F.A.S.T?
Elaine Tan Comeau – No.
Rachel Cram – OK, so that makes sense.
Elaine Tan Comeau – Stroke never came into my mind at all.
Rachel Cram – Well, you can think I was just sleeping on it funny, those sorts of things.
Elaine Tan Comeau – I could tell that my left side of my face was different. But still, I never thought stroke at all.
Rachel Cram – I can see, I can see why you’d have thought that.
Elaine Tan Comeau – Yes. And so I kept working and made dinner for the kids.
Rachel Cram – What did your doctor say when you called for the appointment?
Elaine Tan Comeau – That is a good question. So I called and the receptionist said they were full that day and then she asked me why I wanted an appointment. And of course, I downplayed it. And I just told her that I couldn’t lift my left arm and I didn’t understand why. And she thought, “OK, well, maybe you should go to emergency.”
And I said, “OK. Thank you.”
Rachel Cram – Did she say that with urgency to it?
Elaine Tan Comeau – No, but it was my fault.
Rachel Cram – Or maybe you didn’t hear it with urgency?
Elaine Tan Comeau – I just honestly downplayed it and I said, “OK, thank you.”
My assistant couldn’t drive. I couldn’t drive in the state I was in. And so it wasn’t until the evening when I asked my husband to drive us to our daughter’s field hockey practice.
Ron Comeau – After you had made dinner.
Elaine Tan Comeau – Yes, after I had made dinner. And she went to her practice and he and I actually went for a walk. And when we came back at the end of her practice, my friend, who is my daughter’s coach, she’s a physiotherapist, she noticed something was off. And I told her. I said, “Actually, you’d laugh at me this morning.”
And I told her about the toothbrush incident. And then she literally grabbed me and she went into health care professional mode and she said,“Can you do this? Lift your arms.” And I couldn’t.
And then she turned and she looked at Ron and she said, “You need to take her to emergency right now. If you don’t, I will.”
And she was angry. And so we put the kids to bed.
Rachel Cram – You went home from field hockey and you put the kids to bed?
Elaine Tan Comeau – We put the kids to bed. And oh, believe me, I had to get my hands slapped. And so you must go immediately. I say, thank God I started off really smart because all those brain cells I lost with three pregnancies and then 14 hours of not going to emergency at the onset of a stroke. But then my husband took me to emergency and then I was there for another eight days. And I remember even though physically my body had changed, my mindset had not.
Rachel Cram – You still felt your ambition and can-do spirit would pull you through?
Elaine Tan Comeau – Yes indeed. And I thought this stroke is completely inconvenient, and I had so much I had to be on the go for. I had three speaking events in different cities across North America. I was in the middle of a large test order for Easy Daysies to a large mass retailer in the USA. I was planning a women’s conference that was a month away with twenty three speakers flying in and.
Ron Comeau – Book
Elaine Tan Comeau – Oh, I had a book I was launching and our children, we have children and I thought this is not good, this is very inconvenient. And that was my mindset.
Musical Interlude #2
Rachel Cram – As someone listening, if I can just jump in for a moment, it can be tempting to think, and I hope you don’t mind me saying this.. “Wow, this woman is out of touch with reality and certainly out of touch with her body.”
But to push back on what I am supposing someone listening might think, I wonder if for many of us we would do the same thing because it is very inconvenient to be stopped in our plans and productivity. It is so easy to see ourselves as unstoppable when it comes to conquering our daily routines and goals, especially when it’s going to interrupt the rhythm of our family life.
Elaine Tan Comeau – Yes, but I have learned so much.
Rachel Cram – Before exploring those leanings, which I’m very eager to get to, I’m just wondering, and I know you have a very important answer for this Ron, why were you Ron not more directive and persuasive in having Elaine address these health concerns? What was your mindset around all that was taking place?
Ron Comeau – Well, I will say my mindset changed that night when we found out it was a stroke. And I can look back on it and think, “Am I a monster, because I don’t notice anything is going wrong with my wife?”
But the fact is that over the past couple of years, we had both become numb to the symptoms Elaine was having. And I don’t know how many strokes she had had in the last couple of years, but she had those symptoms consistently.
