Stroke of Genius

Ellen Sherman, Reader’s Digest

After nearly dying in the operating room, an artist comes to life.

A Near-Death Experience

The skies were crystal clear over the Cape Ann Golf Course that day in October 1988 when Jon Sarkin, a buttoned-down chiropractor from Gloucester, Massachusetts, bent over to retrieve a tee. Sarkin, 35 at the time, suddenly felt an intense physical sensation — a deep shiver — go through him. Everything looked and sounded different. “I remember thinking, I’m going to die,” he says today.

He drove himself home to his wife, Kim, who knew with just one look that something was wrong. In the weeks that followed, the weird sensory shift became something much worse. Jon was intensely sensitive to light and sound, and the initial shiver became a distressing reverberation in his head. Ultimately it turned into a hellish roar that wouldn’t quit.

For the next several months, he and Kim searched agonizingly for a cure to the ringing in Jon’s ears, a condition known as tinnitus. For a can-do professional like Jon, Kim explained, not having a definitive answer to a medical issue was his worst nightmare — a nightmare he almost didn’t wake from.

The son of a dentist and homemaker, Jon Sarkin grew up in Hillside, New Jersey, with a secret passion for art. But the dutiful student set his sights instead on a career in architecture, then chiropractic, to satisfy his practical parents who thought he should become a doctor. He married Kim Richardson, a teacher, in 1986, and the couple mixed in well with the laid-back but status-conscious lifestyle of the seaside community where they settled. They soon had a baby boy they named Curtis, but even then Jon rarely slowed down. The only exception was during breaks between patients at his thriving practice, when he quietly doodled or drew imaginative invitations to family parties. He thought that one day, when he retired, he’d turn more fully to creating art; he envisioned himself, an older man, painting at the beach.

Then the ringing began to sound in his head. After months of seeing specialists, Jon was diagnosed with a swollen blood vessel pressing on his acoustic nerve. On August 8, 1989, surgeons in Pittsburgh operated to insert a small Teflon wafer between the offending vessel and the nerve. The doctors pronounced the surgery a success, and as Jon came to in the recovery room, Kim asked the question on everyone’s mind: “Is the ringing gone?” Jon mouthed the word yes. And his family cheered.

A day passed as he recuperated. Then, during a visit with Kim, Jon, who was propped up in his bed, patted the covers and called out, “Come here, Ida.” Ida was the family dog back in Gloucester, hundreds of miles away. In an urgent voice, Kim called for a nurse. One of Jon’s doctors came to the room, gently unwrapped his bandage and found that the wound was full of blood. “Please step out now!” he shouted at Kim, and Jon was rushed to the OR.

Once again, Jon went under the knife — only this time the medical team was racing to save his life. He had suffered massive bleeding and a post-operative stroke. “I was told that I died on the table and they brought me back,” he explains. The doctors would ultimately save him, but not without having to remove the entire left side of his cerebellum, an area of the brain that controls balance, coordination and movement.

This time, when Jon came out of surgery, there was little cause for rejoicing. “There were tubes everywhere,” says his sister Jane. “He had a machine breathing for him. It was awful.”

Jon languished in a semi-comatose state, losing weight and suffering pneumonia and bleeding ulcers. But two months later, he began to regain consciousness. The recovery was bittersweet. What soon became clear was that he would have to relearn the most basic functions of speech and movement. He was deaf in one ear and suffered from double vision. Kim recalls that Jon, under a mass of tangled tubes, would squeeze her hand in an effort to communicate. “He’d roll his eyes, seeming to say, Can you believe this?”

The Call That Changed Everything

Three and a half months after his surgery, Jon was finally able to return to his Gloucester home. He arrived via a medical van, emerging in a wheelchair. “We were coached beforehand not to be frightened by how horrible he looked,” says his long-time friend John Keegan. “Jon had been a super-strong, athletic guy. Now his once-muscular arms were like an inch in diameter, and his skin was yellow. He’d lost almost everything.”

But Jon made great physical strides through rehab. Within five months, he was walking and had regained most of his strength. Inside him, though, profound emotional changes had been wrought. While his intelligence and sharp wit remained intact, Jon was now unfocused and unable to attend to the minutiae of everyday life. Bills were left unpaid, appointments forgotten. He also, for a time, developed all-encompassing obsessions. One was with recycling. Since Gloucester didn’t recycle at the time, he got the idea to send all his family’s plastic bottles 500 miles away to his brother in the recycle-friendly city of Buffalo.

The Sarkins had known that the removal of the left cerebellum would have physical consequences, but doctors didn’t have a concrete explanation for the psychological changes. Jon, it seemed, was now devoid of the intangible censors that control what we think, what we say and how we act. He would blurt out anything that came to mind, no matter how inappropriate. “I was like that character in the Jim Carrey movie Liar Liar,” he recalls. “I had to say everything I was thinking. It really was scary.”

Social conventions were a thing of the past. If he thought someone was not interesting, he would walk away mid-conversation. He’d laugh at the wrong moment. He found himself having trouble empathizing with others. “I would say, ‘I know how you feel,’ ” Sarkin says, “but inside I was thinking, What?”

