Iris Doolittle

Declaring herself not just a stroke survivor but a stroke thriver, Iris Doolittle has demonstrated most of her life how her name is an oxymoron.

Growing up on the family farm near Lyons, Nebr., Doolittle spent hours helping her mom in the family garden and watching her Mom perfect her skills as a seamstress while learning to sew herself. She was the middle child of three daughters.

“I was born a perfectionist and so I was bound to be better than my older sister in everything, Doolittle said with a laugh.

But Doolittle found her real calling in the world of music.

“They tell me I had a love for music in the womb and when I could barely stand, I was reaching above my head, playing Jesus Loves me on the piano keys while singing me, me, me, me, me, me, because I didn’t know the words yet,” Doolittle said.

Doolittle’s maternal grandmother taught piano lessons for years, but she was never a student of her grandmother. She also remembered her mother’s sister Iva who was one of a set of twins. The other twin died at birth, but Iva lived to be 36. Even though Iva never managed to mature past 12 years of age, she was very musically talented and played piano and organ with gusto.

When Doolittle was born her mother named her Iris, not for the 300 varieties of iris she cared for in her garden or for her aunt Iva, but for the Goddess of the Rainbow, because Doolittle had black hair, blue eyes, ruby red lips and clear white skin.

Music was definitely in the cards for Doolittle. Instead of taking lessons from grandma, she took lessons when she was in third grade from a wonderful local piano teacher. Those lessons lasted until sixth grade when her teacher told her she had taught her everything she knew and could teach her no more.

It was at that tender age Doolittle started playing piano and organ in local churches and other events, a passion she continues today. With just three years of formal training, she taught her first piano students at 15.

At Dana College Doolittle received her Bachelor of Arts in Piano Performance. She said during her college years she played for almost everything imaginable including musicals and operas while still playing at local churches for a little side income. Following college, she moved to Omaha and played for Benson High School and the All-city Chorus, The Voices of Omaha, the Omaha Symphonic Chorus and several private voice students.

Doolittle’s Alma Mater called her back to be the assistant dean of students and continued to play piano and organ on the side. She was completing all the requirements to attend graduate school at Champagne/Urbana, IIl, just short of auditioning, when she met her future husband, Rod.

A March skiing trip with Doolittle’s sister’s fiance to Colorado eventually worked through fate to bring the couple together in June. By August she knew he was the one and all thoughts of Illinois went out of her head. By Christmas the couple was engaged and wedding bells rang the following fall.

Madison has been Doolittle’s home ever since and she settled into accompanying at the local high school while Rod worked as a carpenter.

At least, until that fateful day in May of 1985 when Doolittle suffered from a debilitating stroke. She was only 28 years old when she had to learn to live with her right side being paralyzed and reteach herself the fundamentals of speech.

“Of course, I spent hours in rehab and within three weeks I could get up on my feet again and I had the most wonderful Speech Language Pathologist,” Doolittle said. “She was a darling redhead, young like me, and we connected.” She was frustrated all the time and had lots of down days.

“I remember laying on the kitchen floor at my mom’s house six months after my stroke and crying, feeling very sorry for myself,” Doolittle said. “I had begun walking again, but I had no muscle in my right arm and wailed I would never play the piano again. My mom looked right at me and said, ‘Well, you have one hand, dontcha?” She said she looked at her left hand and realized Mom was right. That was when she started playing the organ for churches again with her left hand and her left foot. And started teaching again for private lessons. And accompanied for the school choir.

“I don’t feel like I suffered that much and I feel like God took out the negative part of my brain because after my stroke, the perfectionism wasn’t there anymore,” Doolittle said. “I became much more caring, laid back.”

“That’s why I consider myself not just a survivor but a thriver,” Doolittle said. She knew of several pieces for one-handed pianists but she didn’t let herself be held back by that. Soon she was ad-libbing on pieces, adding her personal flourish.

And then Doolittle had two children.

“I was going to have children no matter what,” Doolittle said. It was challenging she admitted and certainly there were days when she said she would head out the door of house, stand on the steps and scream at the top of her lungs but she is very proud of her daughters today.

Mom was just Mom and they never knew Mom to be any different than what she was. When the Doolittle girls went shopping or anywhere, she had them trained to stand by the back bumper of the car and wait for her until she got out of the car because they were always out of the car before she was. They always had to hold a hand even though neither one wanted to hold the ‘stroke’ hand. Running away from Mom was not an option.

Periodically, Doolittle went back to accompanying the school choirs and even played for groups her daughters were singing with.

Doolittle couldn’t keep the music silent.

Even Doolittle’s daughters keep music alive in their adult lives because Mom taught both of them to play the piano and Mom is very proud today they both have pianos in their houses. Laura sings with the Lincoln Lutheran Choir and Lonna is a pianist.

Throughout all the years, her husband Rod has been a silent supporter. Doolittle said she knows if he’s silent and doesn’t say much, everything is good. He was a great help with the girls as they grew up.

Before the couple had their first child, Rod knew they were having a girl. He told Doolittle he had a dream. He was driving his white pickup and there was a little girl beside him on the seat. Before the next daughter was born, he had a similar dream. The only difference was there were two girls on the seat beside him.

The couple shares a very strong faith in God.

Today Doolittle knows having a stroke at such an early age is a genetic throwback to her father’s family. All 11 cousins on her father’s side have had heart attacks or brain aneurysms. Realizing she is very lucky to be alive, she works particularly hard to maintain and also improve her health – she wants to live to be 100. Recently she started using essential oils and has seen great improvement in her right hand. They also energize her, keeping her very active.

Doolittle’s inspirational life and strong spirit has led her to speaking engagements where she plays the piano or organ and talks about her perseverance. A few months ago when she spoke at a Meckling church for a Fall Table event offering fellowship and music, she played one song using her right hand, ‘What Wondrous Love Is This.’

“I call my presentation, ‘Bloom Where You are Planted,’ and I believe I have been transplanted three times in my life,” Doolittle said. She has very few down days, but when she does, she gets up the next morning and goes out and does good things.

“My personal goal is to be adequate on the piano with my right hand,” Doolittle said. “I may not play professionally with the right hand, but I am teaching myself all over again – it’s the little things.”

Doolittle admits she is not a very patient student and she wants what she wants now but she realizes patience will help her perseverance to succeed.