Rachel Cram – Can you just review what some of those symptoms were? So you said, the blurred vision?
Ron Tan Comeau – Yeah, her eyesight changing rapidly. She had numbness in her extremities and she’d had chest pains as well. And that’s another part of the story to come up with the cause of her stroke. And so it was almost like a ‘boy who cried wolf’ type of situation where you’re having these symptoms today, the same symptoms you’ve been having for a long time. We don’t know what causes it. Elaine, you’ll remember, I’d often say during that time, “I’m not a doctor. I don’t know what’s going on. How about we ask a doctor?”
Rachel Cram -So you wanted her to go to the doctor?
Ron Comeau – Yeah. To try to find out what was going on. In hindsight, it’s all easy to piece together. But for me, the turning point was that night when we were in the emergency room and the doctor says you had a stroke.
Elaine Tan Comeau – I think it was even a step before that when we were in the triage in emergency, where you’re checking in to say why you are in emergency. And the nurse said, “Can you touch your nose with your left pointing finger?”
I looked at my husband as though he could hear me say, “Of course, I could touch my nose.”
And I tried and I could not. And I think that’s when him and I realized, whoa, something is really wrong here. And then I tried again and I couldn’t touch my nose. And they rushed us in right away and then there was no looking back.
Rachel Cram – Well, part of the reason I wanted to ask you that question, Ron, is because I think for myself as a entrepreneur, as a mom, as a wife, as somebody who likes life to move under my control and speed, when things are going wrong with me, if there is something out of rhythm in my perceptions or my practice, my husband can sometimes say fairly confidently, I think you should stop and attend to this and the mama bear to not want life to stop. And it really in my heart is all because I want the best for my family. I cannot listen to that. As your story unfolds, I feel like people can listen and go, “What was wrong with this guy? Why wasn’t he getting her help?”
But it’s not easy, I think. I don’t want to be putting words in your mouth, but I wonder if that’s the dynamic?
Ron Comeau – Oh, Mama Bear is a good description, because there’s a stereotype out there of ‘the man cold’. It’s been said, if men had to give birth, we’d be extinct.
Rachel Cram – So obviously that’s a stereotype but it is out there. Yes.
Ron Comeau – And then it’s a serial type of the supermom, the mama bear who will be walking along the street and her leg falls off and they go, “It’s only a flesh wound. You know, I got stuff to do.”
Obviously, somewhere in between there is the happy medium where people should live. Elaine has definitely been the mama bear over the years where you can tough everything out. And maybe because of us both being entrepreneurial there’s too much thinking that I can handle this, that I don’t need other people’s help. And obviously that was a big, big way for us to learn the lesson that you can’t do life alone and be in control of everything. You have to seek help when there’s obvious reasons to do so.
Rachel Cram – And there are many times in life obvious reasons to do so I think. Time when we need to rely on people or powers beyond ourselves. And it’s difficult to be vulnerable like that and it’s difficult to feel like we are letting people down or putting people out, even though our leg’s falling off.
Elaine Tan Como – Yes indeed. Yes, it was a very humbling time. So many great lessons that our children witnessed and learned from too. And one that always blows me away is how the community supported us. And our friends and our family. Someone started a meal train for us and people signed up and brought us dinner for 60 days.
Rachel Cram – Community is so important.
Elaine Tan Comeau – I was blown away by that.
Rachel Cram – You mentioned your children. How did your children respond to this? You know they’re used to the mama bear. How was that for them?
Elaine Tan Comeau – I always wondered when I was in that hospital room, what they were doing? Where are they? And, we love supporting our kids and watching them play sports and music and all their things that they do. And I was so heartbroken, to miss these events that were big highlights in our children’s lives. And I was greatly reminded in those seven or eight days in the hospital that life isn’t about big events, it’s about every small moment in life. And I remember my roommate for eight days, an eighty seven year old man.
Rachel Cram – Your roommate in the hospital.
Elaine Tan Comeau – Yes. He was sharing with me that, you know, all he wanted was to dance with his wife one more time or to have breakfast with his son, who no longer talks to him. I call that the other bucket list, the big bucket list. And I remember telling the doctor, “I’d like to go to my daughter’s nationals’ tournament. She plays volleyball.”
