By Jane Gerster
On March 21, 2012, the first life of 23-year-old Toronto actor Ashton Doudelet ended and his second one began. Unbeknownst to him or his family, Ashton was afflicted with a rare condition called arteriovenous malformation (AVM), which caused him to have a major stroke. In her intimate and moving Star Dispatches ebook, Ashton’s Second Act: How, Post-Stroke, an Actor Learned to Play Himself Again, Star reporter Jane Gerster recounts how Ashton, who had a big personality and a big appetite for life, came back as a diminished man facing many challenges. The stroke yielded a new person, to the point where Ashton’s parents, brother and friends celebrate his “rebirthday” every March 21.
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Ashton's Second Act: How, Post-Stroke, an Actor Learned to Play Himself Again
“I found your son’s phone, he’s here at the gym. I think he might have been drinking.”
At 10:30 on a Tuesday morning? Jay Doudelet doubted that very much, thinking it far more likely his 23-year-old, Ashton, had forgotten to eat or drink that morning — something he did on occasion — and passed out from dehydration.
But the caller, a janitor, was insistent that something was wrong. So Jay drove over. It took maybe 10 minutes. When he arrived, the ambulance was just pulling up.
Ashton was on the floor of the washroom. He was unable to speak and having a seizure, as he had been for the better part of an hour while gym-goers stepped around him, puzzling over whether he was drunk or really sick.
As Ashton was being loaded into the ambulance, Jay, a Toronto radio host who goes by the professional name Jay Michaels and the nickname “Mad Dog,” revised his earlier ideas about a forgotten breakfast or dehydration. In the back of the vehicle with his son, he processed only fragments of what the paramedics were saying. “Inbound with a 23-year-old . . . uncommunicative . . . stroke . . . ”
That sounds weird, Jay thought, barely registering the fact that the ambulance bypassed the closest hospital, Toronto East General. He didn’t know it, but the paramedics were following stroke protocol, rushing Ashton straight to St. Michael’s Hospital, one of city’s three stroke centres.
Jay pulled out his phone, steadied his voice and called his wife. “Where are you?” he asked Shari Smith-Doudelet. “What are you doing?”
Working, she told him.
“OK,” he said, keeping his voice calm. “I’m actually in an ambulance with Ashton. Something happened at the gym and I think you should come meet us at the hospital.” The only detail he offered was that their son was “stable,” even though he didn’t know for sure.
Shari frantically called a girlfriend. “How do I get to St. Mike’s?” In 23 years, neither of her two sons had ever been there or — apart from when they were born — in any other hospital. They had never been seriously ill.
She couldn’t see Jay when she arrived at emergency, so she fired off a text message. Her husband came and took her to the private waiting room where he’d been left waiting while Ashton was rushed off elsewhere.
A terrified Shari rattled off a series of questions. “What did he do? Did he not eat? Did he faint? Like, what happened? Did he hurt himself on some equipment?”
“I don’t think it’s any of those things,” Jay told her. “I think it’s something really serious. I think it’s really bad . . . They just took him and they mentioned a CT scan.”
An E.R. doctor came in then. They needed to do surgery immediately, she said. Could they sign some papers? “It doesn’t look good,” she explained, “but we’ll go in and see what we can do.”
“What do you mean it doesn’t look good?” asked Shari. The doctor didn’t answer but stressed again that the situation was serious.
“Can we see him before he has surgery?” the parents asked. There wasn’t time, she said, but they could stand in the hallway as he was wheeled through. And so they watched as their son, heavily sedated to keep the seizures at bay, was transported to the O.R. Briefly they touched his hand. And then he was gone.
On that day, March 21, 2012, Ashton Doudelet’s first life ended and his second one began. The old Ashton, a promising actor with a big appetite for life to match his big personality, was gone forever. The new Ashton had to learn once again how to swallow, speak, walk and relate to others.
This Ashton may never get back some of what was lost.
Acknowledging that a new version of their son came into existence that day, his family now celebrates March 21 as his “rebirth day."