May-June 2021 | Health

Rallying

Steve Parker taught tennis in the Bethesda area for more than three decades. When he suffered a stroke in April 2020, players stepped up to help him—and they haven’t stopped.

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Longtime tennis instructor Steve Parker. Photo by Lisa Helfert

Slowly, deliberately, Steve Parker ascends the basement stairs. He climbs cautiously but with confidence, despite the fact that his right leg isn’t much help. While his left hand clutches the railing, his right arm, the one that used to rip forehands and smash overheads, hangs by his side.

His brother Collin watches intently, but doesn’t help him make his way into the living room of the Frederick townhouse they share with Collin’s wife, Kimberly, and the couple’s 5-year-old son, Jonah. Steve, 56, has just finished a physical therapy session, and although he’s exhausted, making this mini journey on his own is important. When he left the hospital he was in a wheelchair, and he’s only recently begun walking short distances without a cane.

“Stephen, can you say hi?” Collin asks.

Steve takes a moment to process the question, then another to formulate his thoughts.

“Hi,” he says.

“How…” Collin begins before Steve cuts him off.

“How are you?” Steve says.

“That’s huge,” says Collin, 47, beaming with pride. “He’s gained a lot of confidence in trying to communicate. It’s a long process. Improvements are small, granted, but they’re noticeable. He’s working hard on his speech and he’s walking better. But it’s still a struggle.”

Less than a year ago, Steve was a renowned tennis coach who spent seven days a week on the court. In more than three decades of teaching the sport, he’s had students who’ve recorded countless wins on professional circuits around the world, at top-level college tournaments, in high school competitions, and during weekend matches with friends. Now, simply conversing with his family, dressing and feeding himself, and walking up the stairs unassisted, like he did on this February morning, constitute victories. A stroke in April 2020 changed everything for him—he hasn’t been self-sufficient since.

But something else has happened since the stroke: Players have rallied around him, proving that his life’s work has impacted them in ways beyond their ground strokes. Jackie Hoffenberg, 49, considers the time she spent on the court with him to have been the highlight of her week. Caroline Randall, 47, says sessions with him were like “a little sunshine each day.” Gary Kessler, 56, treasured the days Steve didn’t have a lesson scheduled after his so they could relax and rib each other about baseball.

“From the time you stepped on the court to the time you walked out the door, Steve was talking and laughing and joking,” Kessler says. “He’d say, ‘My goodness, we just hit five in a row right. Let’s stop and have some coffee.’ ”

After the stroke, Steve Parker, who’d lived alone in Bethesda, moved in with his brother Collin and his family. Photo by Lisa Helfert

Tap…tap…tap. No response. David and Collin Parker were peering through the sliding-glass back door of Steve’s ground-floor condo in Bethesda, where he lived alone—he’s single and doesn’t have children. They had a key to the unit’s front door, but couldn’t get inside the building.

It was early April 2020, and they hadn’t heard from Steve in a week. Before the pandemic, they saw each other often, and they texted or spoke nearly every day. When calls to Steve’s phone started going straight to voicemail they went looking for him.

David and Collin always revered their big brother. The three grew up in Olney. Their father, Charles, worked in the automotive industry, and their mother, Mamie, was a registered nurse. “When he was maybe 3 years old, he would walk up to someone and say, ‘Hi, my name is Steve. I’m a friend,’ ” Mamie says from her home in St. Cloud, Florida.

Steve played football, basketball and baseball. A natural righty, he taught himself to bat left-handed to emulate Reggie Jackson, his favorite ballplayer on his favorite team, the New York Yankees. Tennis wasn’t on the Parker family’s radar until Steve, out of nowhere, decided to teach himself the sport toward the end of high school. A quarterback at Sherwood High School, he was frustrated by his lack of playing time. The individual nature of tennis intrigued him.

David and Collin would tag along with Steve to Olney Manor Park, where the three hit serves and volleys. Soon the younger two were playing competitive matches in junior leagues while Steve, who had graduated from high school and was working at restaurants and hotels, taught tennis lessons part time. “We played on average 30 hours of tennis a week from the time we were [kids] until forever,” says Collin, who coaches the tennis teams at Thomas Johnson High School in Frederick.

