An MIT Alumni Association Publication

When she suffered a stroke in 2010, Debra Meyerson ’79, SM ’80 was left completely paralyzed on the right side of her body and couldn’t talk. Today, she has found her voice and is using it to speak out about stroke recovery and the lack of support for the mental and emotional aspects of healing. She even led a team of cyclists on a cross-country trip to bring attention to this cause.

A tenured professor at Stanford University at the time of her stroke, Meyerson was determined through physical therapy and rehabilitation to get back everything she had lost. While she saw great improvements in her walking and speech, the stroke left her with aphasia—a condition that causes ongoing speech impairment.

As a result, Meyerson realized she wouldn’t be able to resume her former role in the classroom. She says learning that she had to give up her work was the moment she felt the most grief and sadness about her stroke and subsequent disabilities.

“Call us optimists, call us deniers, but for the first three years it was really all about getting back to life as she and we knew it,” says her husband, Steve Zuckerman, who assists Meyerson when her aphasia prevents her from finding words or speaking clearly. That low point, however, led Meyerson to write a book and start a nonprofit organization, Stroke Onward, to help raise awareness about stroke recovery.

“The emotional journey is so important, and there’s not enough emphasis placed on that,” says Meyerson. “Recovery is more than rehabilitation.”

Academic Career

In high school, Meyerson wasn’t aiming for “elite universities,” she says, but she was a passionate sailor. Her junior sailing coach in her native Michigan was Lawrence Bacow ’72, who went on to serve MIT as a faculty member and chancellor before becoming president of Tufts University and now Harvard. Bacow encouraged Meyerson to apply to MIT—confident not only that she would enjoy sailing on the Charles River but that she had the academic chops to succeed at the Institute.

She did, earning both a bachelor’s and master’s in management at MIT before completing her PhD at Stanford.

As a professor at Stanford, Meyerson’s work focused on gender and diversity—both of which involve critical issues of identity—and she found herself revisiting those academic roots after the stroke. “It was during that period of being lost that Deb re-anchored back on what she knew as an academic about identity and how important that sense of self and who you are and who you want to be is to live a full life,” explains Zuckerman. “She turned that lens on herself, and that’s what led her to say, ‘Maybe there’s a book here.’” Given her challenges with aphasia she had help—from Steve, writer Sally Collings, and her three kids, with eldest son Danny Zuckerman taking the lead as co-author.

Writing the book took more than five years. Released in 2019, Identity Theft: Rediscovering Ourselves After Stroke helped Meyerson navigate her own personal identity crisis, she says.

Now an adjunct professor at Stanford, Meyerson chose to include not only her own experiences in the book but also academic research and the stories of 25 other individuals recovering from a stroke or similar condition. In the process, she began to recognize a common thread: “None of the people we interviewed had been given a road map for the emotional journey of rebuilding identity,” says Steve Zuckerman. “We talk a lot about purpose, and addressing that gap in the system became Deb’s purpose.”

Meyerson knew that there was more work to be done, so she and Zuckerman started Stroke Onward to push the message forward—to raise awareness and funds to instill change in the current medical model for stroke recovery.

Their latest effort: a 4,500-mile ocean-to-ocean bike ride to bring attention to the challenges of recovering from a stroke. “Cycling was one of the things we discovered as a way to keep doing what we loved—enjoying the outdoors, exploring, and being active,” explains Zuckerman. They have a partially recumbent tandem bike that offers a more comfortable ride for Meyerson. “The bike trip was just a reinforcement that adventure is an important part of her recovery.”

The trip, which started in Oregon on May 19 and ended in Massachusetts on August 26, saw them joined by a crew of family, friends, and fellow stroke survivors. As they journeyed across the United States, they created opportunities for people to engage and follow along online, and they held 15 community events to raise awareness around their cause.

 “MIT taught me big things [are] possible,” explains Meyerson, who is applying this mindset to help create systems change for the healthcare community.

Hear more about their recent road trip in this MITAA video.