Stroke victim speaks at SU graduate commencement

Shawn Hardy
Marty Zimmerman speaks at the graduate school commencement ceremony in December at Shippensburg University, where he received his master's degree in applied history nearly five years after his studies — and his life — were interrupted by a stroke when he was 25.

Harold Martin “Marty” Zimmerman III of Greencastle was halfway through his master’s degree program in applied history at Shippensburg University when his life was interrupted by a hemorrhagic stroke at age 25 on March 17, 2013.

On Dec. 15, 2017, the young stroke survivor not only received his degree but gave the student address at SU’s graduate school commencement.

The son of Marcie and H. Martin “Marty” Zimmerman Jr. of Greencastle, he used his life-threatening and life-altering experience and subsequent journey as a springboard for his message to his fellow 80-some graduates.

“That was a dark day in my life, but not the end of my story. We all know that life is not always sunshine and smiles. It is not always pleasant or fair. Severe storms can suddenly appear and can create havoc, devastate carefully made plans. But we are not helpless nor powerless. If we possess anchors to ground us, we can survive the tempests,” he said, explaining his family, especially his parents, and friends served as his anchors.

“We are shaped by our experiences and I decided early on not to allow my circumstances to dictate to me how I would spend by days,” said Zimmerman, who detailed those experiences in his book “Life Interrupted: The Story of a Young Stroke Survivor” in 2015.

“I didn’t want to focus on me,” Zimmerman said later about his speech. “I wanted everyone to feel encouraged. You’re stronger than what you think. God has great plans for you, no matter where you go, do your best.”

His stroke was caused by an arteriovenous malformation (AVM), a cluster of abnormally formed blood vessels. He remembers waking up on that March day, calling his father and saying he could not feel his left side. The last thing he remembers is the panic in his father’s voice when he tried to get him to sit upright. He was flown to Hershey and by 10 a.m., he was in surgery for an emergency craniotomy in which a flap of bone over his brain was removed.

His next memory is three weeks later in the rehab center at Hershey, “when the reality that this thing could have killed me sunk in.”

He initially had some short- and long-term memory loss, had to learn how to walk again and underwent other surgeries. He was in a hospital setting for seven weeks then lived with his parents for a year and continued outpatient therapy at Chambersburg Hospital before returning to his apartment above his family’s funeral home on South Carlisle Street.

In August 2014, he returned to Kline’s Grocery in Shady Grove, where he was working behind the deli counter while pursuing his master’s degree. He started at one hour Tuesday mornings and one hour Thursday mornings, eventually working his way back up to 30 hours a week.

It took Zimmerman two years to get the confidence to return to the classroom and he graduated following an internship last fall at Renfrew Institute in Waynesboro, where he observed and assisted with classes.

“I was walking 2 miles a day on rough terrain when I was with the kids. That increased my balance and coordination, it was icing on the cake,” Zimmerman said.

He also did a research project on the religion of the Royer family of Renfrew and a condensed version will be published in the institute’s Streamside magazine.

Now he is in a transition period, still working at Kline’s one or two days per week while looking for full-time employment.

His degree field, applied history, is public history, educating the general public about history. He started volunteering at Allison-Antrim Museum when he was in sixth-grade and while he would be happy teaching or leading tours, motivating others is now his dream job.

Zimmerman enjoys talking to groups. His story was featured — along with two others — in the video “In the Fullness of Time” shown on Christmas Eve at Christ Community Church in Camp Hill, which he attends. There is a miracle in each of their stories of delays and setbacks, Zimmerman said.

He’s working with the marketing team at Hershey to share his story in the medical center’s Inspiration Together series.

Zimmerman also writes faith-filled poetry. He’s printed and bound about 30 poems which he has given to different people and has about 250 on his laptop.

“For me, my faith in God, in his goodness and faithfulness has enabled me to maintain a hope-filled outlook, expecting marvelous opportunities to greet me,” Zimmerman said in his commencement address.

Anyone interested in having Zimmerman speak to their group can contact him at 717-404-7381 or