And he said, “No, you can’t go.”
And every day I saw him, I would say, “Well, it’s only in Edmonton. It’s only an hour flight.”
And he said, “No.”
And I can’t remember on what day it was now when I asked him and he stopped and he turned and he looked at me, he said, “Elaine, you can either go to your daughter’s tournament or you can go to her wedding.”
And at that moment, I thought, “Wow, he’s really mean.”
No, but he spoke the truth. And at that moment I learned, ok, what is the priority of my heart? Not to be at the next tournament, but to be there for my family in the long run. So many lessons learned.
Rachel Cram – Thinking about your kids they were 15, 12 and 9 I think, when you had your stroke. That’s a big life event to go through as a family. Children tend to see their parents as invincible. Has your stroke and the necessity of you doing life differently, has this affected them in any ways that you notice?
Elaine Tan Comeau – Thank you for asking this question, Rachel. You know, it’s making me reflect. And Ron and I are not shy to show our children struggles when there are situations we face that aren’t what we hoped for and how we can still move on. And I think that helps with helping our children see hope and be resilient in unexpected situations. This is just another outcome that we are going to go through and we’re going to come out strong at the end.
Rachel Cram – Hmm. Thanks for sharing that. OK, well, let’s go back into the hospital room with you? I’m fascinated that you are sharing a room with an 87 year old man. That’s a whole nother conversation. But I’m like really? But it sounds like you made the best of that.
So, first of all, what were the medical discoveries then, what did you discover was the cause of your stroke?
Elaine Tan Comeau – Absolutely. So when they shared that I had a stroke, they did all these tests on me from CT scans to MRI’s. And so I went from learning, shipping and manufacturing terminology like F.O.B
Rachel Cram – What’s FOB
Elaine Tan Comeau – Freight on board. When you’re shipping from overseas, to terms like transapical echocardiography. I’m just proud that I can say that word. Transapical echocardiograph. And so when I did that particular test, which was swallowing a camera to look behind my heart, that’s when they discovered I had a hole in the wall between the atria, which allowed blood clots to go straight from one atrium to the other without going down into the lungs to be filtered and broken up, because sometimes your body naturally produces blood clots. And unfortunately, my body does produce blood clots. And then the blood clots were passing through the hole and going straight into my brain, having caused previous strokes as well. And so as a result, I did have a horrible stutter.
Rachel Cram – After your stroke.
Elaine Tan Comeau – After my stroke. I still have a stutter. I just have learned to control it very well. I did have seven months of stroke rehab with an entire team from speech and language pathologist, occupational therapist and of course a neurologist and a cardiologist and so grateful for everyone. But even then I was in denial. And perhaps that’s why I had a social worker on my case as well, literally on my case as well, because I didn’t believe that I needed help and support and recovery. But I wasn’t OK.
Rachel Cram – So the realities of the stroke were still there. You just couldn’t acknowledge it?
Elaine Tan Comeau – I think so. I thought, “I can truck through this. There’s got to be another piano somewhere.”
But I held monthly women’s entrepreneurial events and they would always wonder, why am I doing this? Why are you here? Cancel the event. And there were so many indicators that I wasn’t OK yet. I remember I was introducing my keynote speaker and I was holding the piece of paper to introduce her and I couldn’t read. I forgot how to read, and I could not understand that. And when I was talking to my occupational therapist about it she said, “Were you holding your paper with your left hand?”
And I said, “Yes.”
And she goes, “Do you remember the strategy I taught you to not drop things with your left hand? And that’s to look at it.”
Even with groceries, a stroke recovering patient will carry grocery bags and will drop the bags on the floor because their brain forgot they were holding the bag. So one of the strategies is to look at what I hold so I don’t drop it.
Rachel Cram – Do you still need to do that now?
Elaine Tan Comeau – I do sometimes, because I’ve broken many things at home. It is just a strategy that comes naturally now, is to look at what I hold if I don’t want to drop it, because I broke our punch bowl and then I broke our replacement punch bowl. So it’s been frustrating.