: Steve practices writing with Collin. The stroke caused aphasia, a language disorder, which has made communication difficult for Steve. Photo by Lisa Helfert

As David and Collin’s games progressed (both earned tennis scholarships to college), Steve continued building his coaching acumen. In the late ’80s and early ’90s he began working with young high-caliber players, including Rockville native Paul Goldstein. Now the head coach of the men’s tennis team at Stanford University, his alma mater, Goldstein was a four-time All-American who later reached No. 58 in the world rankings.

Goldstein often took on other junior players during Sunday night matches that Steve set up at Bullis School in Potomac. Goldstein credits those matches with increasing his grit. “My competitive advantage on the tennis court was my mental toughness and the way I covered the court with my feet,” says Goldstein, who played in the U.S. Open. “That’s definitely consistent with Steve’s coaching philosophy.”

In the early 2000s, Steve landed at Bethesda Sport & Health, where he worked mostly with recreational players and kids who had to learn the fundamentals. He’d often start teaching before the sun rose and end after it set. “He took pride in not missing a day,” says David, 48, now the director of instruction for junior tennis at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda. “His schedule was so full that if he missed a day then his students would miss a week of instruction because he couldn’t fit them in.”

Steve would go to his players’ bar and bat mitzvahs, birthday parties and graduations. Maia Hoffenberg, 18, learned tennis from Steve and credits him for helping her make the team at Maret School in Washington, D.C. “Our homecoming [match] was early on a Saturday morning, and I had no idea that he was coming,” she says. “He surprised me.”

When COVID-19 shut down Bethesda Sport & Health, it wasn’t just the sport that his students missed; they also missed their teacher’s laugh. “It almost sounded like a dog barking, but in the sweetest way,” Hoffenberg says. “It lit up the room. It had this bounce to it.”

Marilee Stafford could hear it as soon as she walked in the door, even if Steve was on the far court. “It was a strong, high-pitched giggle,” says Stafford, the former director of tennis at Bethesda Sport & Health. “My clients would say, ‘Can you tell Steve to be quiet?’ I’d say, ‘I can’t do that. I’ve got to let Steve be Steve.’ ”

Tennis student Emma Randall during a lesson with Steve at Bethesda Sport & Health in 2013. Courtesy photo

After knocking on the glass door and yelling Steve’s name from the backyard, David and Collin became flat-out worried. They were able to contact a building super who let them in. When they opened Steve’s front door, the living room was dark, except for the light coming from a TV.

“His couch is directly in front of the door,” Collin says. “We’re calling his name and he pulls himself up. He was laying on the couch. At that point, all he could say was, ‘Why?’ He kept saying, ‘Why? Why? Why? Why?’ ”

Shirtless and disoriented, Steve had a large bruise on his right arm. Empty water bottles were strewn throughout the condo. A coffee cup was on the floor near the front door. In the kitchen, a pot of moldy tomato sauce sat on the range.

“I had no idea what was wrong, so I said, ‘Are you asking for water?’ ” David says. “It soon was clear to me that he couldn’t make out words. We immediately called 911.”

The EMTs arrived quickly and told Collin and David that they suspected Steve had suffered a stroke, a diagnosis that was quickly confirmed after he was taken to Suburban Hospital. Collin had last seen him eight days earlier, on March 31, when they hit some tennis balls together in Frederick. David received a text from Steve later that night. Now they were left wondering how long their brother had been lying helpless in his condo.

A stroke occurs when there’s an interruption of blood flow to the brain, which usually is caused by a blockage or rupture of a blood vessel. The brain needs oxygen at all times—it is generally believed that once a brain cell is dead, it cannot regenerate. More than 795,000 people in the United States have a stroke annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Until his stroke, Steve exhibited no major health problems and didn’t have any of the risk factors, which include high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking and inactivity.

Getting a stroke victim to the hospital as soon as possible is critical for a positive outcome, says Dr. Malik Adil, medical director of the stroke program at Suburban. “Anyone who had a ‘last known normal’ within a 4½-hour window may be eligible to receive a clot buster medication or other acute interventions to rescue the area of the brain at risk,” he says.

