I wrote this article a few years back about an amazing couple, Brad and Heidi Stokes. I’ve known Heidi for more than ten years and I am amazed at how she and her husband Brad cope with their family’s health challenges. May you be as inspired reading it as I was writing it!
BUSINESS IS THE BEST MEDICINE
It was Brad Stokes’ dying wish to build a professional audio studio in downtown Minneapolis.
It was early 1994 and his health was failing rapidly. Still, at age 35 and with a major business opportunity beckoning, Stokes knew it was time to act. Eight years earlier, he had been diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, the same liver disease that would claim the life of football great Walter Payton. But thanks to his ability to draw strength from the twin passions in his life—his wife, Heidi, and his dream of expanding his business—the fact that Stokes was awaiting a life-saving liver transplant seemed like nothing more than an inconvenience.
For the last five or six years, Stokes had been providing audio postproduction services to makers of corporate videos from the basement of his Minneapolis home. Those services ranged from voiceovers and sound effects to ‘sweetening’ the audio portion of a video to make it sound cleaner and more professional. Noticing that many of the videos he was given had been produced by Juntunen Media Group and recognizing the unmistakable trend of postproduction facilities adding an audio studio, Stokes contacted the downtown Minneapolis firm directly to suggest that they partner more directly.
Bill Juntunen, whose 35-person media company was one of the few major postproduction facilities in the Twin Cities who hadn’t yet added an audio component to the mix, saw Stokes’ proposal as an opportunity to finally become a full-service shop.
“Of all the people I talked to,” recalls Juntunen, “Brad had the best mix of business sense and creative talent. He also had the technical background and understood the creative business enough to know what made it tick. We had some great conversations and then all of a sudden he vanished. I thought, ‘Where did this guy go?’”
To the Mayo Clinic, that’s where. In August 1994, just one week after undergoing a liver transplant, Stokes got back in touch with Juntunen and, after eight more months of negotiation, the deal was finally sealed (see sidebar). Stokes immediately began supervising the construction of Visual Music & Sound (VMS), right across the hall from Juntunen Media Group in the warehouse district’s Itasca Building. While Bill Juntunen owns 50 percent of VMS and is their anchor client, he’s content to serve as a silent partner.
Stokes is also partners with longtime friend and jazz musician Phil Aaron, 50, in Aaron/Stokes Music, which creates original music scores for films, documentaries and commercials. Local projects range from opening themes for the Twins, Timberwolves, Vikings and The Wild to the Science Museum’s Omnitheatre. The music production company, which the pair founded in 1987, shares offices with VMS and plans are going forward to merge the two companies by the end of 2001.
No matter how bleak their health was, laughter was never in short supply in the Stokes household. “There was no end to the black humor,” says Brad with a smile. “Heidi would leave me notes around the house like, ‘Jaundiced men make better lovers’ or ‘If you’re still alive, please take out the garbage.’ We would horrify people because they would come up to us with this deep concern in their eyes and it was all we could do to resist cracking a joke. When you’re living on the edge like we were, the tension can either bury you or you can learn to live with it and poke fun at it. You just can’t walk around maudlin all the time.”
IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH
Looking back on the decision to pursue a partnership with Juntunen, Heidi Stokes can only shake her head and smile. “Starting Visual Music & Sound made a lot of business sense and held a lot of merit,” she readily acknowledges. “But it wasn’t my first choice in our list of things to do. It made no sense on the family front and in adding to the stresses already in our life.”
It’s hard to argue with her reasoning. As executive director of the nonprofit Lupus Foundation of Minnesota since 1986 and a lupus sufferer herself, Heidi Stokes was already pushing herself way beyond her limits. Lupus, which in extreme cases can prove to be fatal, directs a person’s immune system to view its own tissues as foreign; as a result, it can attack every organ and bodily system.
“I feel like I have the flu all the time,” says Heidi, who is two months older than her husband. “I typically run a low-grade fever, have lots of aches and pains and chronic fatigue. When I was diagnosed at age 17, they said that if the disease continued to progress as it had, I would have about four years to live.”