Rachel Cram – What brought it to your awareness then that you needed to take all of this a lot more seriously?
Elaine Tan Comeau – For my kids sake. You know, when you’re on that airplane and they say adults, please put your mask on first and then help your children beside you. And if I am not breathing, if I’m not able to do that, I can’t help them to breathe in their everyday life. And with the stroke I learned many key lessons, but it all surrounds making choices in life. That being one. To the parents who are listening, you do need to have self care. It is not selfish. You need to take care of you. But it starts with making those small choices. And my husband gave me a book to read called Essentialism and it talks about how to do less but better. And to make decisions in life so that you are living by design and not by default, because we are in this fast paced social media life of more is better, everything is urgent, everything is important when very little, in fact, is urgent or important. And so the hard question is, well, then how do you make these choices?
Ron Comeau – I had read that book two years before your stroke. And it was one of those things where you learn something new and you want to share it, and I had difficulty sharing with you because perhaps you’re too busy with other stuff that was urgent. So when you finally went through the book and we got on the same page literally on that, that was a great feeling for me.
Rachel Cram – Well conversations around pacing in life, especially pacing of family life are complicated because we have our own optics on what is urgent and what is important and they don’t always line up with what our partner feels is urgent and important.
Elaine Tan Comeau – I have learned so much.
Ron Comeau – And I hope that is what we are teaching our children too.
Rachel Cram – To do less, better.
Elaine Tan Comeau – Absolutely.
Ron Comeau – Yes.
Musical Interlude #3
Thanks for listening to family360 and our conversation with Elaine and Ron Comeau.
Our next episode is called When We Are Kind, our conversation with acclaimed Indigenous author, Monique Grey Smith, who describes ‘don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t love, don’t feel,’ as the unwritten rules of residential school and other forms of childhood trauma. She is a generous and compassionate guest. Join us!
And now back to today’s conversation as Elaine continues to describe her expanding post stroke mindset.
Rachel Cram – So how did you come to terms with what the therapists were asking you to do then Elaine? How did you start to let go of some of what had seemed urgent and important in your pre-stroke life?
Elaine Tan Comeau – Well, it was a full circle when one of my occupational therapists said, “Elaine, we need a tool for you to remember when to take your medication, to know what the course of your day is, because you do need to take a nap at 1:00 every day.”
And then she said, “Have you heard of Easy Daysies?”
And I thought, “Wow, this is full circle.”
And I have to remember that, like, even with Easy Daysies, you shouldn’t have more than seven tasks. Why are we adults feeling like those memes that you see on social media where they’re juggling the laptop, the briefcase, the diaper bag, the soccer ball. Those arms should be hugging that child, not juggling those things.
And it’s a learning process every day because I know that I’m a people pleaser. I know I want to make everybody feel good and be happy and successful but that is not supposed to guard and guide my choices.
So if you’re listening and you’re thinking, well, I had these choices to make today, put your time and energy, where your heart is? And if it’s guilt of, you know, that you have to make these beautiful cupcakes for the bake sale because every other mom is doing it, that is not where your heart is. If you’re doing it because your child is excited to have that time with you to bake, then yes, absolutely do it.
Rachel Cram – Can I just ask you a question before you move on? You mentioned being a people pleaser, which is a relatively new phrase but a long maintained mindset, especially for women I think, but certainly not exclusively. I think many men wrestle with that as well. Can you expand on what you’ve discovered with people pleasing? What questions do you ask yourself ?
Elaine Tan Comeau – Well, is it what your heart is? Does it create more joy if you make that decision?
Rachel Cram – Joy for whom?
Elaine Tan Comeau – Joy, I’m going to say with you first. And the reason why with you is because often we might be guided by guilt or comparisons or I need to do this because they are doing it. Then don’t do it. Say “no”.
It’s OK. And like that hospital story, it’s better to be at your child’s wedding than to be at their next tournament. It’s OK to say no.
Rachel Cram – You know, it’s interesting. I think that it takes a certain level of maturity and maybe even life experience to give us the awareness to actually know where your heart is. I don’t think that’s something that’s always immediately accessible for us to be able to answer. It’s not an easy answer.