If not for the coronavirus, one of Steve’s co-workers or students would have noticed if he hadn’t shown up for a lesson. But because he wasn’t working, no one has any idea when he suffered his stroke. He spent 2½ weeks at Suburban before being transferred to a rehabilitation facility at Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center in Rockville, where he stayed for about six weeks. Because of the pandemic, he couldn’t have any visitors. His family members Zoomed with him, but even though his eyes were open, he wasn’t able to respond. To ease his sense of isolation, Steve’s brothers began soliciting video messages from his friends. As word about his condition began to trickle out, messages started to arrive, even from people Steve didn’t know. Professional doubles players Bob and Mike Bryan recorded one; so did Steve’s favorite player, tennis Hall of Famer Jimmy Connors.

“I just want you to know that there are a lot of people out there that are rooting for you to get better,” Connors said. “Keep that positive attitude and keep working hard. I’m looking for a new doubles partner coming up pretty soon, and I’m counting on you. Get better soon.”

Steve with former students (from left to right) Martha Marmo-Fernandes, JoAnna Graham, Amanda Farber and Caroline Randall at his birthday celebration this past September. “Steve’s clinic brought people together in a special way,” says Randall, whose daughter Emma also worked with Steve. Courtesy photo

When Steve was released last May, he could barely talk or walk. His family has no idea how much, if any, of the ordeal he remembers. Collin, who owns a business that supplies cabinets and countertops for multifamily housing, took his brother to his house, where he and their mother helped him with basic functions like showering and eating. When Steve was admitted to the hospital, he had no health insurance. His family was able to get him on Medicaid, but Steve’s expenses were mounting. He had a mortgage on his condo, a car loan, and who knows how many unforeseen expenses in the future.

When Gary Kessler heard what had happened to his instructor, his heart sank. So the management consultant set up a GoFundMe account for Steve with the goal of raising $150,000. Donations poured in, both from people who’d known Steve for years and from others who had never met him. Anonymous gifts ranged from $5 to $5,000. The Washington Post published a story about the efforts to help him. Local TV stations aired reports. Brett Haber, an analyst and host for Tennis Channel, ran a piece. The story was personal for him: At Paul Goldstein’s recommendation, he’d hired Steve to start working with his then 10-year-old son.

“We weren’t giving him lessons with the idea that he would become a pro; we were giving him lessons so he could enjoy the sport and improve,” the Bethesda resident says. “Steve was the ideal person for that because he has this magnetic personality. Steve makes every drill entertaining.”

As of early April, the fund had raised $172,000 from more than 1,200 donors. The money will be placed in a trust for Steve’s current and future expenses.

When they talk about Steve, his students and even his relatives are apt to slip from the present tense to the past. On one hand, they’re thrilled that he’s still alive; on the other, the man they once knew is gone.

“There’s a grieving process,” David says. “Going from talking to him every day, meeting him at Starbucks on work breaks, it’s a loss in that sense. But he’s still here. His speech isn’t there, but when you’re with him, he understands what you’re talking about and he can communicate with you in gestures and more words now.”

Collin renovated his basement for his brother, adding a bedroom and bathroom. Recently, Steve led Collin into the bathroom and rubbed his own face. He needed shaving cream. Communicating without being prompted is difficult for Steve, in part because the stroke caused aphasia, a language disorder that occurs suddenly after an injury to the brain. While Steve knows what day of the week it is, he can’t always express that. “In his speech therapy, they practice writing,” Collin says. “He always writes the day. ‘Today is Friday.’ He’ll start writing ‘t-o,’ but then he might write a ‘b’ instead of a ‘d.’ ”

Physical therapy, which Steve does three times a week, has helped his mobility. Therapists use resistance bands to build strength on his right side, and help him practice walking without swinging out his right leg. He’s come a long way from a year ago, when he couldn’t walk without the assistance of another person or a cane. But he still has a long way to go.

“I have yet to speak to a doctor who will tell you he’s going to get to this level and it’s going to take X-amount of time,” Collin says. “It’s literally day by day. Keep working at it, keep doing your exercises, do as much therapy as you can handle.”

Sitting on the couch listening to his brother talk, Steve is outwardly emotionless. But when Collin is asked who was the best tennis player in the family, Steve’s face perks up.

“The most focus was put into my game, so I ended up reaching the highest level,” Collin answers diplomatically. Hearing this, Steve smiles—and laughs. It’s not loud or full-bodied, but it’s there.

Mike Unger is a writer and editor who grew up in Montgomery County and lives in Baltimore.