Sean Maloney was a high-flying, 54-year-old Intel executive when, five years ago, a devastating stroke left him without the ability to speak.
Fit, athletic and in seemingly excellent health, Maloney had returned home from running the Stanford Dish on a Sunday afternoon and asked for a glass of water when his son realized something was terribly wrong and dialed 911.
At the hospital, he initially was not able to recognize his wife, Margaret. But while his mental faculties returned quickly, the man who had been considered a potential successor to the helm at Intel and the company's most compelling public speaker could not move his right side and was rendered utterly without speech.
"The day after my stroke I could understand perfectly, but I couldn't say anything," Maloney recalled in a recent interview at his Palo Alto home, expressing frustration at the memory. "I'm like a child I didn't have any speech.
"Before my stroke, for 10 or 20 years, I'd go on TV and talk and it was nothing and now I had zero. At Intel I had 10,000 people working for me that was nothing compared to learning to speak again," he said. "Learning to speak is by far the hardest thing I have ever done. I had to learn how to speak out of the right side of my brain because the left side had been busted."
Maloney still speaks slowly as if choosing his words carefully but is able to clearly express his thoughts.
Relentless in his discipline and his drive to recover, Maloney learned enough speech to return to Intel, where he'd held a range of senior management posts, in January 2011 11 months after his stroke. Later that year Sean and Margaret Maloney and their young daughters moved to Beijing, where Maloney served as chairman of Intel China before leaving the company in 2013.
This month Maloney embarks on what he calls "the second-hardest thing" he has ever attempted: a cross-country bicycle ride where city by city he aims to let people know that they should address their risk factors because 80 percent of strokes are considered preventable.
"A lot of people ask me if there's some kind of wisdom or lesson I can give them based upon my experience. Well, there's really only one: Never, ever have a stroke, period. That's basically my big advice in a nutshell," he said. "It sounds like a joke but really, I'm serious."
The reasons why some patients make a strong recovery after a stroke while others do not are poorly understood, said Stanford University neurologist Maarten Lansberg, who has worked with Maloney since he was first admitted to the hospital with the stroke.
"We are very interested at Stanford in this question, and we are conducting research why some people, like Sean, have made such a remarkable recovery while other patients are not as fortunate," Lansberg said.
Without definitive answers, the neurologist pointed to qualities in Maloney that could hold clues to his positive outcome: extreme motivation, tireless work, setting ambitious goals and showing flexibility to adjust the goals periodically based on actual progress.
"Sean worked hard with physical, occupational and speech therapy on his recovery, but, in addition to that, he spent many hours each day on his own on his recovery," Lansberg said.
Finally, he noted, Maloney, a longtime competitive rower and fitness enthusiast, had been in good physical health prior to his stroke and resumed intensive physical and aerobic exercise soon after.
"It was incredibly clear to me from the get-go that this guy wanted to make as much of a recovery as was possible for him and that he was going to work as hard as he had to in order to do that," said Lisa Levine Sporer, a Palo Alto speech therapist who joined Maloney's treatment team about a month post-stroke.
Maloney insisted they work together seven days a week, a request Levine Sporer had never heard from a patient. After a month she persuaded him to scale back to five days a week. They drilled and repeated sounds, discussing how to make them come out properly. They practiced over and over in front of a video camera, reciting poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson that Maloney's mother had read to him as a child.
"We delved very deep because he was capable of being able to say, 'I'm not speaking well today and this is why' or 'help me figure out why,'" Levine Sporer said.
Four months after the stroke Maloney made his first public "appearance" back at Intel by way of a pre-recorded video screened at a corporate conference. The recording session had required dozens of camera takes for his 50-word "I'll be back" message to come out right.
"I must have gone over it a thousand times because I couldn't say it," Maloney recalled. "It was incredibly tough incredibly tough but bit by bit I learned to speak again."
Eight months after his stroke, in October 2010, Maloney had physically recovered enough to row in Boston's Head of the Charles Regatta.
"It was good, but it was very, very tiring," he said.
Jean-Pierre van Tiel, who met Maloney through business 15 years ago and bonded with him over their shared passion for rowing, said he "never had a sliver of doubt" his friend would recover.
"Sean applied the discipline and hard work ethic that had made him so successful as a rower and at Intel to this recovery," van Tiel said.
Maloney himself likens the persistence required for his recovery to the discipline of rowing.
"Learning to speak again after the kind of stroke I had requires making a real investment in yourself," he said. "It's frustrating and sometimes you wonder if it's even worth it, but that's where the sense of investment comes in. Rowing is the same way you're working for some future payoff.
"Now I've learned to speak, but tomorrow is better than today. Every day I get up and it's challenging and every day when I go to sleep I know tomorrow will be better than today. ... So many people don't feel that way; they feel anger with themselves. It's not their fault that they had a stroke. It's OK. And tomorrow is better than today."