Elaine Tan Comeau – No it isn’t.
Rachel Cram – Knowing where your heart is, that’s a complicated question. I think it often takes a critical life experience to help you understand that.
Elaine Tan Comeau – Absolutely. And to simplify it, you can think of your core values. And if you are doing something that may contradict with your core values, then that is not where your heart is.
Rachel Cram – Determining our core values. It gets so muddy I find, or at least it does for me. I think the lines between people-pleasing and people-serving gets blurred and I find myself on the wrong path to success. A quote I think I might have used in a previous family360 episode, but I’ll risk using it again because I love this quote, it’s from the American mystic monk Thomas Merton and he says this. He says, “Some people spend their whole life climbing the ladder of success only to get to the top and realize that they’ve had their ladder against the wrong wall.” And success can be so many things, it can be, success is my kids getting great grades, success is my house being beautifully tidy all the time, success is my career. Everybody has their own version of success. But how horrible to get to the top and realize that you’ve been against the wrong wall. And I think that’s kind of what you’re describing here.
Elaine Tan Comeau – Yes, absolutely. And you don’t want to discover it when you’re at that top of that ladder because it’s too late. And, do I need to have three small businesses? No, I don’t. And it was very hard to cut strings, but I don’t want to be putting that ladder on the wrong wall, as you so eloquently stated. So, yes, these lessons that I learned are helping me guide choices every day.
Rachel Cram – So if I can just review your lessons then. So your first one was, put your time and energy where your heart is. The second one was, does it create more joy? Was there anything more you wanted to say about that? About creating more joy?
Elaine Tan Comeau – No, just don’t let life be guided by people pleasing and mom guilt or any type of guilt.
And that third one is to master the art of single tasking. And what I mean here is, it’s OK to focus on one thing and to do it really well. Because our children, our spouse, our family, they aren’t going to remember those multitasking moments that we have with them, but they are going to remember the single tasking moments when we spent time reading with them or doing homework one on one or playing cards with our kids.
I’m not saying you have to single tasks every single time, but just when it matters most, because when you do, whether it’s with a client, a customer, your son, your granddaughter, your spouse, you’re going to see an increase in the growth of that relationship, your going to increase the impact you have on that person’s life. And they will notice.
Rachel Cram – Wow, you got a lot out of a stroke. Thanks for sharing those.
Ron Comeau – That’s why I call it, a brain attack.
Rachel Cram – Well, on that note, do you feel like your relationship with each other has changed post stroke? Ron, you can answer that one.
Ron Comeau – I mean, in some ways. It was a wake up call for both of us. It dawned on Elaine much later than everyone else, the changes that had to be made.
Rachel Cram – Because she was in recovery mode.
Ron Comeau – Exactly. But we’ve gone through it together and I’ve taken a lot from it, too. I look to practice the single tasking more now than ever before. It is so easy to live a life, as Elaine says, by default instead of design. But we’ve learned to stop and intentionally think about, ‘What are we doing, why are we doing it and what is most important to us?’ And I think we’ve gone through that journey together.
Elaine Tan Comeau – And I love that our kids are on that journey with us. The most important thing in life is the relationships you have. I heard a story with me once and this little girl just came home from kindergarten and she’s five years old and she was so excited to share with her mom about her day and telling about her friends and all the fun things that happened that day. And her mom’s listening and nodding while scrolling on her phone. And the little girl just stops and she takes her mom’s face with both of her little hands and says, “Mom, listen to me with your whole face.”
And that is what life should be, right? Listen, with our whole face. And as parents we need to role model that to our children so that they can also be people who listen with their whole faces.
Rachel Cram – Well, Ron and Elaine, I often ask a last question, but I think you’ve just nailed it. I think that’s a great way to end. I thank you so much for coming into the studio today. I thank you for sharing your story with such candor and openness.
Elaine Tan Comeau – Oh, thank you. We’re just so honored to be here and thank you to you and Roy for what you do in building resilient families.
Ron Comeau – Yeah, thank you.
Rachel Cram – Thank you to you both.
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