Meanwhile, Kim felt like she’d lost the anchor of a steady, reliable partner. “He was very much like a teenager who has a lack of control over his emotions,” she says, “whose perspective is warped and who is terribly self-absorbed. I hung in there because Jon is my family. I love him and I believe firmly in looking out for family.” She also felt her husband’s core had not changed. “Jon’s inner personality and values remained the same.”

“My wife is great,” Jon says in simple understatement. “She was like one of those dolls that you hit and it always pops back up.”

In 1990, a year before his second child, daughter Robin, was born, Jon felt that he had relearned enough of the social skills required for a health care provider and decided to go back to work as a chiropractor. “I wanted to support him,” says Kim, “but I was very uncomfortable with it, because he got so fatigued trying to keep his composure.”

The first few months went all right, but it soon became clear that Jon’s heart was no longer in his work. Seeing patients exhausted him, both physically and emotionally. What now fired him up was the compulsive sketching he did in between appointments. He drew anything from pointy-haired people to the Chrysler Building, then scrawled quotations around the images, scrambling the words, creating whole new meanings. Lines from Thoreau were interspersed with cut-outs of Elvis or car tail fins. He explains, “Where once my art was very linear and organized, it became driven and chaotic.”

Jon’s sister Jane, impressed with the work, asked her brother if he minded if she submitted some of it to the venerable New Yorker magazine. “I remember thinking it would be kinda cool getting a rejection letter from The New Yorker,” Jon says.

Then one day, as he sat at his desk furiously creating one of his “doodles,” the phone rang. The voice on the other end said, “This is The New Yorker.” “First thing I thought,” Jon says, “was, Well, it’s nice of them to call with the rejection.” To his surprise, the magazine was accepting not one, but eight, of his drawings.

In the spring of 1994, Jon sold his practice. It was not an easy decision. “He was heartbroken,” says Kim, “but both of us knew the stress was too much for him.” He began to turn to art full-time, not so much as part of a conscious career change but as an outlet that suited him like never before. In art, he had found a place where he could express himself without worrying how anyone judged him.

The transition wasn’t easy for Kim, who had just given birth to their third child, Caroline. Though the family was receiving disability payments and Kim, in a pinch, could have returned to teaching, she had reservations. “My biggest concern was having to leave the children to go back to work. Jon was not someone I could leave them with. It took me a while to give up the idea of a normal life,” she says.

Meanwhile, Jon’s work had caught the attention of art dealer Jane Deering. Over the last few years, she has had successful Jon Sarkin showings at her gallery in Gloucester. “His work is like a shock in its abundance,” she says. “Pictorially, it’s a puzzle. There may be a beautiful pattern. Another level is the language.”

Liberating Work

In 2003, the Diane von Furstenberg Studio in Manhattan displayed Sarkin’s art to an audience that included Meryl Streep and Diane Sawyer (these days, his pieces can sell for as much as $10,000). In his inimitable fashion, Sarkin started speaking loudly at the gathering, saying, “That’s Meryl Streep. I can’t believe I’m sitting at the table with her.” Says his friend Keegan: “Jon doesn’t always know when to shut up, but that’s just who he is now, and you accept him.”

Sarkin, who has sold movie rights to his story to actor Tom Cruise, says, “Sometimes I may get too excited and people will stare. But if you make a list of the top ten reasons why you don’t care what people think, you’d have to include a near-death experience right up there at the top.”

There are days, though, when he mourns what he has lost. At the beach, he watches teenagers surfing. “I’d love to take my son windsurfing, and I can’t,” says Sarkin, who 16 years after the stroke still suffers from poor balance and sometimes uses a cane. He has to constantly remember to speak slowly or his speech becomes slurred. “I was in a semi-comatose state,” he says. “You really don’t ever come out of it completely. I know there are parts of me that aren’t here,” he admits.

But his family and friends also know that he has emerged on the other side having gained, not just lost. “Daily life with Jon can at times be frustrating and exhausting,” Kim says, “but his positive attributes make us proud.” Communication is the couple’s lifeline. “Jon and I talk to each other all the time.”

Jon and Kim’s youngest child is 11 now. Jon Sarkin, the artist, is the only dad the kids have ever known. From time to time, Sarkin brings them to his workplace, where together they create their own art projects and help their father with his. “They’ll go through magazines and say, ‘Use this picture,’ ” Sarkin says. “Or when I’m drawing, they’ll look over my shoulder and say, ‘Why don’t you make this guy have three eyes — or five.’ I love it.”

He chuckles. “If I was still a chiropractor, what would they have done? Come to my office and look at the x-ray machine?”

Sarkin points to one of his studio walls, splattered with quotations, images of Bob Marley, Oscar Wilde, Martin Luther King, Jr. “This is the way I see the world now,” he says.

“I really think he has a gift that was unleashed by the stroke,” his sister Jane says. “It comes right from his brain onto the page.”

It’s been an incredible journey, Sarkin concedes. “People ask what my future will be like. Remember the old Bob Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back? For me it’s ‘Don’t Look Forward.’ It’s tremendously weird how I live now. I don’t fit. That’s very isolating.” He pauses, and a slight smile crosses his face. “But it’s very liberating at the same time.”