Diane Barnes Uses Her Stroke for a Second Act

The retired radiologist who suffered a stroke turned to improv after retirement and now found the biggest catastrophic nightmare of her life has become her golden opportunity.


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Photo by Regis Vincent

While riding her horse 14 years ago, Dr. Diane Barnes suffered a stroke. As a radiologist trained to read the X-rays of stroke victims, Barnes knew full well she should have headed straight to the nearest hospital to be checked out immediately. For reasons we’ll find out about later, she didn’t. Having a serious career was what was expected of Barnes, a third-generation doctor, and after earning her undergraduate degree at Stanford and medical degree from Yale, she settled into the doctor’s life. After her stroke, Barnes discovered improvisation, and her performance jones kicked into high gear. Since then, and among other things, she has studied with Anna Deavere Smith, appeared in BATS Improv productions, and performed her first solo piece about adopting her two sons. Her latest production, My Stroke of Luck (headed to the Berkeley Marsh this month), is the story of her stroke and subsequent journey of artistic self-discovery. I tracked Barnes down recently to find out more about her unconventional path to the stage.

Paul Kilduff: After your stroke, you did not seek help immediately. Instead, you went home, went to bed, and waited for your sons to find you dead. What was going on there? With your background, obviously, you’d think you’d know better.

Diane Barnes: Of course I know better, but doctors are the world’s worst patients. There are a number of things, but being a doctor has a lot to do with it. My first patient in medical school had had an aneurysm. He was in the hospital about six months before he became my patient. And he had never woken up, essentially. He had shriveled down to about 85 pounds. They called him “Picky,” because some people when they’re brain damaged, they get itchy. Their whole body will itch. So he was always picking nonexistent bugs off his body, but the only things on his body, was his skin and his hair. So he was tied down with four-point restraints. The family had stopped coming, because he just was not the man they knew. That was pretty impactful. And then, when I had my stroke, there was a nurse who had been in the ICU who had a stroke, collapsed, and had not regained consciousness. She’d been in the ICU for about a month, and I was reading her scans. She had a 9-year-old son, and she was a single parent. The son was too young to be allowed in the ICU to see her. Now, I believe that some people covered up the cameras and snuck him in, because I hear that he did get to see her, but it’s totally against hospital rules for youngsters to be able to. Those were the two things on my mind, and I just thought, “I can’t have that for my boys, and I can’t have that for me.” And, also, most importantly, I was already brain damaged.

PK: And you had no symptoms?

DB: No symptoms. Out of the blue. Some people do have symptoms. Some people have a headache that comes and goes for a while, and it can indicate impending rupture. There are people who have a crescendo headache. I had nothing. No family history. Maybe karma was on my side, or the person who looks out for fools was looking out for me.

PK: All the things that you’re doing now are right-brain oriented. Was that always there for you? The creative side?

DB: Yes, it was sort of latent, but I had always done something until I went to medical school. I did sculpture and various forms of art. But that was not acceptable in my family. You’re going to get an education for a profession. And so once I went to medical school, I couldn’t do much of anything but study. But once I was done, I started doing sculpture again. I did life sculpture from nude models down at Fort Mason. They have a great series of classes. And then I started making jewelry, so I’m a silversmith. Those are things I was doing when I had my stroke. Afterwards, I got back to work sitting in a dark room and looking at images, always second- and third-guessing myself. I looked up everything just to make sure every time — I was slower than I’d been. And I just found it wasn’t giving me what it used to — the intellectual satisfaction of the search and the detective work that is radiology. All of a sudden, I didn’t love it any more. When I was eligible for the first early retirement package, I took it. And then I started figuring what am I going to do now? A continuing ed catalog came from Stanford where I was an undergrad. There was a course called Show Up For Your Life. And I thought, “Well, damn. If not now, when?” It was using the tools of improv to have a more spontaneous and in-the-moment life.

PK: We should all take that class.

DB: Oh, my gosh, you know they teach improv in some schools. Kids are geniuses at it. It was all taken out of us. But kids are naturals. It just is incredibly beautiful when you see it working in the schools.

PK: If this unfortunate incident had not happened, do you think that you may have just continued to be a radiologist and not pursued acting and writing?

DB: Yep. I probably would not be working by now because the retirement packages get pretty good — there’s a point at which it doesn’t get that much better if you stay working. But, yeah, I would have still been a radiologist.

PK: Worked on your golf game?

DB: I don’t play golf.

PK: I thought all doctors played golf.

DB: Most female doctors don’t. I used to go to parties, and everybody was talking about golf and wine, and the ladies and I would have to get together and talk about other things.

PK: The title of your show is a clever play on words, but it’s essentially true, right?

DB: It is the gift that has kept on giving.

PK: What do you hope that audiences take away from your story?

DB: Number one, don’t be stupid like I was. But the thing is, what you think would be your worst and most catastrophic nightmare can actually turn out to be the greatest gift of your life.

PK: Wow. That’s very well said.

DB: We think we’re in charge of this thing, but then something like that happens. There was nothing you could have paid me or given me to make me go through that, and yet it turned out to be one of the biggest golden opportunities in my life.

Diane Barnes Vital Stats

Age: “You can ask.”

Birthplace: New York City

Astrological Sign: Gemini

Book on nightstand: Real American, A Memoir

Motto: “Yes, and …” (The mantra of improv).

Website: www.DianeBarnes415.com

Got an idea for The Kilduff File? E-mail Paul Kilduff at PKilduff350@gmail.com.

This article originally appeared in our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly

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