To top it all off, their son Christian, who was three at the time, had become the third member of the family with an auto-immune disorder when he was diagnosed as a Type I juvenile diabetic at the age of 15 months. Christian’s blood sugars, which were especially unstable, needed to be monitored around the clock. There were some nights when Heidi never got to sleep at all.
UPDATE: Christian Stokes was named the American Diabetes Association’s National Youth Advocate for 2009. Click here to learn more about Christian’s award. Click here to watch Christian play a flugelhorn solo of Feels So Good by Chuck Mangione at his final high school band concert.
Still, Heidi was determined to support her husband’s dream at all costs. “To heal,” she explains, “you have to have something to look forward to. I knew that having this goal in front of him was essential for his recovery. If I said no, I just couldn’t open a business on top of everything else, what would that say to him? It wouldn’t only crush his hopes, it would deny his future as well.”
For practical purposes, Heidi Stokes was better prepared for her husband’s death than he was himself. Brad, in fact, didn’t even consider death an option. “I knew the risks and I knew that anything could happen,” he admits, “but I always had unshakable confidence in my health. I could visualize my whole life on the other side of the transplant so I never had a sense of doom about it even though in hindsight it seems like I surely should have.”
As anyone who has ever been knocked off their pins knows, the world doesn’t come screeching to a halt until you can scramble back up on your feet. “After my transplant, “says Brad, “people were very quick to tell me to rest and take care of myself and not to think about work. But the fact is that bills don’t stop coming and life does go on. I think a worse feeling than trying to work when you’re sick is to be on the sidelines and watching life pass you by.”
“Brad had to go on antibiotics after his transplant,” says Heidi with a deep sigh. “He would have to go to the Intensive Care Unit to get an IV, then wait around for four to eight hours for a second one. He didn’t like that at all so he would just leave. The nurses would say, ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Stokes, but you really need to stay here.’ And he’d say, ‘Call the IV police, I’m leaving!’ Of course, I thought that meant I had to learn how to give him IVs at home. I wrote him a note saying, ‘Your liver isn’t going to kill you, I am!’”
A SOUND DECISION
In 1997, Heidi Stokes resigned from the Lupus Foundation and prepared herself for yet another life-changing transition. “I had given everything I had to the foundation for eleven years but leaving was the right decision,” she says. “Organizations need new blood and new leaders and besides, what with taking care of Brad, helping him with his business and taking care of a child with special needs, I came to a point where I wasn’t sure how much more I had left to give.”
Turns out she had plenty left. After doing part-time marketing work and some consulting for Juntunen Media Group, she and Brad welcomed the new year in 2001 by officially trading places. Brad turned his attention full time to serving as general manager of video postproduction at Juntunen and Heidi, a band director’s daughter and former professional percussionist, took over as president of Visual Music & Sound.
Blame it on the digital revolution. Until the late 1990s, professional-quality video editing required at least $500,000 worth of equipment, the sheer magnitude of which kept the number of players relatively small. Almost overnight, however, technological breakthroughs enabled virtually every company to do some level of video editing in-house on PCs. As the market became more and more fractured, the postproduction industry essentially collapsed.
Bill Juntunen reacted to the crisis by transitioning his company’s core competencies from postproduction to creative communications. “There’s been an explosion of options in the electronic dissemination and production of communications,” he explains. “In the past, companies were limited to using print, video or meetings to educate, motivate or entertain their target audience. Today, a company’s visual assets can be delivered via the Internet, intranet, extranet, CD-ROMs, DVD’s or TV satellite.”
All those technological options had companies crying out for guidance, expertise and innovative solutions. Fortunately for Bill Juntunen, the guy he was looking for was just across the hall. In March 2000, Brad Stokes agreed to come over to Juntunen to help the video postproduction department through the transition.
It only took a few months, however, of trying to lead Juntunen Media Group while running VMS and Aaron/Stokes Music by “remote control” for Stokes to recognize that the arrangement wasn’t firing on all cylinders. “As time went on,” he recalls, “I became aware that there was a vacuum of leadership over at VMS; there was some loss of focus, a loss of morale and it was stagnating.”
