Against the odds

Mayor reflects on health one year after stroke

Mayor Michael Gonnelli looks through the letters he received from concerned residents after his stroke last year.
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Mayor Michael Gonnelli looks through the letters he received from concerned residents after his stroke last year.

Mayor Michael Gonnelli doesn’t remember much of June 8, 2016, and he’d probably like to keep it that way.

“I was making a protein shake, because I make a shake every day before dinner,” he said. “All of a sudden, I felt a little wheezy. My wife ran to me, she called me, and that’s all I remember.”

Gonnelli, as it turns out, had suffered a stroke — one that hospitalized him for around four weeks and very nearly ended his life. Little over a year later, Gonnelli spoke with the Secaucus Reporter at his office to discuss surviving such an ordeal.

At the time the interview began, Gonnelli mentioned that he had already answered 10 calls from residents. A busy, hands-on mayor, it was even that way a few months after his stroke.

“When I went to visit my doctor in July [2016], he wasn’t expecting me to be walking; he was expecting me to be in a wheelchair,” Gonnelli said. “I walked in, I said, ‘Hello.’ He was like, ‘What’s going on here?’ He called the nurses and was like, ‘You gotta look at this guy!’ ”

Dark days

A stroke is a medical condition in which blood supply to the brain is impeded or severely reduced, causing brain tissue to rapidly lose oxygen. Top causes for a stroke, according to WebMD, include high blood pressure, heart disease, tobacco usage, diabetes, and obesity.

Gonnelli’s wife called an ambulance on the day of his stroke. He was initially taken to Christ Hospital in Jersey City, because it was the nearest stroke center available, before being taken to Hackensack University Medical Center for surgery.

“I had to learn how to walk again, how to talk again, how to feed myself.” – Michael Gonnelli

“The doctors didn’t have very good news for my wife,” Gonnelli said last week. He said doctors said that he would likely never regain his regular functions.

But, he added, “My wife said, ‘If he’s alive, he’s going to make it.’ And I did. I was probaby there for two weeks—they have a stroke center there.”

Shortly afterwards, the mayor went to Kessler Rehabilitation Center in Saddle Brook for a week before coming home.

However, he had to relearn his motor skills from scratch. “My motor skills were non-existent,” he said. “I could talk, but I don’t know what I was saying, honestly. I had to learn how to walk again, how to talk again, how to feed myself. I had to learn everything all over again. I really learned it quick.”

Rapid comeback

Gonnelli added, “I think I came back to work in late August, part-time.” (Gonnelli’s job is technically part time, but he often works longer hours.) “By October, I was back on my feet. I think I only missed one or two council meetings. I was driving by the end of August.”

During his convalescence, then-Councilman Gary Jeffas took over as the town’s full-time mayor—not a simple task, considering Jeffas also operated his own legal practice in town at the time.

“Gary’s a very intelligent guy,” Gonnelli said of him. “Gary knows what’s going on in the town. Gary’s the person I leaned on and the one that came through for me.”

Gary himself had nothing but kind words regarding the mayor’s comeback. “I think his recovery is nothing short of a miracle,” Jeffas said. “He’s doing great. He’s doing a really great job routing back all his efforts into the town, which I wasn’t really sure he’d be able to do.”

Speaking about the town’s response, Gonnelli was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support he received. “Everybody was great,” he said.

Residents got little information on the mayor’s condition for the first few weeks.

“My wife was a little hands-off,” Gonnelli explained. “She didn’t want people visiting me. People sent me so much stuff. [Town Attorney Keri Ann Eglentowicz] came to see me a few times. I got so many cards, some which I haven’t even answered yet. I must have gotten 2,000 cards. I have boxes of these. The whole town was behind me.”

North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco and Union City Mayor Brian Stack also reached out to Gonnelli for support, he said.

Possible causes?

Today, Gonnelli uses blood thinner Plavix (he previously used Coumadin) to help prevent any blood clots. He hopes to be able to discontinue using it next year.

He said that there are no preexisting conditions he knows of in his family that he believes would have caused his stroke.

He instead points to an accident he sustained during his volunteer firefighter duties a few months before.

“There was a fire at Harmon Cove, and the ceiling came down and hit me exactly where the stroke was, on the side of my face and neck,” he said. “It was a bad fire and we tried to enter the stairway and a piece of the steel beam or wood hit me here. But I don’t know if that caused it. It could’ve been anything.”

Technically, he said, the stroke was caused by a severed carotid artery on the same side of his neck he was hit on. Doctors failed to save it, and today, only his right side carotid artery pumps blood to his brain. But even with that, he continues his firefighter duties.

In a message directly to Secaucus residents, Gonnelli said, “I can’t thank them enough. Everything they did to make my transition work—it worked. It was just fabulous. And I hate to say it, but the prayers that everybody said for me are the reason I’m still here.”

Hannington Dia can be reached at hd@hudsonreporter.com