From his hospital bed, Maloney vowed he'd eventually do something to help others avoid what had happened to him. Up to 80 percent of all strokes are preventable if people minimize their risk factors and act on the warning signs, according to the National Stroke Association.
"I've been 40 years a rower, but I can't row across the United States," Maloney said. "So about four months ago I went down to Palo Alto Bicycles and bought a bike. I said 'I'm going to ride across the United States,' and they all laughed.
"They didn't know me but they do now."
Maloney has recruited a host of friends and high-profile tech executives to ride out of town with him on March 22, the day he departs from Palo Alto City Hall on his "Heart Across America" journey. The public is invited to ride as well. Read Maloney's message: Get an artery scan and pay attention to risk factors, says stroke survivor
In cities along the way, he plans more than a dozen public-awareness events with the American Heart Association and various corporate sponsors, including Intel, Dell, Netronome, Qualcomm and Samsung.
Superbly fit from decades of dawn paddling on the bay, Maloney has applied his characteristic tenacity to learning the techniques of bicycling, enlisting experienced cyclists for help.
On a recent Sunday he cycled to the top of Mt. Hamilton with five seasoned cyclists, including former U.S. Olympic road racer George Mount. The weekend before he'd ascended Mt. Diablo.
"I rowed constantly it was very easy for me to switch from rowing to cycling," he said.
Among Maloney's new cycling companions is Dave Fisch, who logs 12,000 miles a year on his bicycle, much of it between his home in Pleasanton and his engineering job in San Jose.
Fisch, who years ago crisscrossed Switzerland many times as a bike-tour guide, will take a sabbatical from his job to accompany Maloney across the United States.
"Sean is fearless, he's stubborn and he's strong as an ox," Fisch said. "But it's my job to worry about him.
"I'm not at all worried about him being physically strong enough to do this, but there are a lot of things that can go wrong saddle sores, your back going out. I ask him after every ride, 'Do your knees hurt? Do your hips hurt?' and he always says 'No.' Finally I accused him of not having any pain receptors," Fisch said.
"The number one thing I tell him is we need to arrive at our destination every day by 3:30 p.m. You start your laundry, then you take a shower and get cleaned up and then you can go eat and have your beer," he said. "If you don't do that, things can start to unravel pretty quickly."
Fisch and Mount are tutoring Maloney on safety techniques for risks like descents, in which a single pebble can throw off even experienced cyclists.
"There's no doubt this can be a dangerous endeavor," Fisch said.
The American Heart Association, a key sponsor of the cross-country ride, largely picked Maloney's route. But Fisch has vetted each segment with cycling communities across the country.
"Little by little we got to a route that I think will work," Fisch said.
As they approach major cities, they're hoping local cyclists will pedal out to escort them into town on the most bike-friendly routes, Fisch said. But, if not, they'll be carrying maps and the navigational devices necessary to go it alone. They'll also have a sag wagon, holding support materials including extra water and medical supplies.
"Sean's a Type A personality," said Fisch, who met him for the first time last fall. "Before I got too involved I asked friends who worked at Intel what Sean was like: Was he a nice guy or the guy who rises up the ranks who's ruthless and all that?
"Everybody said Sean was just great, a good listener, super intelligent, made good decisions. That was reassuring to me," Fisch said "I was curious because I'd only just met him and was going to be spending a lot of time with him."
The Maloneys have hung a map of the United States on their dining-room wall, with pins marking each leg of Sean's 84-day journey. From Palo Alto, the major cities along the way are Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Dallas, Austin, Houston, Nashville, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Trenton and New York City.
"Everyone should get a bike," Maloney said. "It's wonderful the wind rustling in the leaves, the sun. You don't have to do 100 miles. You don't have to be a competitive cyclist. Even if you only do 10 miles every week, that's great."
The main event
Maloney's kick-off event on Sunday, March 22, will run from 10 a.m. to noon and include free blood pressure checks, carotid artery scans by Samsung Ultrasound Systems, heart-healthy food and drink and product giveaways and raffles from corporate sponsors.
Local health and wellness organizations, including Stanford Medicine and No More Broken Hearts, will be represented. Stroke survivors from the Pacific Stroke Association will explain how to spot a stroke.
Other booths will exhibit health-and-wellness wearable technology, including products from corporate sponsors such as Intel, HP, Samsung, Acer and Asus.
At noon, the public will be invited to join Maloney and other cyclists on a casual ride for the first 3 miles of their journey to the HP campus. From HP Maloney, accompanied by local tech executives and members of cycling clubs, will depart on the first leg of his 84-day journey.
"Now all I have to do is pull into New York," he said.
For more information on Maloney's cross-country ride, including route details, go to heartacrossamerica.org.
Contributing Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at [email protected]