So Brad Stokes did what any self-respecting husband would do: he asked his wife to run his company for him. “I’m a nuts and bolts guy when it comes to business and Heidi is much more of a visionary than I am,” he says. “She’s got some marketing ideas going on that would never occur to me and that I would never be able to follow up on because I don’t have the proper wiring in my brain to do it.”
It was a move heartily endorsed by Bill Juntunen. “Brad and Heidi are complementary spirits but very different people, “says Juntunen. “My sense is that they respect those differences and what they each can bring to their partnership. And, in fact, they lean on those differences from time to time.”
Even so, Heidi was initially lukewarm to the idea. “I didn’t want to be in Brad’s shadow,” she admits, “and I was concerned how the three full-time employees would view it. We’re both strong leaders but I steer very differently than he does. And I didn’t know if Brad was going to be able to let go and let me do what I needed to do.”
He was and he did. One of Heidi’s first successes was to branch out into sonic branding, which involves creating signature sounds to promote products, services or brand awareness. For example, ATX Technologies, an Irving, Texas-based rival to OnStar, hired VMS to create a comforting and memorable sound to make customers feel secure and to signify that their mobile communications device had just been activated.
Having a spouse with liver disease does have its advantages. “We were at the Mayo Clinic with time to kill,” remembers Heidi. “He had just finished with a difficult procedure and they had doped him way up with painkillers and sedatives. As a joke, I asked him if he wanted to go shopping and I just about fell over when he agreed. He hates shopping! But he was just so delightfully pleasant that he was even willing to go to an antique store. I wasn’t about to let an opportunity like that go by!”
ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER CHALLENGE
Dealing with the stress of one illness or running one business can exhaust the resources of any family. Keeping two or three businesses going and managing life-threatening health issues for all three family members would have to be off the charts. Or so it would seem.
“I think having two people self-employed and three chronic illnesses makes life thrilling,” says Heidi Stokes. “You never know what the next day will bring so you’re more willing to take risks and enjoy every moment. The way I look at it, I can either feel crummy lying around at home or I can feel crummy being at work and participating in the rhythm of the world.”
In the last year or so, with their son Christian able to decrease his number of insulin shots with the help of an inhaler, it seemed that Brad and Heidi Stokes had finally achieved some measure of balance and stability in their health, business and personal lives.
Well, it was nice while it lasted. Over the summer, regular blood tests revealed that Brad’s liver enzymes were way out of whack for the first time since his transplant seven years ago. Then, in late September, he and Bill Juntunen mutually agreed that, largely based on budget cutbacks caused by the weakened economy and exacerbated by the tragic events of September 11, it was time for Brad to return to VMS, which has been able to retain its annual revenue rate of $500,000 despite the economic downturn.
Of course, when you’ve endured as much as Brad and Heidi Stokes have, chaos and uncertainty can seem like old friends. “A couple people have come up to me recently who knew about my bad test results,” says Brad. “They gave me this look and asked very sympathetically how I’m doing. I told them that this is pretty familiar territory for Heidi and me, that we’re dealing with it and that we’ll be okay. I could tell they’re very unsatisfied with that response but, in many ways, we’re almost more comfortable being in crisis mode than we are when everything is going well. We’ve learned to manage our emotions and navigate through just about anything and I think that really throws other people for a loop.”
“One of the side effects of advanced liver disease is terrible itching,” says Brad. “You just can’t get away from it and you just can’t relieve it. I remember telling Heidi that my fantasy was to get run over by a street sweeper. I didn’t want to cure the disease, I just wanted to be scratched! So Heidi and Christian went to the mall and got me a little Lego street sweeper. I keep it on the table by the side of my bed.”
As always, amidst all the turmoil, Brad Stokes remains tightly focused on making both his business and his marriage better than ever. “I’m real excited about coming back to the audio business,” he says, barely able to contain his enthusiasm. “Heidi will continue to be president because it’s important to have the visionary at the top. We’ve got some great ideas and we’re really looking forward to it.”
Not surprisingly, Brad is also taking his latest health scare in stride. “The doctors tell me that the underlying disease which originally took my liver may have come back,” he says. “I’m not so sure. Evidence is now mounting that a medication I began taking in November 2000 can cause some very serious liver side effects. So right now, I’m just going blood test to blood test. But I’m fully prepared for it to be the recurrence of the disease. I’ve been there before. I can do it again if I have to.”
In a life marked by a seemingly never-ending cycle of challenge, turmoil and triumph, Brad Stokes is willing to bet his last breath on the one sure thing he can count on: if he does indeed have to do it all over again, he won’t be doing it alone.
UPDATE: Those last words were prophetic. Brad’s disease did indeed roar back and he underwent his second liver transplant in August 2009. And Heidi and Christian were right by his side every agonizing step of the way. Click here for the details.
SHOULDER PADS MAKE THE MAN
When Brad and Heidi Stokes met with Bill Juntunen a month after Brad’s liver transplant to discuss the creation of Visual Music & Sound, they were faced with a dilemma. They felt compelled to be up-front about Brad’s health but they also didn’t want to unduly alarm their potential business partner.
When Brad had called to set up the meeting he had mustered up the strength to sound as healthy as possible but meeting face to face presented a greater challenge. “Brad was six feet tall and about 125 pounds,” recalls Heidi. “None of his clothes fit because he had lost so much weight and all the muscles had been cut in his stomach. So I bought him a turquoise silk jogging suit, which just hung on him, and found a big shirt with shoulder pads for him to wear underneath it. I carried his briefcase and made sure he kept his hands on his lap or flat on the table because they shook so terribly. We really propped him up in every way imaginable.”
A few weeks later, they broke the news to Juntunen. “I felt like I had to come clean,” acknowledges Brad, “but it was very scary. Bill certainly had a right to know but at the same time I didn’t want to blow the thing up.”
He needn’t have worried. “My first thought,” says Juntunen, “was, ‘My word, I’m going to go into business with a guy who just had a liver transplant? What are the odds he’ll live?’ Probably the most difficult part was talking about how our partnership agreement should be worded in light of his health problems. Of course, those were questions you have to answer no matter who you’re a partner with but there was something more tangible on the table in this case. In the end, though, I just took the chance, because I knew he was the right one.”
Juntunen did have some misgivings about going full speed ahead with the deal but his caution had nothing to do Stokes. “I was so focused on the video side of the business that I had some reluctance,” he explains. “It wasn’t Brad, it was just the pressures of starting a brand new enterprise. But Brad did all the heavy lifting. He was terrific. There was very little pain on my side.”
Although he’s certainly aware of the risks, Juntunen isn’t overly concerned about health issues. “Neither Brad or Heidi are ones to make a big deal out of this,” he says. “It’s not something they want to wear on their sleeve and I respect that. They just deal with it. It’s quite a thing to deal with but they just do it.”
After seven years, Juntunen’s partnership with Brad Stokes is everything he hoped it would be. “It’s been phenomenal,” he says. “Is it without its arguments? No, but the initial read I had on Brad was that he was a reasonable person, he was grounded and he was principled. The things in his life that were important were things that I also valued. When you have those things working, the other stuff just isn’t very important.”
A NOTE FROM HEIDI STOKES
After posting this article, I received the following e-mail from Heidi:
Thank you so much for writing such a fun piece on us and looking past our illnesses to the beauty and joy in our lives. People often can’t get past the illnesses to see how rich our life is. Just five minutes ago Brad said to me how comforting and wonderful it is just to be with our family. We are all very sick this week and are sitting around in our PJ’s. Even Christian got laid low this week. Our bodies are completely dysfunctional but our family isn’t.
It means a lot that you see the beauty in our lives. Thank you! Thank you too, for sharing that part of the Stokes family with others. It is someone’s heart, soul, spirit and actions that make a life—not just a well functioning body.
Life is good!
Click here to view all my posts about Heidi and Brad Stokes.
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